How the Dark Room Collective made space for a generation of African-American writers

Sophia Nguyen in Harvard Magazine:

MA16_Page_01_Image_0001The Dark Room Collective began with loss. As the members tell it: on December 8, 1987, Strange, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and their two housemates piled into a car to make it to Harlem by noon, for the funeral of James Baldwin. More than 4,000 paid their respects at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, William Styron, and Amiri Baraka spoke at the service. Strange and Ellis, aspiring writers who first met Baraka at a reading at Tufts University, came at his invitation (“It was probably very clear that we needed a lesson in Who We Owed,” Ellis later reflected in an essay) and his eulogy may have left the deepest impression. Baldwin’s spirit “will be with us as long as we remember ourselves,” Baraka told the attendees. “For his is the spirit of life thrilling to its own consciousness.” Strange had stood in the same room as Baldwin once. He had come to Harvard for a tea, and, as she later wrote in the literary magazine Mosaic, she felt “too shy to break through the thick clot of fans around him and offer the admiration he had been accustomed to for decades.” She and Ellis, their mourning amplified and made vague by distance, felt their hero’s absence as a double negative; having never known him in person, they missed him twice over. The funeral filled them with new urgency about honoring their literary ancestors while they were still alive. They began planning the following spring.

In a third-floor room of their house used for storing old photographic equipment, they’d been building a library they christened “The Dark Room: A Collection of Black Writing.” At the time, 31 Inman was alreadya communal house for artists and activists. Strange worked as a community organizer in Roxbury and as a prisoner advocate through Cambridge’s American Friends Service Committee; Ellis was a projectionist at the Harvard Film Archive and a clerk at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. As Ellis recalls in his 2007 poem “Spike Lee at Harvard,” the bookshop experience was fraught, and in that way, instructive: “I got my first glimpse/of the life of poetry/(through the Grolier’s/cinematic glass window).” The life on display was orderly and monochromatic: the faces in the portraits above the shelves were nearly all white. At some point, his employer wondered if the black poets should be shelved separately so customers might more easily find their work; Ellis said he didn’t think so. (An intervening line, dry but not unkind, adds: “Well, at least she asked.”) This homogeneity reflected the shop’s surrounding scene.

Literary events in Cambridge rarely featured artists of color, though a number of prominent black writers taught in the Boston area.

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