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How Black Literary Organizations Are Continuing the Work of Liberation

Written by Rebekah Barber for Nonprofit Quarterly
June 20, 2024

Black writers have played a critical role in the fight for Black liberation. During slavery, the work of people like Phyllis Wheatley—the first African American to publish a book and achieve international acclaim as a writer—helped to shed light on the Black experience and counteract stereotypes about the intellectual capabilities of Black people.

During Reconstruction, writers like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—the mother of African American Journalism—produced works that uplifted the progress that Black people made following their enslavement but also the fact that there was much work still needed to be done.

Later, throughout the Civil Rights movement, Black writers like Gwendolyn Brooks—the first Black person to receive a Pulitzer Prize—were informed by their own experiences with racism and prejudice as they produced fiction, essays, and poetry that focused on the nuances of the Black experience.

Today, Black literary organizations seek to keep that tradition alive by calling for long-term monetary support for organizations responsible for producing some of America’s leading authors.

The Call to Support Black Literary Arts

In 2021, five such organizations joined forces to generate this support through an annual fundraiser held between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. Known collectively as Getting Word (a nod to how Black people in Texas “got word” of the Emancipation Proclamation over two years after Lincoln signed it), the five organizations are:

In an interview with NPQ, Lisa Willis, Cave Canem’s executive director, noted that at the time Getting Word came together in 2021, Cave Canem had received funding related to the pandemic, but other similar literary organizations had not. The organizations wanted to join forces to increase visibility and ensure that any resources raised could be equally divided among all the groups.

“We’re really operating from an advocacy point of view. We are all independent, freestanding organizations, but our primary mission is to call attention to the existence of Black literary organizations, the need for support, and to build awareness for people to understand that we play a very important role in safe space making, professional cultivation, and artistic cultivation,” Willis said.

Willis noted that in addition to this year’s fundraiser, Cave Canem is in the process of producing Magnitude and Bond: A Field Study in Black Literary Arts Service Organizations. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, the project puts forth the five organizations in Getting Word as a case study. Since the organizations collectively represent over 140 years of work, Willis said that these organizations provide a good aerial view of the literary field.

Although the study is still in progress and is expected to be formally released next year, Willis was able to share some preliminary results, such as the findings that volunteerism and unpaid labor are common in these spaces and that less than half of the staff of the five organizations are salaried.

Because Black women are in leadership at many of these organizations, as is the case with many nonprofit organizations across the country, a funding disparity persists because funders perceive them differently than their White counterparts. Thus, these Black women leaders often have to do more with much fewer resources. Additionally, Willis noted that many of the organizations do not have a formal succession plan in place.

The Need for Different Funding Models

As a Black woman in leadership at a Black literary organization that has existed for nearly 30 years, Willis has experienced many of these findings firsthand. She noted that Cave Canem was going through a profound change when she first came into leadership at the organization in 2020. At the time, the organization had no paid staff and had become accustomed to “making a way out of no way,” as she put it.

As the pandemic progressed and more attention was placed on systemic racism and the importance of Black spaces, Cave Canem began to receive significant funding that helped the organization build its infrastructure. But that funding has since fallen off.

“In the summer of 2021, we had nearly 176 first-time donors that were visible. Less than a year later, only four of those donors supported the organization again, and we have seen none of them since,” Willis said.

Understanding that Black literary organizations have historically been underresourced despite being critically important, Willis knew she wanted to conduct the field study to make the case for why these organizations must be funded and supported.

“I wanted to do the field study because once you’re out of crisis mode, it’s easy for people to kind of lose the sense of urgency for you just being there,” she said.

Willis came up with the idea of the study after listening to Nikky Finney’s 2011 acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Poetry. In the speech, Finney referenced a conversation with American theologian Katie Cannon, in which Cannon noted that Black people are the only people in the United States who have been legally prohibited from reading.

Willis said that this speech helped her to think more deeply about how, historically, the literary field has not been welcoming to Black writers and other writers of color.

“The particular speech really stood out to me because it really was a reminder that the reason why goes much further back than just that we do not get as much funding as other organizations. It actually ties back to our history in the country,” Willis said.

Willis noted that she hopes the field study will move the needle on funding and awareness by raising different ideas of funding structures so that funders can understand that different models of giving are needed.

“Funding an organization like ours or our sister organizations is different than funding Carnegie Hall, which might have development people in place,” she said.

Willis wants the study to open a dialogue about how resources are deployed and how they will have to change—and she hopes that the study will make Black literary organizations more visible to the public.

To conduct the study, Cave Canem is working with Ithaka S+R, a research firm focusing on education and culture. Willis is proud that the organization is also directly involved in the process—it is listed as a co-principal investigator and helped formulate the questions for the study. She believes it is important that the research is not based on observation but on “embodied existence.”

“It was really important to me that for the records and history that when someone goes back, and they’re reading this,” Willis said, “they know that a Black literary organization was involved in the study—that it really is for us by us.”