Khalisa Rae. Photo courtesy of the subject.

Khalisa Rae is a writer, activist, and the co-founder of the Griot & Grey Owl Black Southern Writers, which will take place in Durham on November 7-10.

INDY: Tell me about the name Griot & Grey Owl.

KHALISA RAE: The name griot is an ancient term for storyteller. It was started in the Native and African cultures, but all cultures around the world have a griot and that person since the beginning of time has passed on stories.

We also wanted it to be something that was synonymous with either the Triangle or Durham specific. We started looking up plants or trees or animals that were exclusive to this area and found that the grey owl is actually a plant that was used for tinctures by indigenous and black cultures in Durham as a balm to heal things. The grey owl is an indigenous owl to this area. And so we felt like that was perfect because the owl is a symbol of the wise writer.

Why Durham?

My husband and I are rooted here in Durham. We know Durham has a rich history of writers, artists, playwrights, activists, and creators that have come from the area. You have generations of people that have lived in Durham since the forties.

Durham is one of those unique places that is not only eclectic and diverse and inclusive to all cultures and we have an impeccable art scene that is so immersive, innovative, and is doing a lot of initiatives through grassroots organizations that I just haven’t seen anywhere else. Black August in the park alone—I’ve never been anywhere else except for New York with like, Afro-punk, that can fill thousands of square feet in a park with nothing but Black folks just to celebrate it. That’s impeccable for a small town in North Carolina.

My husband and I want other people to not only tap into that but also be inspired by the history and the legacy of Black Wall Street and Pauli Murray but also what’s happening presently. There are so many gems like Alexis Pauline Gumbs that live right under our nose.

How many conferences are there like this for Black writers?

There is no Black Southern writer’s conference. Our friends at the Watering Hole, who are our partners at the conference, host a niche poetry retreat every year, but that is only for poets working on a manuscript in a remote location.

The other place this happens every year is in Atlanta and it’s called Black Writers Weekend. It’s for folks who are interested in media, being a journalist, or commercial publishing. That’s not what we’re trying to build here.

Navigating the South as a Black person is a very specific lived experience. We should celebrate the fact that our people in the South are doing these amazing things and nobody’s talking about it.

Are there any events open to the public?

November 10th is completely open to the public. That day is sponsored by Duke Arts and the Nasher. Everything will happen at the Duke Rubenstein Arts Center.

We have a lot of city partners that think this needs to be a whole-week festival. We’ve been asked to do public programming and we believe that the southern griot needs to be on a public stage. And so we do have some things that are public, but we want to expand that in the future.

What do you hope this conference does for Black writers? For Durham?

I hope people who live in our state know that a network exists locally for them. I hope people outside of our state see a blueprint for something beautiful that they could build like what we’re building in Durham.

And I hope the audience that sees us gets inspired to create something wonderful but also learn about someone new that they would have never studied before. Literature has the power to make young folks really excited about learning. So I hope it opens doors for educational sectors to start to strengthen and heal some wounds in Durham.

A lot of people are hurting right now, especially with what’s happening in our nation. I really hope that the conference brings the artist community in the city together, and helps us learn that we all need each other to survive and thrive.

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