“There’s some electricity in the literary life of Brooklyn,” says Johnny Temple, a Fort Greene resident and publisher of Akashic Books. “There’s a lot of momentum in the neighborhood,” he says, with creative people finding each other and connecting the dots.
On June 18, Temple and other locals hope to facilitate those connections. As part of a daylong celebration of poetry in Fort Greene Park, the Richard Wright Project—in which community members honor the literary legacy of Richard Wright, a Fort Greene resident said to have written parts of his classic Native Son in the park—will celebrate Wright’s work at the Monument Plaza, starting at 11 A.M. The event is part of a wider celebration commemorating the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s seminal work Leaves of Grass. Whitman, also a Brooklyn poet, helped to establish Fort Greene Park in the 1840s.
The celebration starts with a poetry workshop for children focusing on Wright’s haiku. At noon, a group of African American writers including Kenji Jasper, Danny Simmons, and Miles Marshall Lewis will collectively read one of Wright’s short stories and discuss Wright’s impact on their writing. At 1 P.M., Brooklyn musician Eric Frazier will perform an original jazz score with his jazz trio, including a recitation of Wright’s poetry.
Ruth L. Goldstein, the founder of the Richard Wright Project, says Fort Greene Park is an ideal place to celebrate both Whitman, a staunch abolitionist, and Wright, vital in the American struggle for social justice. “The principles of freedom and social justice are very tied to Fort Greene Park,” she says. It is “a monument to the Revolution, to the Civil War, and to the civil rights movement.”
Thanks to Goldstein, among others, a bench dedicated to Wright was unveiled in Fort Green Park in 2001. Using this literary landmark as a starting point, the Richard Wright Project was created to generate interest in Wright’s legacy. Today Goldstein, Johnny Temple, and Angeli Rasbury—another Fort Greener—represent the core of the project.
Wright’s political and social mission was intimately wrapped up with his literary calling. “It’s phenomenal to think that a novel as politically and socially radical as Native Son became a best seller,” says Temple. “The bravery of Richard Wright’s writing—the courage, the risks that he took—have to be understood in a historical context.”
Goldstein had the idea that if children were familiarized with Wright’s haiku, they could better access his more difficult work later on. Rasbury, a writer and educator inspired by Wright’s desire to empower black people, will lead the haiku workshop.
“Fort Greene, as such a beautiful and diverse community, can be a role model for other communities about how different groups of people can not just get along but engage in something as abstract as literary celebration together,” says Temple. “About 50% of the nation’s top young African American male writers live in Fort Greene.” He enlisted some of these writers to read a short story from Wright’s Eight Men.
Jasper, one of the readers, says he was honored to participate, since Wright has had a major influence on his work. At a time when literature is struggling to find a voice outside of hip-hop culture and film, good storytellers are important, he says. So much work today is a reflection of the stereotypes in our society as opposed to a reflection of real people—which Wright offered, says Jasper.
When you look at life today, in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene, where interracial couples are seen all the time, “you see how far things have come,” Jasper says. But “more than 50% of black men in New York City reportedly are unemployed.” So, for Jasper, Wright’s words are still relevant.
More than 15 community-based organizations will participate in the June 18 celebration. “Walt Whitman is so much about community, so it was important to invite as many organizations as possible,” says Greg Trupiano, the founder of the Walt Whitman Project, one of the lead sponsors of the event.
The American Opera Projects and the NY Writers Coalition will participate. Danny Simmons will emcee an open-mike reading. In the evening, the poetic creation continues along Myrtle Avenue, where writers and musicians will perform at bars and restaurants.
“It’s about community building,” says Trupiano. “Everyone is invited to this. Everyone is participating.” If, rather than listening to Whitman or Wright, someone wants to read a piece of original poetry, he will gladly listen. “It’s going to be that kind of event,” he says.
Perhaps, says Rasbury, there will even be some Richard Wrights in the midst.
Jenny Clevstrom is a writer who lives in Manhattan.