Well-Read Black Girl’s Inaugural Festival Is a Homecoming

The eagerly awaited Brooklyn event was not only the space Black women needed but the one we deserved

The inaugural Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG) Festival was a family affair, truly. Or better yet, in the words of Shirleen Robinson, a WRBG book club member and attendee, it felt “like a homecoming.” Homecoming pinpoints the energy and morale of everyone at WRBG Fest. Homecoming invites the memory of being welcomed with open arms. Homecoming is the place that you want to be in and once you’re there couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

On September 9, BRIC, an arts organization in downtown Brooklyn, housed a sea of brown faces of varying hues, all of them eager to inhabit the space, excitedly tweeting while listening intently (yes, you can do both), and anticipating what came next. The June Kickstarter for the WRBG festival not only made its original goal but obliterated it within the first week, and the hype was to be believed. Everything came to fruition seamlessly, lovingly, and with purpose.

The several hundred attendees were primarily Black women, but also men, women, and nonbinary attendees of other ethnicities. I was one of those women who watched and felt the audience hang on to every word, starting with Tayari Jones’ fireside chat with WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll. Naomi Jackson’s opening remarks and those of Well-Read Black Girl founder Glory Edim had the main room packed to standing room only. Across the hall in the studio was the overflow crowd who watched the fireside discussion live. Familiar “ummhmms,” similar to those that fill conversations between me and my friends, reverberated through the space when Jones said that “perfectionism can be your way of procrastinating.” We didn’t all know each other in that moment, but we shared those knowing glances while murmuring our agreement.

We didn’t all know each other in that moment, but we shared those knowing glances while murmuring our agreement.

The theme of paralysis, of ownership, of intent was ever present on the panels at WRBG Fest. These themes can and have halted us as women, as women of color, as women writers of color, in varying degrees. There was the understanding that all of us as artists feel a certain level of hesitation about our work and place in the art world. Yet as Black women, the weight and expectations, from ourselves and the outside world, was different, distinct, and one on which we could silently commiserate, while writers — both debuts and highly established — relayed their struggles, their joys, and their enthusiasm to be in this space made by Black women, for Black women, and in celebration of Black women.

From the day it was announced as a Kickstarter campaign, or really from the time Glory Edim created Well-Read Black Girl, the solidity and size of the community could not be dismissed. The overwhelming buying power and support of Black women by Black women has resulted in the ongoing success and growth of online communities like Black Girl Nerds or For Harriet, steady ticket sales for the film Girls Trip, and the achievements of other Black female curated areas in- and outside of the arts. In less than three months, Edim and team members Carla Bruce-Eddings (books editor), Ebony LaDelle (publishing advisor), and Dianca London Potts (online editor) worked with the support of others in the arts community to make this idea come to fruition. The overwhelming response made clear that it’s time for Black women to acknowledge our place and contributions in the art world — and in lieu of the industry creating this space, Black women would once again build it for ourselves.

The success of WRBG Fest also lies in the structure. The morning was dedicated to a conference that included a small workshop lead by Marita Golden and a literary agent roundtable. This provided the hands-on craft portion and provided access to publishing professionals. The rest of the festival included discussions with well-known authors like Bernice McFadden, Jacqueline Woodson, Tiphanie Yanique, Nicole Blades; those with debut books on the horizon such as Morgan Jerkins, Jenna Wortham, and Vashti Harrison; as well as established critics and editors like Doreen St. Felix, Rebecca Carroll, Evette Dionne, and Ashley Ford. Topics included self-care and writing methods, owning your truth online and off, writing as resistance, and a kidlit chat. The latter panel was organized by the nonprofit I, Too Arts Collective founded by author and social justice educator Renée Watson. The new nonprofit was also a partner along with PEN America and Rest in Beats. Rayo & Honey was tapped to provide WRBG curated pennants for inspiration with quotes from literary legends like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. (The overall event was co-presented with 651 Arts.)

In lieu of the industry creating this space, Black women would once again build it for ourselves.

WRBG Fest kept things small the first time around to further build audience and community for WRBG. In addition, Brooklyn high school students and participants in I, Too Arts’ Langston Hughes Young Writers Institute were invited to attend the festival specifically for the Dream Keepers children’s literature panel that included Jacqueline Woodson, Ibi Zoboi, Liara Tamani, Vashti Harrison, Nic Stone, and was moderated by Watson. It was important for the younger generation to not only bear witness to this event but also feel their worth with so many women writers surrounding them at different stages in their journeys.

“It’s really powerful to see so many Black women together celebrating literacy and celebrating each other,” Watson told me, “I think there’s this myth that Black women don’t get along and there’s all this bickering and jealousy and fighting, but all these major authors are here and I’ve seen nothing but love and hugs. That’s a beautiful, powerful thing. And it’s a powerful thing to show to our young people.”

I, Too Arts Collective’s Langston Hughes Young Writers Institute participants who attended WRBG Festival and received books at the YA Dream Keepers panel

The partnership with I, Too, Arts was a “natural fit,” Watson said, as I, Too Arts’ efforts were intertwined with WRBG’s. Watson mentioned that she and Edim are mutual fans of one another. Haymarket Books, publisher of the September WRBG bookclub pick Electric Arches by Eve Ewing, was on hand to sell copies. WORD Bookstore was also fully stocked with Black woman voices from those present to those who have been WRBG bookclub picks in the past like debut Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose and highly praised titles such as Brit Bennett’s The Mothers.

Mothers brought daughters, writers brought their notebooks, and everyone brought good energy. As a Black woman who has inhabited many artist spaces, I can say that the spirit here was felt deeply in my marrow. While there are festivals dedicated to the PoC experience, more are being built within the community to exemplify and lift up the Black female experience, especially for artists. To see such a range of authors and artists in one space, so close, and at an accessible price point (festival tickets were $15) made WRBG Festival stand out with the warmth and enthusiasm Edim has brought to the bookclub she created two years ago. I wasn’t the only one who felt how special this moment was. National Book Award winning author, and a judge for fiction this year, Jacqueline Woodson enthusiastically exclaimed how phenomenal WRBG Fest was: “I can’t believe we’re all in a bunch of rooms together. It feels safe and necessary and empowering and exciting.”

Mothers brought daughters, writers brought their notebooks, and everyone brought good energy.

Recent Whiting Award recipient Kaitlyn Greenidge emphasized that the overall planning of WRBG Fest made it one of the best she’d been to. “I think Glory and the team at WRBG have been phenomenal at bringing in women readers and bringing in people who are interested, people who are maybe just casual readers and people who absolutely love books and people who work in the industry. I’ve seen all those types at this conference.” She added that seeing “all those types being welcome is rare at literary conferences.”

The WRBG team was committed to continuing to foster that sense of community and be welcoming. Bruce-Eddings noted that while the focus of the festival would always remain on Black women anyone who wanted to join in these festivities was welcome, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

Writing as Political Resistance Panel with LaShonda K. Barnett, Bernice L. McFadden, Natashia Deon, Tiphanie Yanique, Jacqueline Woodson, moderated by Feminist Press’s Jamia Wilson

WRBG has always highlighted the intensity and focus of Black women writers, giving a platform to share and promote new work that is often ignored or even hidden by the publishing industry. Material can be eclectic, not always rooted in pain but illustrating promise, sacrifice, and beauty — and WRBG lifts these conversations to another level through a closer inspection of identity, craft, and experience in the work we see published traditionally. This can often be absent in the critique of titles that exist because few PoC voices are in the field of criticism to expound on those connections.

We Need Diverse Books, But We Also Need Diverse Reviewers

Being part of the WRBG community as team member and an artist has been pivotal for London Potts, she says, because it’s so important for Black women writers to come together and not be in a vacuum. “I think I struggle as a lot of other people today who are writers of the fear of the blank page, the anxiety of a deadline, the sense of maybe my work isn’t urgent enough,” she told me. “And I feel like I’m in a constant state of writer’s block. And I’m also an anxious person and I feel I don’t always fit in a space. So I feel like this every morning when I wake up and schedule social media for WRBG it’s another affirmation that there’s a home for me and women like me.”

Author Tayari Jones in conversation with Rebecca Carroll for the WRBG Festival’s Fireside Chat.

The event closed with a performance from Madison McFerrin with Rest in Beats, and the presentation of flowers accompanied by heartfelt appreciation to Edim from her teammates. The entire festival was beautiful in the fact that it was a homecoming. I couldn’t temper my smile, nor did I want to, at the knowledge that we were all part of something so big, so necessary, and so timeless. There was no way we weren’t carrying this with us out BRIC’s doors, into the evening, and back to the page.

As Tayari Jones said earlier that day, “Hold this room in your heart so when people outside of it try to stop you, you’re encouraged to keep going.”

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