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Heritage Press: Conrad Kent Rivers and Conflicting Interests in the Black Arts Movement

The Heritage Press archives at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature contain materials related to the enterprises of this small, London-based publisher. The press was the brainchild of Dutch-born bookseller Paul Breman, who conducted the vast majority of its affairs. Heritage Press was active between 1962 and 1975 and brought attention and acclaim to black writers from around the world, but this summary will focus on topics from 1967 to 1971 involving two Chicago writers, based on extensive correspondence to and from Paul Breman as well as submitted manuscripts. These documents highlight the tension in the Black Arts Movement (and political art movements in general) between the achievement of commercial success and fidelity to one's political ideals. This tension was necessarily manifested in the rapport between Breman and the up-and-coming writers he published; his idea of himself as a friend and ally on egalitarian terms was complicated by his position of power as the gatekeeper to a measure of acclaim.

These issues unfold in a particularly compelling narrative in documents concerning Chicago poets Conrad Kent Rivers and Ronald Fair. Rivers and Fair were close friends, and Breman also considered himself close to Rivers on a personal basis as well as on professional terms. Rivers's alcoholism led to his untimely death in 1968, at the age of only 34 year. After his life ended, some in the black literary community believed that Breman had exploited him, and issues of ethical obligations between a writer and his publisher (and a writer and himself) were brought to the fore. Those who survived Rivers were left wondering how to balance one's role in the community with a place in the global literary eye.

Fair explored these issues in an essay called "The Poet," a draft of which he sent to Breman in 1971. In the essay, he reminisces about the time he spent with Rivers, whom he characterizes as an organic genius whose brilliance was never truly understood by others in his humble surroundings ("The Corner," 1), but who earned their instinctive respect nonetheless. He describes the success The Poet found in getting his work published, and the ensuing oddity of his return to The Corner with photographers and onlookers in tow. The essay ends with The Poet's death among the gawkers that had come to surround him in lieu of the denizens of The Corner. The story is a powerful allegory for the complications of success in the Black Arts Movement, and even resembles a fable, a warning about the pain that can accompany commercial attention. At the essay's close, Fair writes that he has heard some say that The Poet simply lost interest in poetry as he became more successful, a claim which he doubts.

"I believe he wanted to go on writing poetry," writes Fair, "but could not because [ of ] the other writing and those other people always around him, urging him to speak at meetings, teas and other social gatherings, were all keeping him from the truth of life that he knew. I know I am right because I saw him that night they were touring The Corner. Those strangers could not see the sadness in his eyes as he went on drinking and laughing with them. They were not from The Corner and did not know him as we did."

The lesson, we can infer, is that one should be wary of outsiders and careful about leaving one's own community to seek attention elsewhere. The mythical, didactic tone of the story is reinforced by the use of generic terms as stand-ins for the specific man and the specific corner in question.

In another essay, "On Conrad Kent Rivers," Fair recalls his private conversations with Rivers, with undertones of mutual admiration, respect, and trust— conversations about "that novel about Chicago that you and I both know has to be written," "the absolute insanity" of racism, and Richard Wright and other "black prophets." Wright is a figure mentioned several times between Rivers and Fair, usually in the context suggested by this snippet of conversation in "On Conrad Kent Rivers":

"'You know, Ron, there are millions of young people who don't know that Richard was a god.'"

"'I know,' I said sadly. 'And he said it all.'"

For the two men, Wright poses at least one possible resolution of the difficult balance between truth and success. He wrote candidly about black life in Chicago and found success doing so, and when the political climate in the United States became unbearable, risked commercial loss in favor of self-determination and moved to Paris. Fair and Rivers admired Wright, the latter had a personal friendship with him, and his honesty and fortitude were a potential model of how to reconcile opposing interests.

Fair's elegy of Rivers and the trouble he had finding reconciliation are complemented by Rivers's own correspondence with Breman before his death. He writes to Breman in rather decorous language, and it is difficult to tell without a basis for comparison whether this is his normal style of writing, whether he means it ironically, or whether he (as Fair's account might suggest) is putting on ceremonious airs for the sake of impressing his European publisher. In any case, he is unabashed about his desire for commercial success and the need to act strategically to attain it. In a letter dated January 30, 1968 (just two months before his death), he wrote to Breman asking him to begin publicizing his forthcoming book, The Still Voice of Harlem, noting that the time was ripe because "black books are selling like hot cakes" and that he would be attending "several autograph parties" that week. A week later, he wrote another letter urging Breman to act quickly and send 50 copies to an interested buyer. "I need not, but I shall... make a few Market comments," he writes. "Black books are selling like mad in this area and throughout the country. I strongly urge you to get advance copies out and make some play with University campuses. I may very well take some time to follow the book by readings. Send 25 copies or order blanks to me... right away. I'm not telling you how to run your show, but...." He trails off, and goes on to discuss the latest news of black writers in his social circle. "We gave a memorial for langston a few days ago. LeRonne has a new book out. Mari Evans called me. Jerry is at Fisk. David is with Ebony. Bea? Sterling Brown has been committed. LeRoi is out on bail. Gwen Brooks has been named Poet L. of Illinois."2

The blunt mention of the commercial strength of "black books" and the need to publish immediately in order to capitalize as much as possible on the trend comes across as somewhat jarring, particularly alongside the list of his friends' latest news— a brief account that underscores the community-based nature of the work he is trying to do. In his own words, Rivers seems perfectly comfortable blending the commercial and the artistic; if we are to believe Fair, this apparent comfort is a facade. Whatever his true feelings, Rivers tragically did not live to see his book published: he died three weeks before The Still Voice of Harlem was printed.

After Rivers's death, Breman received a series of terse letters from one Alfred Whitman, the attorney representing Rivers's mother. Whitman requested that Breman make arrangements for the payment of royalties on The Still Voice of Harlem to Cora Rivers. Breman maintained that he had printed the book at personal cost, would make no profit from it, and owed nothing but 25 complimentary copies of the collection, and that this had been his agreement with the deceased Rivers. These letters continued and escalated in hostility in both directions over the course of several months. Whether or not Breman actually owed the money, the dispute was one element of a greater haze of doubt— had Breman exploited Rivers and his black political themes to satisfy consumer demand for what was in vogue at the time, or had theirs been a genuine partnership? Hoyt Fuller, an editor of Ebony and Negro Digest 3 whose critical opinion held tremendous sway during the Black Arts Movement, expressed his distrust for Breman in a July 1968 letter:

I concluded some time ago that you have some particular inclination toward misunderstanding or misinterpreting what is said or done and, for that reason, I have been careful in my communications with you.

Even so, I was surprised to learn that you had, in fact, come to the United States as you had planned last April without letting us know out here; and that you gave your reason for not venturing west some advice from me that you not come to Chicago. Admittedly, all this is second hand, but there must be some reason why there has been no word from you relative to the publication of Conrad's poems, especially since many people are anxious to have copies of the book.

Now, I have given you no advice not to come here. I only pointed out to you that there had been some difficulties with Conrad's family relative to his funeral services, etc., and that we were holding memorial services on our own. I also said that we could not postpone the services pending your arrival about April 18, as you originally had planned.

We have gone ahead and published a review of Conrad's book, assuming it has been published. Would you be so generous as to indicate for us whether the book has, in fact, been published and how copies of it may be obtained.

For his part, Ronald Fair was somewhat more blunt:

(for Paul Breman)

don't mind at all
the editor's sex problems
just that he's such
a pretentious ass
always three or five years
behind what's really happening
then mouthing like he started
the movement....

Of course, whether or not Breman intentionally exploited Rivers has no bearing on the tragedy of his death. While some in his community may have perceived his loss as a testament to the importance of self-determination, there is also a possibility that they were undeservedly suspicious of Breman, an easy scapegoat in the figure of a faraway European man in power, lacking real understanding of a black aesthetic. Either way, Rivers certainly would have been pleased with one of his most notable posthumous contributions to the Heritage library—a series of poems addressed to and inspired by Richard Wright.

1. Specified in an accompanying letter as referring to 63rd St. and Cottage Grove.

2. Of those without surnames listed here (and the somewhat obvious "langston" aside) I believe he is referring to LeRonne Bennett, Jr., Jerry Watts, David Henderson, and LeRoi Jones. I am more confident in some of these educated guesses than in others, and could be incorrect. I do not know who "Bea" is.

3. Later became Black World.

Based on materials from the Heritage Press Archives, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library. I consulted:

Series 1, Box 2, Folder 9
Series 1, Box 5, Folders 3, 7, 8
Series 1, Box 9, Folder 1
Series 1, Box 11, Folder 6
Series 2, Box 13, Folder 4

I also briefly consulted the Chicago Public Library summary of the archival content and Paul Breman's personal website.

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