Photo depicting a group of AAWA members gathered together near a stage at the Elliot Bay Book Company.

Seattle’s African American Writers’ Alliance Turns 30 at Elliott Bay Bookstore

by Amanda Ong

Thirty years ago, a poet from California moved to Seattle and sought out a group of fellow African American writers. Randee Eddins, a poet, had been a part of similar writing groups elsewhere but couldn’t find an established group here, so she decided to bring one together herself. In February 1992, the group, Seattle’s African American Writers’ Alliance (AAWA), held their first annual reading at Elliott Bay Book Company’s previous Pioneer Square location.

This Saturday, Feb. 26, AAWA will hold its 30th anniversary reading virtually at Elliott Bay. The group has performed on the last Saturday of February annually for all of its three decades of existence. 

The group just produced its sixth anthology, to be released with their upcoming reading. Dr. Georgia McDade, the current leader of AAWA, is a longtime member. “[Randee] said I came to the third meeting, I thought I was at the first meeting,” she said. McDade took over the group soon after the first year. Eddins left Seattle and brought all the AAWA materials in boxes to McDade’s driveway and asked her to take over.

Over the last 30 years, AAWA has had more than 200 members. “We are African American writers, or we are of African descent, and we all have our own experiences,” Noni Ervin, an AAWA member, said. “And we don’t agree on everything. But what we do is, we don’t filter each other, and especially not in our writing.”

Jacqueline “Jaye” Ware told the Emerald she has found community with the group. “We are like family … No one’s voice is pushed to the background, where it can’t be heard, no matter how passionate the voice is or how much you disagree.”

Photo depicting Jaye Ware speaking to an audience as other members of AAWA sit behind her.
Minnie Collins, Gail Haynes, Margaret Barrie, and Nation Son Holmes sit behind Jacqueline “Jaye” Ware at an AAWA event at Wa Na Wari in 2019. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Today, there are about 20 active AAWA members ranging from their 20s to their 80s. “Some of us are from the South. I’m from Monroe, Louisiana. Some of us are professionals and some of us aren’t,” McDade said. “We have a medical doctor in the group. I have a Ph.D. in English. There were people in juvenile detention … We have technology people and people who have their own companies. When we say diverse, we mean it. And we managed to stay together.”

Ware, who was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, says that her experiences are entirely unique from members who were born in the South like McDade, or from younger members fresh out of college. “It’s just a really dynamic group of individuals, and it just allows you to grow,” she said. “It just allows you to stretch yourself.”

The group has come a long way from its start in 1992, when their first reading at Elliott Bay was a huge deal to the newly formed association of writers. McDade recalls telling friends, “That’s where Bill Clinton read!” Now, AAWA has become a nonprofit organization and maintains its Saturday meetings and readings week to week, as well as other speaking events. 

Upon their sixth anthology, McDade remembers how one of the early editions almost didn’t make it. McDade had stayed up all night proofing the work so that she could drive it to a printer in Tacoma in time to have it printed for their annual reading. But the copy shop sent them to Singapore to be printed, and the anthologies landed in Canada on the day of the reading. Naturally, McDade took a ferry to Canada, just to rush in with the copies for the reading, right on time.

In the 30 years that the group has persisted, they have lived and written through many historic events in the United States. Ervin notes that as a Black affinity and arts group, their personal stories are what drive them to write, however. “We are a safe place for each other to talk,” she said. “[A cultural moment is] a reference point. It’s not a starting point. It is a moment. It’s a current event, but it’s not the event.”

McDade’s long-running mantra to group members is on a similar theme: You have got to write a book. And several members have, including McDade, Ware, Ervin, and others. Her zeal for book writing is captured in a simple proverb. “Until the lions know the story, the hunter will always be the hero,” she said. Her words resonate with the group.

“The more we learn and understand about one another, respectfully, the better off we’re all going to be,” Ware said. “And the more enlightening we’re going to be, the more respectful we’re going to be, and the more we will all grow.”

McDade points out that many white people are still reluctant to hear or understand Black stories, and that’s part of what must change, and hopefully will change, as more Black people share their stories. While many white parents claim reading Black stories “hurts their children’s feelings … I wonder how many of them know how many Black children have cried in class reading Huckleberry Finn,” said McDade.

Photo depicting a group of female-presenting individuals seated listening to a speaker at Wa Na Wari.
Margaret Barrie, Nation Son Holmes, and Georgia S. McDade at Wa Na Wari. Photo by Susan Fried.

Ware says that McDade’s efforts, determination, and hope have kept AAWA together over the last 30 years above all else. “She did not want our stories to go untold and to be lost,” said Ware. “There wasn’t anything else out there, it was essential to give African American writers an opportunity to write, and to have their voices in their stories heard.”

Even so, McDade is not worried about what might happen to AAWA if she moves on. Perhaps at her influence, the group has forged its own bonds strong enough to make it last. “I know that AAWA will not die with me, because there’s people in the group now who will keep it going,” she said. “And I would like to think that it’ll keep going and going and going and going forever.”

The group is proud to represent Black artists in a city where they are a minority. “If you are looking for anyone at all, for any sort of an organizational event that you’re having, and you truly want to broaden your horizons — invite African American artists in,” Ware said. “Not for the purpose of tearing you down. But building you up, making us all stronger.”

Saturday’s reading is set to feature AAWA writers Dee Williams, Gail Haynes, Gaylloyd Sisson, Dr. Georgia S. McDade (MC), Helen J. Collier, James D. Macon, Jacqueline “Jaye” Ware, Kibibi Monie, Lola E. Peters, Margaret S. Barrie, Merri Ann Osborne, Minnie A. Collins, Monique Franklin, and Noni Ervin.

Anthologies from AAWA and author’s books are available for purchase on their website, as well as information for booking. Register to watch their 30th Anniversary Reading virtually hosted by Elliott Bay Bookstore through the bookstore’s events website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Some members of the African American Writers’ Alliance (AAWA). Front row from left to right: Gail Haynes, Jacqueline “Jaye” Ware, Margaret Barrie, Helen Collier, and Minnie Collins. Back row from left to right: Kilam TelAviv, Gaylloyd Sissón, Imhotep Ptah, and Lola E. Peters. Photo courtesy of AAWA.

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