Getting LIT with the Elm City: Shining Light on Black Narratives and the Yale-New Haven Divide

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According to their website, the Elm City LIT Fest is “an annual celebration of books, LITerature and LITerary artists with the purpose of enhancing LITeracy while promoting awareness of local, regional and global artists of the African Diaspora. Created in the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance for the Greater New Haven region.” 

The Elm City Lit Fest, founded by Ife Michelle Gardin and coordinated by Sha McAllister and Emalie Mayo, made its virtual debut on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. The festival lasted through the following Sunday. It was words that brought people together that weekend—the power in them, the promises they spoke, and the feelings they evoked. The event flourished, with programs like “Black Children’s LIT,” “Black Voices in Theater,” and “Lit AF!” among others available to the public.

And let me tell you, they were lit. Although I wasn’t able to attend the live-streamed events, I watched the “Black Voices in Theater” and “Lit AF!” recordings. Both left me with a feeling of pride and ambition. The theater-makers reminded me of my power as a playwright-poet. The creative direction of “Lit AF!” taught me about virtual innovation in terms of showcasing performance.

This past weekend I spoke with the organizers. We covered everything: the backstory of the festival, the joys of literature, and the toxic bubble—or what Gardin likes to call the “plantation”—that Yale has constructed. 

Resolute and Unapologetic
There I was standing at a Walmart self-checkout, watching the minutes move closer to my 5:30 p.m. interview. I feared that it would be unprofessional to push back the meeting time. But as I jumped into my parents’ car with five minutes left to spare, I knew I had to send an email. “No worries, I’m late myself,” Gardin’s response read. Soon, I was outside of Phelps Gate. My legs moved faster than my mind could process. Before I knew it, my laptop was open, my jacket was off, and my Zoom face was on.

Gardin was the first to appear on my screen. Immediately, I felt at home. She reminded me of the resolute, unapologetic women in my family. Her voice commanded the space in a way that couldn’t be ignored. I felt that I had to be on my A-game. We engaged in small-talk for a bit before she addressed the elephant in the room. “So how’s it going on the plantation?” I laughed and replied, “The question says it all.” 

As of 2019, Yale’s student body consists of 52.7% white, 19.3% Asian, and 7.7% Black people. According to Yale’s Faculty Development & Diversity team, white faculty members make up the majority of racial demographics each year, with Asian faculty following then Black faculty. But this pattern of white majorities is flipped on its head when one looks at the racial demographics of Yale’s staff members. When I walk into dining halls, when my bathroom is cleaned, and when a Facilities worker comes to fix something in my suite, I greet someone who looks just like me. Why is it that I mostly find my people in service jobs here, and not in the academic fields? Why is it that Black people are in the minority of these academic fields? The more I probe at questions like these, the more Gardin’s plantation analogy falls into place.

When an institution of this form is contextualized in a city such as New Haven, where it serves as the largest employer, things begin to fester. The tensions between the university and the city are visible everywhere from the gentrified Shops at Yale to the “Yale: Respect New Haven” signs displayed in front yards. Throughout our conversation, Gardin emphasized this discord.

Before It Got Lit
Gardin is a writer and cultural activist, born and raised in New Haven. She came up in the time of the New Haven Black Panther trials in the ’70s. Her childhood was colored by an appreciation for the arts. She was not only an avid reader, but a dancer as well. As a child, Gardin attended the Bowen/Peters School of Dance where she learned about the Katherine Dunham Technique and Cuban and African cultures. 

From the mid-’90s to 2008, Gardin worked for multiple arts organizations including the Shubert Theatre, the Arts Council, and Long Wharf Theatre. Gardin was always in and out of New Haven but returned for good in 2018 with her eyes on the prize. She noticed the wealth of artistic talent in New Haven; there were Black writers and self-publishers, but no official space to celebrate their craft. New Haven’s creative celebrations included the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Artspace, and the many theaters which dot the city. Despite these creative outlets, Gardin noticed a lack of literary avenues. So, she decided to create one. “I was like, you know what? I want to do a literary festival that highlights and celebrates and showcases literary artists, literary arts, and literature of the African Diaspora and people that identify all the time as being a Black person, not somebody that could be interchangeable; I’m real clear about that.”

Once she established this goal, Gardin began to pray, asking God for a team of people to help turn her dream into a reality. Gardin met with Aaron Jafferis, founder of The Word, a New Haven spoken word group, about potentially partnering on her new venture. Jafferis was in the process of finding administrators for The Word, which Gardin supported him in doing. Half-way through the interview, Gardin asked Mayo to work with her. Gardin noted, “I didn’t have to think about it; I was praying. And Emalie and Sha were absolutely down.”

Mayo entered the Zoom room soon after Gardin and I had our banter-filled moment. Mayo commanded the space with poise. Her calm disposition balanced the energy that Gardin and I created. 

Emalie Mayo is a Coordinator of the Elm City Lit Fest, an artist-activist and arts administrator. Originally from New York, north of the Bronx, Mayo has been in New Haven for about 27 years, but had never seen an event in New Haven like Gardin was describing. Mayo works full-time at the Yale School of Drama and noted that the school had not engaged  in many community projects. She saw an opportunity in Gardin’s grassroots vision.

Yale and New Haven
As the conversation moved towards the establishment of the festival, concerns about Yale’s role in New Haven’s arts scene and broader community came up. During the organizers’ first meeting with the Office of New Haven Affairs, it was made clear that financial support could not be provided due to New Haven’s lack of resources. There was an unspoken implication that the organizers should turn to Yale.  

“They’re used to New Haven going like give me, give me, give me. And because it’s a plantation, the community of New Haven has this mindset of, ‘Oh they got money, they got money.’ And then they’ll say they don’t got money but then they’ll build some $50 million-dollar building. Give me a break,” Gardin told me. “Oh, you building another dorm for other people to come into New Haven and live temporarily so they can live comfortably with y’all? But in the meantime, who keeps the machine running? The people that are from outside of the bubble that go in to work.”

The sentiments Gardin expressed weren’t new to me. It’s a conversation that I’ve had many times with New Haven and Yale people during my time here. What is always puzzling, however, is Yale’s seeming aloofness towards the subject—or rather, their unwillingness to engage it. How does an institution with a $30 billion dollar endowment stand proudly in a city where the residents don’t reap those benefits? And when I say reap the benefits, I don’t mean the “benefits” that stem from Yale’s savior mentality. I mean that there should be a sense of community between the city and it’s largest real estate holder, instead of Gothic walls enclosed by Yale ID card scanners.

While Gardin candidly spoke on the politics that define Yale and New Haven, I sat nodding my head with a smile on my face. Mayo did the same. Gardin’s passion for the subject could not be mistaken. Her words were heavy with certainty and accuracy.

The divide between Yale and New Haven is exacerbated by the stigmatization surrounding the city. Before I came to Yale, people described the city as one ridden with crime. To this day, that narrative is upheld among Yale students. “There needs to be a new kind of New Haven orientation for these students,” Gardin remarked. “You can’t be having this separation when you got people working in the cafeteria that live in Newhallville, are from East Rock, etc. The administrators that keep the paperwork going… hello? A lot of them are from New Haven,” she continued. “If you in one of the colleges and the toilet gets stopped up, the plumber, the electrician, whoever is coming is somebody from New Haven but you ignore them; but they got to take care of you. That is a plantation mentality, point-blank.”

Mayo emphasized this point, noting her experiences with School of Drama students who are warned not to go to the Green. Often, students ask her for suggestions about hair salons or church. To this, Mayo said, “Y’all need to know us. Y’all need to know the real New Haven.”

These frustrations were taken into consideration when creating the festival. There needed to be a space for everyone to connect. Yale students were featured alongside New Haveners. The festival even incorporated work from writers based outside the city. Folks were brought in from New London, Hartford, and New York. 

The Power of Getting Lit
So why literature, and what does it mean to the organizers of the festival?

For McAllister, the other Coordinator, literature is freedom. “Knowledge, creativity, consciousness, comprehension and imagination are enhanced through reading. These fundamental values are life changing, but more importantly cannot be taken away from you. A key aspect of literature is writing. Writing provides an outlet for the mind. Very similar to what painting does for an artist. It used to be illegal for Black people to read. Our ancestors risked their lives at times to read. Hiding a mere book could have resulted in heinous beatings, prison, or death. Any entity going to such lengths to prevent a group from enriching themselves means that the power that literature is paramount.”

Gardin likens literature to life itself. “Everything is literature—a newspaper, a magazine, the bible, reading a recipe. It’s all literature. There may be a next Alice Walker here. We have to find ways to nourish that. All of these renowned Black writers came from little towns where nobody understood them. They were like, ‘Oh they’re crazy; they’re just off doing their little artist thing.’ So we want to create a community and connect the dots because New England is sterile and segregated and the white people here don’t think so.”

For Mayo, literature is communication. “Freeing our minds from what the ‘education-industrial complex’ has set up for us is so important and I think it can change our lives and the world. We just all need to get on the same page. It’s difficult but I think the Elm City Lit Fest is one of those things that could do that. We’ve introduced children’s literature, graphic novels, we’ve spoken about the importance of book clubs and book spaces. We know not everyone is going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, let me jump into that.’ But something might spark in somebody. Literature is truly life and it doesn’t have to be spoon-fed; we can tell our own stories. We’re seeing a rise in self-publishing which I think is incredible. Literature is education that you can control.”

This last sentence stuck with me. In today’s digital age, so much of what we consume feels uncontrollable. Advertisements and commercials interrupt our movies, videos, and music constantly. But with literature, one of the oldest forms of tangible communication, you have the space and agency to devise your own experience—that is, once you decolonize your mind from what Mayo terms the ‘education-industrial complex.’ Even if the literature you seek does not exist, there is power in knowing that the words and ideas that live in your head could easily become ink on a sheet of paper. In this sense, literature is the mind walking. It will always be with you.

Gardin’s conception of the Elm City Lit Fest reminds us of this power. Black stories are meant to be remembered, preserved, and shared. We are meant to consider our words and ideas as the artistic expression that is inherent in literature. This festival allows us to tap into that soulforce and explore the things waiting to be said aloud and written down. With the Elm City Lit Fest, New Haven and its surrounding regions have found a new platform for us to tell our stories without apology.

Thank you Ms. Ife, Emalie, and Sha.

For more information on the Elm City Lit Fest visit their Facebook, Instagram and website

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