UNO Press at PEN Oakland 2019
By Chelsey Shannon, editor
Many attending the “Blue Collar PEN” ceremony back in December expressed surprise at my coming all the way from New Orleans to collect Kalamu ya Salaam’s award—as if the Bay Area was a cozy hamlet my cosmopolitan self had only deigned to visit. But in fact, I was the one feeling dogged, as poet Vernon Keeve III said of his own award, by that thing known as imposter syndrome.
“I don’t know you. But I’ve read stuff you’ve worked on,” San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck said to me when I shook her hand,
I dug that.
So far I have edited several manuscripts by Kalamu ya Salaam: public-educating provocateur; revolutionary raconteur; fearless leader of a 1969 student takeover of Southern University, red, green, and Black liberation flags posted everywhere to see—and, not to mention, UNO Press collaborator; Kalamu is not only a Press author, but co-editor of our Runagate Press imprint.
Mine and Kalamu’s collaborations include Be About Beauty, the collection selected as a 2019 Josephine Miles Award winner by PEN Oakland founder and literary lion Ishmael Reed.
As a New Orleans resident of five years, I sensed a parallel between my role as Kalamu’s envoy and my position as a native Ohioan representing the South. Which is to say, I was simultaneously humbled and honored: honored that Kalamu trusted me enough to represent him, and humbled that my editorial work on Be About Beauty was enough to earn me a seat at the table.
But, there’s more. In my brief acceptance remarks, I voiced Kalamu’s especial appreciation of being recognized as a Southern writer by a West Coast cultural vanguard—since, all too often, the South is overlooked as a site of substantial, divergent artistic production, cast as irrelevant next to the gloss of the U.S.’s more major, monied coasts, or even the meat-and-potatoes cachet of middle America. One ceremony attendee’s comment—that they would never have known about Kalamu’s work if not for PEN Oakland—suggested as much.
Those winds are changing, however. The Yellow House, the 2019 National Book Award winner for nonfiction, is Sarah Broom’s memoir of growing up and out of New Orleans; Mississippi-native writer Jesmyn Ward claimed the same honor for fiction in 2017. UNO’s own Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Bryan Washington have also garnered much deserved praise for their recent Southern-rooted work, in kinship with 2018’s Heavy, righteously laureled memoir of Mississippian Kiese Laymon. Perhaps keeping in step with strengthening cultural trends regarding what some now glibly term wokeness, the majority-white publishing industry is finally getting around to embracing not only Southern work, but unapologetically and critically Black Southern work.
The question of national appreciation aside, it’s important to remember that all this Black Southern abundance (to borrow Laymon’s term) didn’t come out of nowhere. Fifty years back, BLKARTSOUTH—the Black Arts Movement’s Southern tributary spearheaded by Salaam and New Orleans griot Tom Dent—venerated the South’s literary sovereignty even as it actualized it. Fame and fortune were never the point; the point was to sow Black art for posterity to come. “Black writing is going to grow,” Salaam once wrote of the movement, “grow straight from the gutters, from the streets, the people.”
It is easy to trace the lineage of that same Black Southern generativity—that Black Southern complexity, heart, resilience, that avant-gardism, that pain—now being accoladed by the mainstream literary establishment. And, despite all that is still so very wrong when it comes to being Black in an antiblack U.S.A. and world, I admit that I find this heartening.
I may not be Southern, but I do stay in quiet awe of the South’s, and specifically New Orleans’, capacious and contradictory resplendence. As a young Black literarian, I was so fortunate to get to pack up all the goodwill that came with the handsome PEN Oakland plaque and fly it all back home to New Orleans with me. And, as both a protector and an animator of the awesome resource that is Black Southern creativity, Kalamu deserves any and every award that comes his way.
I think of editing as the process of leaving countless imperceptible fingerprints on someone else’s art, visible only under the technological blacklight of tracked changes and email threads. For all these invisible traces I get to leave on Kalamu’s work, I am bestowed upon; blessed.