By Kathlean Wolf
“Do you know the written works of Jean Toomey, Sarah Webster Fabio, or Lorraine Hansberry?” A gathering of about 40 Northsiders were challenged with this question at the event, “Hidden Voices: African American Writers in Wisconsin,” presented Jan. 20, at the Lakeview Library. “These African-American writers made major contributions to the literary landscape, yet they are unknown by some, and unappreciated by more,” explained the Poet Fabu. Past joined with present as three African American women shared both their own literary works and life experiences, and described the lives of Toomey, Webster-Fabio and Hansberry.
Playwright Catrina Sparkman, a graduate of UW and instructor of Theater and Drama at UW-Madison, described “Hidden Voices” by stating, “we are modern day African-American writers in Wisconsin, living, working and changing the literary landscape with our words.” She shared a reading from her novel, “Passing Through Water,” a modern-day retelling of the classic biblical story of Hosea. Her nonfiction works address issues of Christianity in the modern day, including “Divine Revelation for a Twitter Generation,” and “Doing Business with God.”
Sparkman also spoke of Lorraine Hansberry, writer of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first play by a black female author to be performed on Broadway. Hansberry, who died of cancer at age 34, was the inspiration for Nina Simone’s beautiful song, “To be Young, Gifted, and Black”, which in turn became the name of a current activist group in Madison: The Young Gifted and Black Coalition.
While a student at UW Madison, Hansberry became politically active and successfully integrated a student dormitory. Hansberry not only addressed issues of racial inequality, she was one of the first writers and activists to address lesbianism and sexual inequality.
Activism and identity intertwined with literature during the discussion that highlighted the legacy of Black writers in Wisconsin.
“We write about love in all its facets; God, relationships, poetry, plays, fiction and non-fiction,” explained novelist Sherry Lucille. “We comment on politics and current events. Love is the vehicle. Destiny is the driver.” Sherry Lucille’s “Love Trilogy” addresses issues of interracial marriage in the dynamic setting of 1970s Chicago. To Lucille’s surprise, interracial marriage is still a challenging and complex issue in our society today.
Emphasizing the long history of Black writers in Wisconsin, Lucille described the life and work of author Jean Toomer, most famous for his novel, “Cane.” Toomer attended the University of Wisconsin in 1914 and returned to the state during the 1930’s. Although Toomer was recognized by society as being “Negro,” he believed that society should move beyond the notion that “one drop of black blood” defines a person’s race. Toomey’s heritage included seven different ethnic groups and nationalities; many assumed him to be white based on his appearance. Toomer’s powerful poetic novel, “Cane”, was expected to be elevated alongside the works of Hemingway and Faulkner, yet racial biases got in the way of long-lasting recognition of his work. In our audience of Northsiders, only one person recognized his name.
The final presenter, the poet Fabu, was appointed Madison’s Poet Laureate in 2008. She has been an inspiration in Madison’s literary arts movement for over 20 years. Fabu read from her recent children’s book, “Poems, Dreams, and Roses,” before presenting the works of Sarah Webster-Fabio, an influential poet during the Civil Rights movement. Webster-Fabio helped to create the Black Studies Department at Berkley and influenced the creation of similar departments in universities across the nation. She was an instructor at the University of Wisconsin at the time of her death in 1979 and briefly taught Fabu.
During a final question and answer period, many Northside residents expressed an appreciation of the way the presenters shed light on a legacy that many were previously unaware of. With our diverse population, these contributions are inspiring in many ways: as Sparkman, Hansberry and Fabu illustrated, reading and experiencing these voices can inspire others to share their own unique perspectives; and for those just discovering these diverse contributions to Wisconsin’s literary history, it presented an opportunity to listen to Black voices and expand understanding of some of the cultural influences that define Wisconsin, Madison and the Northside today.