Brooklyn – The City of Promise for Jamaican Writers

Dear Readers,

This article, For Jamaican Writers, New Place of Opportunity Is in Brooklyn, was written by Christina Brown for the Huffington Post, October 2013.

As an aspiring author, I was intrigued by Ms. Brown’s story.  Frequently, I receive e-mails from many of our readers who are looking for encouragement on how to start their writing projects, tips on how to stay motivated and general information about the process.  I am always flattered when I receive these notes; especially since I too am a writer in training. Ms. Brown’s article does not provide an overview of the writing process from beginning to end.  However, as a Brooklynite, I found myself relating to many of the illustrations she provided and the authors too!  I thought you might enjoy reading it.  As always, please let us know what you think.

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For Jamaican Writers, New Place of Opportunity Is in Brooklyn
Christina Brown – Huffington Post, October 2, 2013

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The smell of Jamaican patties and jerk chicken and the sounds of the West Indies Patois were very much in evidence during the annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Both cuisine and the language were a reflection of the popularity of Caribbean writers in general, and Jamaicans in particular, in the Brooklyn literary scene. On one night of the festival, at least 75 people lined the gallery at MoCADA, or the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art, to hear West Indian-born writers, including Diana McCaulay and Ifeona Fulani, both from Jamaica, wax poetic about how the cultural landscapes of Jamaica and America have influenced their material.

Buoyed by interest from American publishers and perhaps more importantly, readers who reflect the city’s consistent growth of Caribbean immigrants, a new generation of writers from Jamaica, is finding literary, if not financial, success. “We have to be happy that we have space at the table and happy that someone is willing to engage your part of the narrative,” said E. Wayne Johnson, 45, a Jamaican arts and literary enthusiast who has lived in Brooklyn for more than 20 years. Johnson is Arts Director of the Caribbean Cultural Theatre and helped organize the MoCADA event, held on September 19, which featured seven authors from the Caribbean, including McCaulay and Fulani, reading excerpts from their books. “We as a community are not consumers of our own work or culture. It might sound parochial, [but] the harsh reality of internationally successful writers has made it, because they were a big thing somewhere else,” said Johnson, with a soft but distinctive West Indian lilt.

Census data show Jamaicans account for nearly 200,000 of New York City’s Caribbean immigrants. Making them the third largest group among those foreign-born, surpassed only by people from the Dominican Republic and China. Excited by the opportunity to interact with readers and writers from the Caribbean, McCaulay flew from her hometown in Kingston, Jamaica, to participate in the book reading. She also joined a panel discussion at St. Francis College, on Sunday, September 22, to promote her second novel, Huracan. “I [like] reading to my own people … my book is about leaving and going home,” said McCaulay on Thursday night. The main character in her book grapples with returning to Jamaica after a loss in the family, a sentiment McCaulay believes her audience should readily understand.

Nicole Dennis-Benn & Dr. Emma Benn - ebony.com

Nicole Dennis-Benn & Dr. Emma Benn – ebony.com

Nicole Dennis-Benn, 32, originally from Jamaica, now a writing professor at the College of Staten Island, came to the festival to connect both with readers and other writers. Her novel, Run Free, about a transgender Jamaican boy is set to be published next year. “As a writer myself, it’s important for me to have a relationship with other Jamaican authors, especially given Diana McCaulay is [known] to write outside of the box,” said Dennis-Benn, with her wife Emma by her side.

Despite the population numbers that seem to illustrate a picture that Brooklyn is filled with people who may be able to identify with the characters in the poems, novels and stories of Jamaican writers, “It’s not like it’s a lucrative business,” said Johnny Temple, founder of independent publisher Akashic Books, and chair of the Brooklyn Borough President’s Literary Council. Many of the authors supplement the income from their literary work with other jobs. McCaulay is an environmental activist in Jamaica, and runs the non-profit, Jamaica Environment Trust. “There’s lots of fantastic writers … a lot of publishing companies in Jamaica are getting more established,” Temple said on the last night of the weeklong festival, after wrapping up the last of 60 events from Sept. 16 to 22, that attracted 350 writers from across the U.S. as well as the international writing community.

Temple has been a key organizer of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival since its inception eight years ago. He said at least 10 writers participating this year were from the Caribbean. “It’s incredibly diverse,” said Temple. “There’s so many different types of stories to tell.” “I think the new Caribbean writing is much more immediate and edgy and grounded in the realities of Caribbean living today,” said McCaulay. “It doesn’t have this kind of misty veil over something lost in the past … it’s more grounded in contemporary Caribbean life and work.”

Oonya Kempadoo - commonwealthwriters.org

Oonya Kempadoo – commonwealthwriters.org

Alex Neptune settled in the U.S. 40 years ago, after leaving his home in Georgetown, Guyana. “I don’t read too many novels so when I do read, I want to make sure I’m going to finish the book that I’ve started,” said Neptune, after the talk at the MoCADA. He works in New York’s insurance and real estate industry and he wanted Oonya Kempadoo, the British born, but of Guyanese lineage author, of All Decent Animals, to sign his copy of her book. “I don’t have to think too much about what the writer is saying … when she expresses herself on different issues, I can relate,” said Neptune.

“How are you doing?” a woman asked E. Wayne Johnson, who was perspiring in his salmon colored button down shirt as he carried chairs, trying to determine where to add seats in the already packed gallery before the group, Caribbean Cultural Theatre, opened Thursday’s book reading. “Yeah mon, I’m goodish,” responded Johnson, in the Patois dialect commonly heard throughout Jamaica.  Largely regarded as a spoken language, Patois has over the past several years increasingly gained traction as a literary language.  But in some circles, according to the West Indian author Robert Antoni, 45, its use had been considered a reflection of one’s typically low socioeconomic class and status.

“We writers of the next generation have stood up, and embraced this language. It has taken over our writing. I think if anything characterizes West Indian language, West Indian novels, West Indian poetry, it’s been the embracing of the vernacular … the vernacular is always posited against another language. That language is what we call proper English, but the vernacular is a living thing and proper English is locked up in the dictionaries,” said Antoni.

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Credit
Article from The Huffington Post

A Fashion Model & Activist Leads The Way

Dear Readers,

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We are excited to have you join us for today’s salute to Bethann Hardison.  She is a fashion model who became an advocate and activist for young women and men of color, looking to chart their course in the modeling industry.  From her Brooklyn roots, she has traveled the world, and she has used her influence as a trailblazer to change a few things along the way.

Bethann was raised first by her mother, who was a stylish, fashionable woman, before going to live with her father, who was a respected Islamic leader.  When reading about her early years, I clearly see the reverence she has for both parents, and how they influenced her career trajectory.  She embodies her mother’s love for fashion, style and unmistakable grace; and is grounded by her father’s skill as a leader and strategist.  These experiences motivated her to become a fashion model turned activist, and a champion of ideals and causes.

Bethann’s Early Years

By all accounts, Bethann was a game changer.  In an interview for the book Inspiration: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World by Crystal McCrary, she recalls her reaction to the invasion of the Suez Canal, which happened when she was a teenager.  A strong believer in the power of the individual in the face of government, she sent letters and beseeching telegrams to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stating her opposition.  This bold move set the stage for many initiatives that she would pursue.

Bethann made the decision to attend an all-white high school in Brooklyn that African-American students were being bussed to, George W. Wingate High School, instead of attending the performing arts school that she had been accepted to.  She views this as one of the best experiences in her life; for she discovered who she was and stepped into her power.  She also found her voice and began to express her ideas.  As a student, her impact was significant and punctuated by some impressive “firsts.”  She was the Wingate High School’s first African-American cheerleader.  Additionally, in her junior and senior years she was elected to produce and direct “Sing,” a performance competition among the upperclassmen.  Each year she led her class to victory.  These experiences set the stage for the world she would eventually help shape.

After graduating from high school she continued her education; first at New York University Art School, followed by her tenure at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  From there she entered New York City’s garment district in search of a job in the fashion industry.

Bethann’s Introduction to the Fashion World

In the late 1960s, Bethann was discovered by an African-American designer, Willi Smith, and began working for him as a fitting model.  She crossed over into runway and print modeling for other designers shortly thereafter.  In the early 1970s, was among a few African-American models to appear in fashion spreads for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.  She joined the ranks of her contemporaries – Iman, Beverly Johnson and Pat Cleveland.

Bethann Joins Click Models

In 1980 Bethann joined Click Models, a firm that would usher in change for the modeling industry.  Within one year she was head of Click’s women’s division, which is the most powerful and lucrative department in any modeling agency.  In her interview with Crystal McCrary, you can feel Bethann’s delight as she recounts her accomplishments while working at Click.

“We went up against the big boys without even trying.  Our vision was very different from that of Ford, Wilhelmina, Stewart and all the other agencies.  It was an alternative.  The girl next door wasn’t the girl we wanted, but we found the boy next door before anyone else did.”  “We represented people like Whitney Houston, when she was a young teen.  We started Talisa Soto, who was a Calvin Klein girl.  Isabella Rossellini was our girl and the list goes on.  Fashion photographers loved our style because it was different.”  Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis were the main clients of Click.  They loved Bethann and were interested in anything she was a part of.

Following her success at Click, Bethann was in a position to make a greater impact.  Concerned with the politics of the fashion industry, in 1981, she changed her focus from modeling to activism.

Bethann Hardison Management 

In 1984, and with the support of a friend who was in law school, Bethann decided to go into business for herself.  Bethann Hardison Management was created.  From the inception, she set out to increase African-American visibility in the fashion world.  When building her talent roster, she skillfully negotiated with female models from other agencies.  In lieu of obtaining their standard agency advance, they agreed to wait for their checks until Bethann’s clients made their first payment.  This generosity was a testament to her stellar reputation as an industry leader, mentor and friend.

Her company opened its doors with a 16 models.  Nearly 50% were African-Americans.  It is important to note that from the outset that Bethann did not set out to run an exclusively “people of color” agency.  It was always her goal to bring more diversity into the business.  Over time, her roster approached 30 models.  She took an involved role in helping to keep the young men and women focused on the challenging work of modeling.  Following her advice, they learned about finances, how to be professional and the importance of good public relations.

Bethann The Activist

In 1988 Bethann, and her friend Iman, co-founded the Black Girls Coalition, a group of industry insiders working to help clear the path for other African-Americans interested in the fashion industry, both behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.  The group tackled important issues such as homelessness.

Paying this forward, earlier this year Bethann launched the Balanced Diversity Campaign to end racism on the runway.  She received support and encouragement from her friends Naomi Campbell and Iman.  In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the four major fashion capitols – London, Milan, New York and Paris – she called out the industry’s white-washed model casts, citing a number of designers who had featured zero, or one, model of color in past seasons.  Designers and the public paid attention.  Within weeks, 2014 was hailed as one of the most memorable, and important, moments of the season.

Bethann Talks About The Future 

Last month, On February 5, 2014, Bethann’s push for racial diversity on the runway was featured in the Huffington Post.

In her own words…

“I’m looking forward to seeing what happens – I’m hopeful,” she told The Huffington Post.  “Diversity is just good for the world. And images have much more power than words.  When people start putting those colorful images out, and people of power start standing behind them, it starts to create a paradigm shift.  And I believe it can happen.”

Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison, Iman on GMA via ABC News

Naomi Campbell, Bethann and Iman – ABC News

Bethann was able to point to prominent examples of increased diversity in magazines and advertisements.  She praised designer Prabal Gurung, who had just launched his debut ad campaign, featuring black supermodel Liya Kebede.  She also singled out Vogue’s January 2014 issue; calling it a “brilliant example of organic diversity” that featured several fashion editorials with models of color and stories showing celebrities like Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o.  She met with Vogue staff members in November, after the January issue had been pulled together, to discuss the importance of diversity in the fashion world.

A Celebrated Woman

Bethann’s contributions have earned her several awards throughout her career which include: the First Annual Vibe Style Lifetime Achievement Award – 1999, the Magic Johnson Foundation Distinguished Service Award – 1999, The Black Alumni of Pratt Lifetime Achievement Award – 2003, The Black Enterprise Woman of Power Legacy Award – 2012, Frederick Douglas Award for promoting diversity in fashion – 2013.

What’s Next?

These days you will find Bethann living a quiet life in rural Mexico.  She came to a point where she did not want to feel trapped in a big city any longer and is now working to tie up loose ends in her career.  At the same time she is quick to say “that’s not all of who I am.  I need to be among people who reflect more than tangible items proving financial success.  I want to live simply, to experience the preciousness of life.”

Bethann certainly deserves the chance to enjoy the fruit of her labor.  Her career and life’s work exemplifies hard work, integrity, inclusion and compassion.  While this tribute provides a small glimpse into the huge world she has helped to create, I am truly inspired by this courageous woman who, as a teenager in Brooklyn, began to take on the world.

Thank you Bethann for all that you do!  We at Brooklyn Legends are proud to salute you.

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Credits:
Inspirations: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World by Crystal McCrary
The HistoryMakers – July 15, 2013
Julee Wilson – The Huffington Post – February 18, 2014
Julee Wilson – The Huffington Post – February 5, 2014