Brian Zhang, Contributing Photographer

Over the weekend, the city’s second annual Elm City LIT Fest was divided into two days of programming that celebrated the multidisciplinary artists and culturalists of the African Diaspora. LIT stands for literature, literary arts and literary artists.

Organized by native New Havener and cultural curator IfeMichelle Gardin, who credited Social Ventures Partners of Connecticut for making the events possible, the festival’s schedule featured in-person readings, performances, speaker presentations and panel discussions that were also livestreamed on Facebook. The events and discussions, which were primarily led by Black content creators largely from New Haven, offered a first-hand perspective of what it is like to navigate the art community as a person of color. 

“If I can inspire just one person today to believe in themselves a little bit more, to understand just how valuable they are, then I’ve done my job,” said Tiffany Stewart, author of “No Saving Me For Later” and a panelist at the event “Authors Sunday.” 

For her and many other invitees, what seems to be a positive celebration simultaneously reveals just how much Black and other marginalized artists have been left out of societal status quos. The event aimed to provide the opportunity for the artists to use their words and presentations as a way to “give light” to those who identify with the same backgrounds and struggles as themselves, Stewart said.

The festival, held behind the Old Stetson Library on Saturday and at the People Get Ready Bookstore at 119 Whalley Ave. on Sunday, started with an ancestral vocal and drumming performance by the Bregamos Community Theater. Both days saw the discussion of the works of African artists, writers, performers and historians, with opportunities to interact with speakers at the conclusion of any given event in the form of individual Q&As and book signings.

The festival was more than a celebration of the richness and diversity of African heritage. Panels offered writing advice from professionals and stressed the importance of nourishing the city’s community and its local authors. Stewart explains that she was in part motivated to participate due to the opportunities the community events afforded for collaboration and learning.

“You can read about something, you can study a subject … [but] the best way to experience something is to be at the heart of whatever’s happening,” Stewart said. 

Stewart said that although all communities are suffering the economic and medical challenges that come with COVID-19, systemic oppression maintains the reality of a status-driven world where the marginalized do not always have the privilege to put themselves on their own creative schedule. 

“When you think about marginalized communities … [for some, the] reality is that [they] would love to write, but [they have] to have a job,” Stewart said. “If we shift our perspectives from people surviving to actually living and thriving, then a lot of the other [creative things] that come along with that will come along more intuitively.” 

Stewart added that particular minority groups — including groups with lower socioeconomic status — are forced to balance their work with being treated in the professional sector as second-class citizens.

Though the festival was geared toward the Black community, its program welcomed all to attend. In addition to giving local communities the inspiration and physical spaces necessary for collaboration, the festival also aimed to expose people to literature and media they normally would not normally interact with.

Saturday’s “Children’s Author Presentation” featured Anna Nyakana’s discussion of a need for multiculturalism in children’s books. Nyakana said that books are an important source of information and inspiration when kids are young — a time when individuals are highly impressionable and working to develop a sense of identity.

Additionally, Marian Huggins, a speaker at the “Significance of Black Book Clubs” panel, explained that gender disparities can spawn misleading attitudes and a hesitation to educate ourselves. Men regard book clubs “as a traditionally ladies’ event,” Huggins said, alluding to her own observations and experiences as the leader of the Urban Life Experience Book Discussion Series at the Wilson Branch Library. 

Together, the artists, performers and educators at the festival communicated that celebrating Blackness and engineering a more inclusive next generation require more than picking up Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” at the library or attending this event. Similarly, an education system is not antiracist simply because the students are asked to read books by African American authors during Black History Month or encouraged to make a selection from Oprah’s reading lists, they said.

“If you haven’t gotten in trouble, you’re not an activist,” said Lucy Hurston, a sociology professor at Manchester Community College and niece of the 20th century writer Zora Neale Hurston. “It doesn’t need to be … for you; it needs to be about because this is the human thing to do.” 

Speakers at the festival emphasized that the values, voices and art of artists of color should not be seen as appendages of a central white culture, and that true celebration is one of survivorship and collaboration.

It’s not about trying to get a “leg up… [or] a hand in[to]” whiteness so that we can feel more included, but about saying “no…[and] tak[ing] us as we are,” Lucy Hurston said, referring to Zora Neale Hurston’s decision to preserve the oral tradition of her interviewees despite criticism from even her contemporary Black peers.

Last year’s events can be found in an archive on the Elm City LIT Fest website.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!