(L-r) Fabu, Sherry Lucille and Catrina Sparkman (Photo by Hedi LaMarr Photography)

Three talented Madison-area African-American writers — poet Fabu, novelist Sherry Lucille and playwright and novelist Catrina Sparkman — will discuss their poetry and prose in relation to the work of three African-American literary giants who also lived and worked in the Madison area during the 20th century at Hawthorne Library on Madison’s east side Saturday, June 24, at 2 p.m.

“For many years, especially since the Madison sesquicentennial celebration, I have wondered why African Americans and their contributions to this city and to our state were not included in celebrations, in information at the capitol or in the curriculum that children used in school,” Fabu tells Madison365. “I was aware from my basic research, that literary giants like Jean Toomer, Lorraine Hansberry and Sarah Webster Fabio were all present at UW-Madison and contributing to Wisconsin literature. I wanted them to be known, appreciated and acknowledged … so what better way to introduce them to the public than to through a Beyond the Page grant which works with libraries. I love libraries.”

“Hidden Voices: African American Writers in Wisconsin” is being put on through the library’s Beyond the Page, a permanent endowment held by the Madison Community Foundation that annually funds humanities programming in Dane County libraries.

The three writers will talk about novelist Jean Toomer, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and poet Sarah Webster Fabio and make a multimedia presentation about the work and lives of these literary artists and their interpretations of race in Wisconsin.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about often with ‘Hidden Voices’ is working and living in Wisconsin as African-American writers and how it is so easy to be forgotten,” Sparkman tells Madison365. “Jean Toomer lived here, Lorraine Hansberry lived here. Sarah Webster Fabio lived here. And unless you’re a scholar, you don’t really know that. So we talk about how they were hidden voices and how we are hidden voices and we won’t want to be hidden forever.”

The three women held their first “Hidden Voices” event at the Goodman South Madison Branch Library and it was very well received. “It was great to kick it off at our home library here on the south side,” Lucille says. “There was a good amount of people there asking questions and giving us feedback.”

The three women are all members of Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side.

“It’s interesting the dynamics when you work in a group,” Lucille says. “It’s nice that we are able to mesh our styles and have this come together like this. This is a great start and we’re looking forward to seeing where it goes.”
All three have an artist that they will focus on for the event – African-American literary giants who also lived and worked in the Madison area during the 20th century. Lucille focuses on Jean Toomer, an African-American poet and novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance and Modernism. His first book Cane was published in 1923 and is considered by many to be his most significant. “He is really cool to talk about because he is a very multiracial individual and he struggled with his racial identity and we linked that to my books where I tackle interracial themes,” Lucille says.

“My whole emphasis on my presentation is racial angst. Jean Toomer had it. I have it,” Lucille adds. “Toomer said, ‘The difference between angst and anxiety is that with angst there is hope for a better future.’ So I talk about my hope and Jean Toomer’s hope.”

Sparkman says she connects well with Hansberry, the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. Hansberry’s best-known work, the play A Raisin in the Sun, highlights the lives of black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago.

“I started my journey as a playwright and I’ve always loved Lorraine Hansberry,” Sparkman says. “I talk about her life alongside my life … the connections. We are both Midwestern writers and we both wrote in more genres than just simply writing for the stage.”

Fabu had poetic connections with Sarah Webster Fabio, a poet, literary critic and educator. Fabu got to take classes with her when she taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Sarah Webster Fabio was a prolific writer who is best known for her poetry and literary criticism, but she wrote novels, plays and short stories. She was a leader in the East Coast Black Arts Movement and started many Departments of African American Studies in California,” Fabu says. “She is the first poet who ever taught me in a classroom at the Department of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison. I was thrilled then and the excitement about how she made words come alive has never dimmed.

“I am connected to her poetry because she gave voice to African-American culture, history and silenced people,” Fabu adds. “I write to encourage, inspire and remind and especially to give a voice to those who feel their voices are overlooked or unheard.”

The poetry, prose, and drama of “Hidden Voices: African American Writers in Wisconsin” will shed light on what it means to be African American in Wisconsin yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

“People get a fascinating look into to the lives and works of these African-American writers from different literary periods and how their lives and work are connected to contemporary African American writers like Catrina Sparkman, Sherry Lucille and myself,” Fabu says. “The presentations are interesting and informative.”

“It’s important for people to see and learn about these people from the past but realizing that here we are now still writing but still struggling to be seen,” Lucille says. “It’s the hope, but also the struggle, of being an African-American artist in America.”

The three women are hoping to see a diverse crowd at the event and say that is important for both black and white kids to learn about these talented writers.

Catrina Sparkman (left) and Sherry Lucille
Catrina Sparkman (left) and Sherry Lucille

“Our program is very family-friendly because we do want people to bring their children out and we do want them to hear about these historical figures,” Sparkman says. “We want them to see that there are other people who are writing that may or may not look like them.”

“Too often, white people don’t know the contributions that black people have made to our society so they need to know just as well as we need to know,” adds Lucille. “That’s kind of the emphasis and the thrust behind this. These people are important literary figures and they just are not known as widely as they should be known.”

Fabu agrees that all young people need wonderful “living” role models and to know that all races contributed to the betterment of their city, state, country and world.

“For African-American children to study literature in the school system and not be told of these African-American writers – Toomer, Hansberry and Fabio, who lived and wrote right in their same city – is an injustice,” Fabu says. “I love working in schools, yet most youths think it is unusual that I am a poet, because their books and many teachers don’t introduce them to writers who look like them and have similar experiences. I am grateful to teachers who utilize multicultural books and learning styles, because it is needed and can help better educate all.”


After the Hawthorne presentation tomorrow, the trio will make presentations at Verona Public Library on Aug. 8, E.D. Locke Public Library on Sept. 19, Meadowridge Public Library on Oct. 24 and Fitchburg Public Library on Dec. 16. On Nov. 4, they will appear at the Wisconsin Book Festival at Madison’s Central Library.

In 2018, they will have six more events at Madison public libraries including five during Black History Month.

“I think ‘Hidden Voices’ will evolve. I’m still researching so I think my presentation will vary. Also, you see your audience and you play off their response,” Lucille says.

Lucille says that the goals for the “Hidden Voices: African American Writers in Wisconsin” series is to make people more inquisitive and to open up the dialog. “We want to raise awareness. To make them say, ‘Wow. If I didn’t know about this, maybe there are other things I don’t know about, other cultures and contributions than what I am familiar with,'” she says.

“Of course, we always want to promote reading, too,” Sparkman adds. “When we go to the libraries they will have our books along with the books of these historical figures. We want to encourage people to read them.”