S. Brandi Barnes - OBAC-Writers Workshop

The Torch Is Lit: The Organization of Black American Culture, Past and Present

The Organization of Black American Culture, founded in 1967, was born out of the Committee for the Arts. Both were products of the Black Arts Movement.The idealists who founded OBAC—Dr. Abdul Alkalimat (formerly Dr. Gerald McWhorter); Mr. Hoyt W. Fuller, a professor at Northwestern and editor at Johnson Publications; and Dr. Ann Smith, former trustee at the University of Illinois—had a vision to establish an umbrella organization for African-American arts and artists, and to establish a black aesthetic.

Originally, there were three OBAC workshops to meet the collective needs of artists, particularly in Chicago: drama, arts (visual), and writing. The artist workshop produced the Wall of Respect at 43rd and Langley, which initiated the public art-mural movement across America. Mr. Bill Walker of Chicago’s Bronzeville community and Prof. Jeff Donaldson led the visual arts workshop. The drama workshop was led by Dr. Ann Smith who went on to become the first woman elected to a statewide office.

Finally, there was the writers workshop led by Mr. Fuller. Thanks to its founding members—Haki R. Madhubuti, Carolyn Rodgers (who passed away in April 2010), Dr. Johari Amini (aka Jewel Latimore), Cecil Brown, Walter Bradford, Rancin Boykin, Dr. Mike Cook (plus others who came later, including blues poet Sterling Plumpp, author and screenwriter Sam Greenlee, and poet/novelist Angela Jackson)—the OBAC-Writers Workshop survived and continually took in new members. The other two workshops, however, closed. According to Mr. Fuller, “…after upheavals and dark periods, and even some nasty dissension, OBAC (Writers Workshop) thrives.”

I began attending the writers workshop in 1980. After a few years I was elected into membership. The workshop provided excellent feedback and constructive criticism of and for members' writing. It also offered camaraderie, opportunities to find and develop one’s voice, readings, and some permanent friendships.

Besides all that, the writers workshop had a strong and wonderful history. It was the premiere poetry workshop in Chicago and America. Its commitment was to the community instead of individual personalities. It was where Don L. Lee came from. It was the first black writers workshop to hear Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley. Mari Evans (poet and professor), Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez were visitors, as were Amiri Baraka, (founding father of the Black Arts Movement), Maya Angelou, and Arna Bontemps. Carolyn Rodgers came from OBAC. Dr. Margaret G. Burroughs, Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwen Brooks, and Marion “Tumbleweed” Beach were all strong supporters who invited writers and other artists into their homes. Of this group, Oscar Brown Jr., would say, “These were the cats.”

Later, poet Reggie “Love Jones” Gibson, poetry slam queen Patricia Smith, and writer Michael Warr became frequent visitors. Not only was the workshop host to such talented individuals, but it also welcomed everyone and lit your creative fire—if you had some. “The members contrive to maintain for the community a place of assembly, where those interested in writing and exchanging ideas may come, and in an atmosphere of cordiality and informality, learn from each other,” Fuller said.

In 1986, I became treasurer and wrote the by-laws, along with playwright and now Dr. Judy Massey. By 1991, however, I left again. Another part of OBAC history is the two anthologies conceived by Angela Jackson and published by OBA-House (the publishing arm of OBAC). The first is NOMMO: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1987) edited by Carol A. Parks. The second is NOMMO2: Remembering Ourselves Whole, featuring only Chicago-based writers.

After Jackson’s departure (who was the first woman to become the OBAC chairperson), and Sandra Jackson-Opoku left as chairperson, (collectively, both served more than 25 years), OBAC yielded to a lack of commitment, mismanagement, and individual careers. By the mid 1990s, the writers workshop closed its doors—for a while.

Former OBAC member and adjunct professor Collette Armstead returned to Chicago in 2004. She convinced Angela Jackson of the need to revive the workshop and to join her in drafting a nomination and voting process. Armstead had already developed a three to five year business plan, needing only slight input and tweaking. So came lunch and dinner meetings, conference calls, and discussions.

We have always been an organization built by committed volunteers, intellectuals, artists, writers, and community denizens—all of whom have held other day jobs. They blazed the trail, solidifying our place in the literary archives and canon of Chicago and America.

It can be challenging to rebuild, maintain traditions, and create a future that's equal to the past. In fall [2009], I produced and co-hosted along with Sharon F. Warner, an OBAC weekly call-in television program featuring local authors. We discussed topics relevant to writing and literature. One of my favorite shows was on the issues of censorship and plagiarism. We also had legal advisors share their expertise. After the season ended, Sharon and I created three non-call-in TV programs and discussed literary issues as they related to Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and National Poetry Month. All of these programs were firsts for OBAC.

We continue the tradition of hosting book signings for authors. Another OBAC-WW first was our partnership with International House at the University of Chicago and the Global Voices Author Series. This hour-long program featured award-winning poet Angela Jackson and ran throughout March on channel 21. This year, we will ideally debut a literary anthology appealing to pop culture and fine arts audiences. This will be the first anthology produced in 20 years by OBAC Writers Workshop.

OBAC-WW has been reconstructed to continue our advocacy for all writers, and in particular for African-American writers. Part of our future plans include involving younger generations, so that tradition and new creations will continue. We meet every first and third Tuesday of the month at Hall Branch Library located at 48th and Michigan. We start at 5:30 p.m. and end at 7:30 p.m. We welcome all genres except pornography, though erotica is acceptable. One doesn’t have to be a writer to participate in the workshop or to give constructive feedback/criticism. We can be contacted via email.

S. Brandi Barnes is Director of the OBAC-Writers Workshop, as well as a journalist, poet, teacher, and alumnus of Second City Improv Theater. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Essence, Chicago Reader, American Legacy Magazine, and Mosaic Magazine, as well as literary anthologies such as The Woman That I Am (St. Martin's Press) and NOMMO 2: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago Writers (OBAC Press). Brandi has received the Gwendolyn Brooks Poet Laureate Award; Appreciation Award from the University of Illinois; Columbia College's Literary Excellence Award; and numerous CAAP Awards for Creative Writers and Administrators from the City of Chicago. She is the recipient of a Robert McCormick Fellowship from the Ragdale Foundation and Chicago Tribune.

Written in Spring 2010.

Published by CAR_Laura on Mon, 11/08/2010 - 2:48pm
Updated on Fri, 05/01/2015 - 1:23pm