The Dark Room Collective was founded in Boston in 1988 by a group of African American poets led by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange. The mission of the Collective was to form a community of established and emerging African American writers. Major Jackson, John Keene, Janice Lowe, Carl Phillips, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Artress Bethany White, and Kevin Young were also members of this group.
Originally conceived as a reading series, the Collective became a small community of poets. Strange wrote, "It was the sustaining practice of writing in community just as much as the activism of building a community-based reading series for writers of color that kept us engaged in collectivity" (Painted Bride Quarterly 60).
The Collective invited a diverse group of writers with different aesthetics and at different points in their careers, including Young and Smith, who both joined while undergraduates at Harvard University. Visiting writers and early readers in the series included Elizabeth Alexander, Cornelius Eady, Martín Espada, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Alice Walker, among others.
Strange and Ellis began the Dark Room Collective at their house at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge, where they hosted the reading series on Sunday afternoons. Eady compared it to “being part of a Sunday revival meeting. A crowd showed up (I couldn’t tell who actually lived there and who didn’t), some furniture got moved, some chairs unfolded and pow! Their living room turned into a salon… that’s how they all seemed to take it: with a serious joy and pride in their belief in being black and being wordy, which totally disarmed me.”
The reading series soon expanded to include musical performances, art shows, and workshops and became known as a much needed home for writers of color in the mostly white-dominated literary community. An eclectic audience of people of varying ethnicities, ages, classes, and communities attended the series, which later relocated to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston when it outgrew the living room in Cambridge. By 1994, the series had relocated again to the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University, and it was coming to an end. In the span of five years, the Collective had hosted over 100 writers, as well several visual artists and musicians.
The Dark Room Collective’s last performances were the “drive-by readings” it gave at colleges and literary arts centers across the country, from 1996 to 1998.