I have a secret life.
Every morning between five or six am. I curl up with a cup of coffee and watch C-Span,
something no one else in my family enjoys. Recently I came across a series of of Book TV writer interviews, and one of them changed the way I view myself not only as an author, but also as a member of our writing community.
This particular interview was with Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II. One of the women featured in her book is Ann Petry, a Harlem renaissance novelist who has almost slipped into obscurity. Griffin pointed out that this was a writer who was well reviewed at the time, recognized and highly regarded.
Why is it, someone asked her, that some writers do not endure the tests of time? Griffin explained that there were many reasons: other writers are better, some themes do not
endure, or writing styles lose popularity. But that didn’t mean, she pointed out, that these minor artists weren’t important. These folks mentored the up-and-coming writers, dancers, and visual artists who became greater than themselves. Minor artists were steps in a ladder that were essential to the process of growth for others. They helped create the spaces where people felt safe to perform, nurtured those who needed it, critiqued and encouraged. These people noticed the street dancing of the youth, for example, long before anyone else did. They encouraged the older generation to sit still and listen to the
voices of the young, to validate what youth had to say. These “minor artists” were crucial in what we now see as hip-hop, break dancing, rap and other forms of art that moved from “the bad part of town” to integrate with more mainstream artists across the nation.
What a validation for my life, me, the minor artist. You see, I’m the one that misses deadlines to submit works to journals. I blog more than I probably should, and haven’t got around to publishing the books I’ve written. I agonize over my lack of accomplishment. However, after hearing the importance of the minor artist, I feel better about myself. Perhaps I have more of a destiny than selling millions of books. Perhaps my words of praise will inspire a young writer, singer or painter.
When I explained to a friend that I had been riveted by a conversation between two black
authors who had written about the Harlem Renaissance, I could tell what she was thinking: what would a middle age white woman living in a “fly-over” state like Minnesota have in common with people in Harlem at the turn of last century?
For one thing, it would be spaces. If you go to Harlem, you can see the theaters where Sidney Portier starred onstage, where Langston Hughes sat and read his poetry, where Pearl Primus danced. You can touch the buildings where history was made. When I thought about how cool that was, I realized that I, too, was living in a place where space is being made for artists. The Lake Region Arts Council, for example, showcases visual artists, allows the writer’s group to meet and helps distribute funds for artistic endeavors of all kinds. The Center of the Arts brings in performers and lecturers of every kind. The Lake Region Writer’s Network holds a yearly Writing Conference where authors can hone new skills and network.
Many times in the past several years, I could have attended various literature readings where future famous writers could have performed. But, I haven’t been there because I don’t always appreciate the here and now, nor the up-and-coming artists like I should. I forget that one block away from my home in Henning, Minnesota is a new Landmark Center, which has created space, too. I neglected to buy a membership there, to ‘put my money where my mouth is” when it comes to valuing space for artists. I need to. Not only do they host their own writer’s group, but each year they feature the local high school art work, an event that encourages the possible future great artists, plus have an established Artist-in-Residence program.
Yes, space for artists is often fluid, coming and going as bars or cafes close, as programs lose funding. It doesn’t matter though. While it’s terrific to embrace the history of where the masters lived, performed or created, it’s equally important to make a place for the current masterpieces to be made. That early morning cup of coffee, the time listening to authors sharing their ideas left me a changed person. No matter what I give now to my craft, I might be destined to give more to the art world as a whole. It is a comforting thought indeed to know that while my written work may someday slip into obscurity, my words of encouragement may remain on the larger picture of the art world
Author’s Bio.: Beth Rose is a former high school literature and composition teacher, who lives and writes in Henning, MN.