How has 9/11 affected the black community?" "What's the connection between gangsta rap and black detective fiction?" These are some of the deep-dish questions to be addressed at this weekend's seventh annual Chester Himes Black Mystery Writers Conference, which takes up the whole day (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Saturday at the James Moore Theater in the Oakland Museum of California.
Named for the celebrated mystery author who penned Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), the conference was organized in 1994 by the Friends of Chester Himes, a group of Bay Area crime-novel aficionados, to introduce the reading public to black writers working in the genre, and continues to draw African-American writers -- and mystery fans of all races -- from across the country with its annual awards. The Friends also sponsor a high-school mystery writing contest.
Oakland attorney and "big mystery fan" Cheryl Stevens, one of the conference's organizers, sees Himes' legacy in social terms. "He was the father of African-American mysteries," says Stevens. "It's important that he was writing during a time of protest, and dedicating his work to a particular population. If you like this genre, you'll see where Himes fits in."
Alongside such otherwise dissimilar authors as Rudolph Fisher and Easy Rawlins' creator Walter Mosley, Himes provided social commentary on black America in a popular literary framework that always included street-level voices. Oakland's Renay Jackson, a former rapper turned self-published crime novelist (Shakey's Loose, Turf War), puts himself in the street tradition of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. "My books are murder mysteries set in Oaktown," says Jackson, who will join a police chief, an editor, and several African-American writers on the "Detective Fiction and Gangsta Rap" panel. When it comes to the question of young people's seeming preference for hip-hop instead of books, Jackson maintains: "Teenagers do read, but they read Vibe magazine. They're actually the best audience for my work." Registration for the conference is $45, $40 students and seniors. For more info: 510-638-7688.
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