Culture & Society

Prominent African-American Literature Journal Headquartered At Texas A&M Turns 40

When the young wordsmiths were unable to collect enough in donations to publish the first edition of the journal, Callaloo, they pulled money from their own pockets.
By Elena Watts, Texas A&M Marketing & Communications September 20, 2016

CallalooA group of talented up-and-coming writers passed around a tin can on the campus of Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to collect money in the early 1970s. They wanted to help Charles Henry Rowell launch a journal of African-American literature that they viewed as much-needed in the American South at that time. When the young wordsmiths were unable to collect enough in donations to publish the first edition of the journal, Callaloo, they pulled money from their own pockets.

While the modest fundraising campaign accounts for the practical origin of the publication, the vision for Callaloo finds its roots in one man — Rowell, the journal’s founding editor and a professor of English at Texas A&M University.

Rowell possesses a passion for supporting African-American literature created by writers of all races, and his labor of love, which has since become one of the world’s premier literary journals, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Rowell and the many supporters of Callaloo are planning to commemorate the milestone officially at the Callaloo Conference at Oxford University in England in November.

The journal, which has been headquartered at Texas A&M since 2001, is the only journal of African Diaspora literature and art of its kind continuously published for as long a duration under the direction of its founding editor. This accomplishment is certain to receive appropriate high praise as a prominent hallmark of the conference.

“Being home to Callaloo, one of literary culture’s most highly regarded outlets, is a great honor for Texas A&M,” said Dean Pamela Matthews of Texas A&M’s College of Liberal Arts. “It is more usual to have strictly academic journals. It is much rarer—and we are very fortunate—to be associated with a journal that publishes work by people other journals publish articles about.”

In 1974, in fulfilling a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, Rowell was researching vernacular traditions in the writing of African-American literature when he interviewed Sterling Brown, the renowned professor of Afro-American literary criticism. Their conversation inspired Rowell to seek his own path for promoting African-American artistry.

At the breakfast table of his family’s farmhouse in Alabama, he sat behind his typewriter one beautiful spring morning staring at the peaceful, pastoral setting just outside the kitchen window when the idea struck. He would start a world-class journal of finespun African-American literature.

“That’s how it started, and it was amazing,” Rowell said. “I wish I could afford to bring all those people [who helped raise money for the first edition] across the Atlantic with me to Oxford to celebrate the 40th anniversary, but I can’t afford to invite one or two, much less all of them.”

The name of the journal evolved from other conversations and experiences in Rowell’s life. When the Alabama native described a gumbo he was making to his Louisiana friend, she said, “That’s not gumbo, that’s Callaloo.”

Callaloo is a popular stew that originated in West Africa but developed several variations as the recipe spread across the Caribbean. To firmly establish the name of the forthcoming journal in Rowell’s mind—whether by coincidence or serendipity—his boat tour stopped at a hotel outside Dakar to have lunch at a restaurant called Callaloo during his first trip to the African Continent.

“[Like the variations of Callaloo], the African Diaspora is a mélange of people who became entirely different people when—through enslavement—they left the African Continent,” Rowell said. “While I share, in part, a genetic makeup of an African on the Continent, and while I have cultural survivors from somewhere in West Africa within my family and within my original community here in this state, I am not an African—I am a new-made African based on the history and culture that evolved among the line of people I came from.”

To add to the amalgamation of the journal’s name and audience, its purpose is to publish a stew of poetry, fiction and non-fiction short stories, interviews, articles, book reviews and visual art created by artists who have different expectations and desired results from one community to the next throughout the African Diaspora.

“It [Callaloo] is important because people of African descent are people who have been oppressed and repressed—the Western world tried to deny them their humanity, to exploit their labor and anything they could get from them, including their culture,” Rowell said. “So revealing to the people who they are is important—the next generation will know who we are and who we wanted to be—in other words, [we are] creating documents mainly for people of color not allowed to declare who they are.”

Callaloo, published quarterly by the Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, Maryland, includes the best work submitted by English-writing authors of various races from different cultures around the world. Applications and work are read blindly first by prize-winning authors and then by Rowell, and they are compared solely on the basis of literary excellence.

“Every Writer’s Resource,” a popular website among writers, ranked Callaloo among the top 15 literary magazines with the likes of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine and the Paris Review.

“What’s remarkable about Callaloo is its comprehensive vision…It is an academic journal, an outlet for innovative ‘belles lettres,’ and a visual treat,” Matthews noted. “Originality and excitement happen in Callaloo’s pages.”

Four decades after the first edition was published, Callaloo has evolved beyond its original manifestation as a world-class literary journal into a veritable institution of African Diaspora culture that includes an annual Callaloo Conference, three annual Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops located strategically around the world and a Callaloo African Diaspora Book Series.

Each year, the conference is hosted by a prominent institution of higher learning and features an array of scholars and writers who present lectures on a range of topics pertaining to African Diaspora literature and art. Past hosts include Princeton University, Brown University, Oxford University and Washington University.

The annual creative writing workshops serve the Caribbean at the University of West Indies at Cave Hill in Wanstead, Barbados; the United States and Canada at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and the United Kingdom at Oxford University in Oxford, England. Combined, the one-week and two-week workshops currently support 20 fiction writers, 40 poets and five creative non-fiction writers each year.

“I most appreciate the way in which the journal makes the diaspora visible as a textural presence that traverses the hemispheres,” said Shona Jackson, professor of English at Texas A&M who has published work in Callaloo. “It serves as both a revelation of and a vibrant meeting place for the diaspora and repeatedly underscores Aimé Césaire’s assertion, ‘Not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint.’”

Callaloo has published the work of many established writers, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Gregory Pardlo and Gwendolyn Brooks, but the journal also has helped to launch plenty of successful careers. One such career belongs to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey who was named the 19th Poet Laureate of the U.S. in 2012.

In September, three writers with ties to Callaloo received 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards that each provided $30,000 in financial support.  Both Jamey Hatley and Ladee Hubbard, fiction writers, attended Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops prior to earning their awards, while Airea D. Matthews, a poet, was a Callaloo Fellow and contributed her poetry to the journal. Six awards are given each year to women who demonstrate excellence in their work early in their careers.

“Founder and editor Charles Rowell has a gift for recognizing writers early in their careers and continuing to publish them as they go on to prominence,” Trethewey said. “And Charles Rowell was the first editor to accept one of my poems, ‘Flounder’ … I have benefited from the support of Callaloo my entire career, beginning with the first poem I ever published.”

Rowell is devoted to nurturing and supporting young minds by providing a means for them to contribute to the very top of literary cultural criticism.

More than half of the upcoming edition of Callaloo is devoted to the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture that opened in September on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Rowell interviewed David Adjaye, the prominent, young architect born in Tanzania, Africa, who designed the building, which he described as very African-centric and uniquely different from the architecture of the surrounding buildings. The remainder of the edition focuses on the importance of Washington, D.C. and Southern Maryland to American art, an entirely novel theme among the many literary journals published in the U.S.

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