Carver Library: Hub of African American Literary and Cultural Activity in San Antonio, Texas

carver branch libraryIf one were asked to identify the main cultural hubs for African American literary activity, San Antonio, Texas would probably not be in the mix. Cities with much larger Black populations would lead the list. I am sure New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, to name just a few would be mentioned. I acknowledge that these cities deserve such consideration.

However, let me add to this list the Carver Public Library, located in the center of the African American community in San Antonio. Named after the famous educator and scientist George Washington Carver, the library first opened its doors in 1930. It served the African American community during those terrible years when Blacks were refused entry into the Central Public library and all the other ancillary branches. There is probably no greater blemish on this country’s democracy than the fact that a race of people was barred from entering all of its libraries, the symbols of knowledge.

Today, the Carver Library is the center of cultural activities, presenting literary and cultural programs practically every weekend. Under the leadership of Branch Manager D. L. Grant, Carver is gaining the reputation as the most important institution in the city for dispensing information about our history. It also serves as a place where contemporary issues are discussed. Its activities have earned the Carver the title of a grandchild to the famous 135th Street Library in Harlem, during the great Renaissance period of the 1920’s. Under the leadership of Regina Andrews and Nella Larsen, that library hosted some of the most intense and informative literary events of the period. Such notables as Gwendolyn Bennett, Ethel Ray Nance, Jessie Fausett and Countee Cullen participated in poetry readings at the library. Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were provided writing areas in the basement. And the first exhibit of African American art in Harlem was held there.

The Carver mirrors the 135th Street Library with similar activities. For the past five years, the Carver has held a distinguished Martin Luther King Lecture Series, of which I had the pleasure to be their lecturer in 2012. In February of this year the library hosted an afternoon with an outstanding group of authors that included Mary Morrison, Rhonda Lawson, kYmberly Keeton, Dr. Mateen Diop and Chris Pittard, during Black History Literary Weekend. One of the more unique programs that Black Men United for Reading and Writing (a select group of Black men who sponsor literary events in the city) organized at the library is a series of Slave Narrative Readings, supported with spirituals sang by the men’s choir from St. Paul United Methodist Church.

This past weekend is typical of the programs the Carver Library supports on an on-going basis. Early Saturday afternoon Prosperity Publications hosted a discussion workshop titled, “The Deconstruction of the Black Woman in Literature, Film and Music.” Four of the most brilliant Black women in San Antonio shared their knowledge of the subject and the audience was allowed to respond. The session was recorded and will be loaded on You Tube within the next month. After that program Dr. Ronald Kelley, a motivational speaker and advisor to public schools on how to mentor young Black men, moderated a discussion around the Ferguson, Missouri tragedy. The library was packed with concerned citizens anxious to express their frustrations about the brutal murder of Michael Brown.

This community has come to depend on the Carver Library as the place to congregate and discuss relevant issues to the community. Just like the 135th Street Library in Harlem served as a gathering place for the many intellectuals, writers and community organizers, the Carver Public Library serves that function in 2014 for the same group of activists in San Antonio, Texas.

The Myth of Post-Blackness and Ferguson, Missouri

Ferguson Police Officers in militarized armor -- watching protesters.
Ferguson Police Officers in militarized armor — watching protesters. In Ferguson, MO. #mikebrown

Those of us who have been around for a while (like since the 1960’s) often chuckle, to stop from frowning, when all this talk about post-blackness inundated the airwaves and social media. The young Generation X crowd that has “made it” in the system began denouncing the notion that being Black alone inhibited movement up the social and economic ladder. This denunciation took many different forms. Toure argued that post-blackness was a rejection of the idea that certain qualities were exclusive to Black people; Jonathan Capehart scowled at the idea that blackness can be defined. He claimed it never was a definable attribute. Pharrell Williams claimed that blackness was a state of mind and had nothing to do with pigmentation. In fact, Williams went as far as to create a new Black defined as someone “who doesn’t blame other races for our problems. Racism has vanished and it’s all in your head. Stop blaming other people for your shortcomings,” was his advice to Black folk.

Are these young brothers so blinded by their own success they can’t see that this country still suffers from the plague of racism, and we are no where near a post racial society. The historical thread of racism manifested through brutal attacks of young Black men still exists. We all remember the vicious murder of Emmit Till in 1955 and James Byrd in 1999. How about Amadou Diallo killed by the New York Police, also in 1999.

During the first decade of the new century the attacks continued. In 2000 a Black man, Patrick Dorismond, was shot and killed by the New York Police. Then on November 25, 2006 Sean Bell was shot and killed in Queens, the morning of the day he was to get married. In 2009, the New York Times ran a story about seven Black men in Miami, Florida killed within a span of eight months, and in that same year Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer in Oakland, California.

The trend continued into the second decade of this century. In January 2010 Aaron Campbell was shot dead by the Portland Oregon Police. Three months later, in March 2010, the Los Angeles Police shot and killed Eugene Washington. Police were not the only culprits who felt a need to murder our young. The most famous case to date was the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. His murderer, George Zimmerman, was exonerated the next year, signaling to the country that it is open season on our young boys.

Within the past two weeks, we have witnessed the killing of three more young Black men. John Crawford was shot and killed by a Dayton, Ohio police offer while holding a toy rifle inside at Wal-Mart Store, and Eric Garner suffocated while in the choke hold of a New York policeman. However, without a doubt the majority of the Black population has been up in arms for the past week with the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Adding to the tragedy of the Brown murder was the manner in which the police responded to the community’s protests with military style tanks aimed at the crowd and the lobbing of tear gas into the middle of the “animals,” the term used by a police officer when referring to the people in the crowd.

 Given these statistics I question how anyone can believe that we are now in a post racial state of existence in this country. Those celebrities should publicly admit that their assessment of the conditions of many Black Americans is still very precarious, and that when they make such statements they do damage to our attempt to put an end to all the abuse our young still face, whenever they walk the streets of their neighborhoods.         


Representation and participation in the literary conversation have been an ongoing concern in African American Literature. Image Courtesy | The
Representation and participation in the literary conversation have been an ongoing concern in African American literature for decades. Image Courtesy | The

kYmberly Keeton is a young, Generation X artist with immense artistic talent and a strong appreciation for the literary and cultural history of our people. I met her when I extended an invitation to her to participate in San Antonio’s Black History Literary Weekend back in February. Since then, we have developed an uncle/niece relationship. Our age differences are quite unique in that she is post-civil rights and I am pre-civil rights. That age-gap explains the difference in our perspectives as to what should be the role or purpose of the modern day Black writer.

Often we will find ourselves immersed in telephone conversations about the nature of writing fiction (she likes experimental fiction and I prefer the conservative, time proven old style of telling a story). We also differ when discussing the function of the writer in Twenty-First Century Black America. Our conversations remind me of the differences that existed between Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes in their beliefs as to the duty of the Harlem Renaissance writer to the growth of the African American budding and definable culture. Their age differences were comparable to kYmberly and me.

Dr. Du Bois believed the writers had an obligation to write stories that uplifted the Black race. In 1926, he wrote, “Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailings of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used and always for propaganda, for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” According to Du Bois, art must serve to advance the rights of Black Americans through the writings of the Talented Tenth. One of the goals also was for cultural improvement.

On the other side, Hughes represented the generation of avant-garde, young radicals known as the Bohemians. He articulated their position in his article in Nation Magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” when he wrote, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

I happen to be a supporter of the Du Bois position and strongly believe that we need to write about the beauty, strength and unyielding determination of Black folk to make it in this country over the decades. We need to create heroes so that our young can have positive images to hang their hat onto. We also need to lighten up on the onslaught of writings that attack the very nature of our existence as a people, specifically much of the street fiction. We have an enormous amount of stereotypes to overcome that have plagued us as a people for a very long time. Free expression is a luxury we cannot afford at this historical juncture in our cultural existence.

My young niece and fellow writer disagrees with me. She believes that writers must have the freedom to express themselves. Do not put shackles on their right to say and be who they are. They should always be cognizant of the need to capture the African American experience in their writing. However, kYmberly believes that she has no obligation to alter her writing to meet a larger objective. If the artist is not allowed to write as they please, then they are not free within themselves. According to kYmberly, creativity loses its meaning if the writer must follow certain rules of the game, in order to fulfill only one specific goal. And the larger question is who has the right to define what those rules should be.

This seems to be the age-old question confronting African American writers. Richard Wright challenged the writers of the Renaissance. James Baldwin challenged Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka challenged Ralph Ellison. But today, there appears to be no challenge, but instead a sort of existential right for the artists to do their own thing with no questions asked. What is refreshing in my dialogue with kYmberly, is that at least we are willing to ask questions and challenge our positions, knowing all along that we do love the art and we do love the culture.

For the full text of Dr. Du Bois’s remarks please visit

For the full text of Langston Hughes’ remarks please visit


The sheet music for "Love Will Find a Way," one of the hit songs in Shuffle Along. One of the most rarely discussed  | Image Courtesy of:
The sheet music for “Love Will Find a Way,” one of the hit songs in Shuffle Along. One of the most rarely discussed | Image Courtesy of:

A major stimulus to the advent of the Harlem Renaissance was the all Black production of the musical, Shuffle Along. Its debut performance took place on May 23, 1921 in the Cort Theater, located on 63rd Street right outside Harlem. Flourney Miller and Aubrey Lyles, both who got their start performing at Fisk University, teamed with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, two celebrated musicians, to write and perform what would become one of the most successful musicals of the 1920’s.

Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography that it was the magnetism of the show that had him coming back night after night, and led to his decision to enroll in Columbia University so he would be closer to the theater and Harlem. Long after the vibrant cultural activities that dominated Harlem in the 1920’s had waned, Langston still had fond memories of that musical. He wrote in the Big Sea, “But I remember Shuffle Along…because it gave just the proper push—a pre-Charleston kick—,”to what would become the most famous literary period in the life of African Americans.

Shuffle Along became synonymous with the excitement, vibrancy, and exceptional creativity that represented Harlem. The famous cultural historian, Nathan Huggins, wrote of the musical that, “It was like Harlem itself, infectious, it made everyone want to forget his troubles and do it, like the chorus dancers in the clubs.” Shuffle Along opened the era of the Black experience like none other in history. It was, according to Langston, “A period when Charleston preachers opened up shouting churches as sideshows for white tourists. It was when at least one charming colored chorus girl, amber enough to pass for a Latin American, was living in a pent house with all her bills paid by a gentleman whose name was banker’s magic on Wall Street. It was a period of cabarets and extravagant parties given by A’Lelia Walker, the socialite daughter of Madam C. J. Walker. A’Lelia, a grand and statuesque woman was according to Langston, ‘the joy-goddess of Harlem.’ It was a period when every season there was at least one hit Broadway play acted by a Negro cast. And when books by Negro authors were being published with much greater frequency and much more publicity than ever before or since in history…it was the period when the Negro was in vogue.”

Shuffle Along launched the careers of many great entertainers. The great Florence Mills got her start as a singer and dancer in one of the lead roles. The flamboyant Josephine Baker started out as a dresser then earned a place in the chorus line. Paul Robeson also sang with the Four Harmony Kings Quartet in the show, before launching his successful international career as an actor and singer.
Shuffle Along was only one of a myriad of cultural firsts for Black America that emanated in Harlem and spread throughout the entire country and still has a tremendous impact on musicians, artists and writers in the contemporary Black artistic world.