The Celebration of Black Writing was born 30 years ago as a one-day affair. Since then, it has grown and grown, to take over the whole month of May, anchored at the Arts Sanctuary on South 16th Street, but sprawling to the University of the Arts and Temple University. Its embrace has grown, too, beyond the word writing.
"We have diverse voices in our community," says Valerie Gay, executive director of the Art Sanctuary, home to the festival since 2001. "And all of them need to explore diversity of thought and artistic expression, and we're all richer for it."
Larry Robin, whose grandfather founded Robin's Bookstore in 1936, said that in the 1960s, "we pretty much became the only place in Philadelphia where you could get material on the civil rights struggle and on African American literature and history."
In 1984, Robin put on "a Sunday-afternoon party to celebrate black writing. We had probably 20 authors, including Sonia Sanchez, Houston Baker, Charles Fuller, Muriel Feelings. . . . Over 100 people showed up." He ran the ever-growing affair before turning it over to the Art Sanctuary in 2001. There, founder Lorene Cary further widened the party. (Gay says that Cary is no longer actively involved but that "I have her on speed-dial if I need her.") Last year, the bash went all-May.
This year's celebration honors writing, to be sure. A weeknight series, "In the Sanctuary," spotlights local authors. At the closing "Oscars of Black Writing" gala at the Temple Performing Arts Center on May 30, a lifetime achievement award will go to Ernest J. Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and much else. The festival also will salute cultural mainstay Walter Lomax and his family.
But the festival will also honor the other arts. A new award, the Gamble & Huff Award for Excellence in Songwriting, will be given by Kenny Gamble to multiplatinum-selling writers/producers Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias. Friday features a concert by jazz vocalist and UArts grad Laurin Talese.
As for film, the Literary & Arts Conference at UArts on Saturday will have poetry workshops and three films, including Eboneé Poindexter's The Ancient and Contemporary African Presence in India, and Mil's Life, Zach Hauptman's film about a North Philadelphia man's close relation with his one-eyed horse, Dusty.
At the center is "Chicken Bone Beach," an exhibition of images by Philly photographer John W. Mosley (1907-1969). That stretch of shoreline in Atlantic City, between Mississippi Avenue and Missouri Avenue, was "designated" for people of color from 1900 to 1964. It's now a designated historic landmark.
Gay selected the photos from the massive Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple. "It's just a great chance for people to see this little-known part of history," she says, "and also a great teaching tool, to see life as lived in another time."
The images are cheerful, happy - children and families on the beach, ladies in swimwear. And some famous folks walk the sand - Joe Louis, Sammy Davis Jr., and a young Martin Luther King Jr.
Diane Turner, curator of the Blockson collection, stresses the creativity and commitment behind Mosley's art. He "shot everything from funerals to birthday parties, weddings, events at different African American social organizations . . . anywhere something was happening in the black community. He didn't drive, so he walked everyplace. . . . At one level, he's this photojournalist making a living, but at another level, he was what I call a 'cultural warrior.' His images, starting in the '30s through his death in 1969, captured real images of African Americans in society who have been assaulted all their lives with stereotypical images of themselves."
"You see the joy on the faces," Gay says, "people of color on the beach, having a great time, during a time when there weren't many places they were welcome - we want to shine a light on that, for the youth of today."
Asked why the Art Sanctuary invited her to do the live show on Friday, Talese, who will have a CD out soon, says, "I write all my own music, and that's something that may have caused them to think of me" at a festival devoted to writing and creativity.
"My sound is 70 to 80 percent jazz, but there's soul in it, too," she says. "That comes from my voice, and from a firm foundation in church," something she shares with frequent collaborator and Philly producer Eric Wortham. Mindful of the themes of the festival, she plans to perform tracks from her album, "but also selections that gesture to the tradition, the Great American Songbook, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone."
Originally from Cleveland, Talese earned a bachelor's degree in music, specializing in voice, at UArts, where she met schoolmate (and future producer and sought-after session man) Adam Blackstone. (He says: "I first heard her singing when I walked past a practice room at school. I'd never heard a voice like that before in my life.") Via that friendship, Talese began to sing for a variety of acts, including Jaguar Wright, Bilal, and Vivian Green.
As for the climactic award to Gaines, Gay says, "He is too old to travel, so we're sending a film crew to him [in Louisiana]. We may even Skype a live presentation." At the mention of Gaines, "we heard so many people saying, 'Oh, A Lesson Before Dying changed my life,' or 'The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman changed my life.' For so many readers, his work has opened the door to new ideas. That's the whole idea behind this festival."
30th annual celebration continues through May 31, with events at the Art Sanctuary, 628 S. 16th St., unless otherwise specified. Information: 215-232-4485 or www.artsanctuary.org
"Chicken Bone Beach" photographs by John W. Mosley, through May 31. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 to 7; Saturdays, noon to 4. Free.
Spotlight on Philadelphia authors, 6 p.m. on May 13-15, 20-21, and 27. Free; RSVP suggested.
Sanctuary Live! Featuring Laurin Talese, 7 p.m., Friday. Tickets: $10; RSVP strongly suggested.
Literary & Arts Conference, with Eboneé Poindexter, Maurice Henderson, and others. University of the Arts, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Free, with registration.
Lifetime Achievement Awards. Temple Performing Arts Center, 1776 N. Broad St. 7 p.m. May 30. Tickets: $17.50. Information: 800-298-4200.EndText