A Coretta Scott Celebreation

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I, Too Arts Collective, in partnership with the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Awards Committee of the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, presented a celebration of 50 years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards featuring  CSK Award-winning authors: Tiffany Jackson, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Renée Watson. The discussion was moderated by Jennifer Baker.

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Celebrating Hurston

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In September of last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet editor and scholar, Deborah Plant, whose work and dedication to the writings of Zora Neal Hurston is an example of how we can commit ourselves to writing and use it as a tool to uplift our community.

The first time I read Hurston’s work, I was in college. I was going through different works by American writers and Hurston was on my list.  Her name did not grace any of my professors’ syllabi so while I would have liked reading her work with others, I read it alone.

Attending the book events in Brooklyn finally enabled me to listen to an open conversation about an author whose work I’ve enjoyed.

As I sat listening, I begin to list reasons why I enjoyed this Renaissance writer:

  • She was in search of herself and looked for self, in others.
  • She saw the importance of stories within the community
  • She appreciated the little that people had, and saw a lot in that…

Plant began by a moment of silence. Welcoming the ancestors’ energy into the room, which surprised me. I guess the more I attend events such as this one, I would not be surprised by libations.

She then began to read an excerpt from Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Listening to Plant reading Hurston’s writing so effortlessly would make someone think, it is an easy reading. But I found out how hard it was after purchasing the book and going to another event  where acclaimed authors read her work and stumbled over her writing.

I sat absolutely still while listening. I had a fear that a minor shuffle would cause me to miss one word which would mean missing a ton of information. She began…

It was summer when I went to talk with Cudjo so his door was standing wide open…

…Captin Tim you brought us from our county where we had land, you made us slave now they make us free but we ain’t got no country and we ain’t got no land, why don’t you give us piece of this land so we can build ourselves a house?…

…we call our village African town…we want to go back in African soil and we see we can’t go....my folks sell me and your folks, American folks buy me. We here and we gotta stay…

After the reading, the auditorium was very still. No one moved a bone. Then, Dr. Brenda M. Greene, the director of Black literature and chair of the English Department at Medgar Evers College, started the discussion with the following  proverb.

A person doesn’t die until the living stop telling their stories. 

I learned that the thoughts I had from time to time about being black in America were thoughts that were okay to have and okay to speak about. More importantly, I should engage in conversation about these types thoughts more often.

You see, asking myself where I belong or wondering about my family tree are thoughts we all have. None of them are disconnected from the thoughts of our ancestors. The only difference is our ancestors had to fight an even greater fight. They were up against a society that told them they were cargo and not human. This is the society in which Hurston fought against and wrote for.  As Plant said,

… When it [came] to the humanity of a people, [telling our stories were]  so important… when she…[ became] an anthropologist; African Americans, people of Color, were not considered fully human! If human at all! She [was] an anthropologist at the beginning of the field of anthropology…

She [was] at the beginning of things. During that time…the so-called social scientist and anthropologist ….had this attitude about people of color, certainly black people that not only were we a vanishing species… but when it comes to the human pyramid [we] were at the bottom and not quite human…the history of our experiences on the continent of Africa…tells you what exactly people thought about us. 

…all of the doctrines that supported that…this is what they were teaching…this was in the newspapers. We were monkeys…we were considered not what we were…everything that Hurston did was a contradiction those lies. Everything that she did was a contradiction  to something called white supremacy…

Everything she did.

Rather than just outright [deny] the lies of white supremacy, what she did was present a positive response…let me show you what we are, let me show you our humanity, let me show you our language…let me show you our community…let me show you not only our stories about what has happened to us but also those tales of laughter because yes…it is how we actually get through these kinds of things.

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As the discussion continued, what it meant to be considered an activist, a renaissance writer and how to allow ourselves to weep when feeling the longing for something called home dominated the discussion.

Plant explained it this way:

As human beings, two of the most important questions we ask ourselves… [are] who am I? and where do I belong? …When you’ve been deracinated…from everything that you know…not just your mother, [but] your mother tongue and your motherland; and you can never ever have that again, [you ask yourself] who am I after that? [and] where can I ever belong, after that?…[Barracoon] allow us to see our own wound. Just like [the main character] hasn’t healed from it, we haven’t either. We are still asking ourselves the same questions. In America, where do I belong, if not in my own apartment?

So, this is why it touches us so deeply because we are still asking the same questions…the fact that [Hurston] allowed [the main character] this space [to weep] speaks to her own humanity … and tells us we need to do the same for ourselves. When do we give ourselves time to weep? To grieve? To mourn? When do we even acknowledge, I really don’t feel good?

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It was at the point that I began to cry. I had never heard someone put into words this personal feeling that I felt but never spoke about. I looked around the room and could see black older men and women shaking their heads.

As the conversation continued, I had a flashback about the time I was in fifth grade and found out that I wasn’t American even though I had been taught the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangle Banner in Kindergarten.

You not American! My white science teacher told me.

I looked at him with a quizzical face and stood my ground, Yes, I am. I was born here. Right in the Bronx!

I was surprised when my best friend, Tina, who was from the Dominican Republic and the the boy I had the biggest crush on, Edwin, laughed with the rest of the class.

My teacher laughed as well. Then pointed to the next person who said he was from Jamaica. I didn’t know why I couldn’t call myself simply American if I was born in America but someone who was born in Jamaica was allowed to say Jamaican. I felt hurt and pain and so confused. I forced myself not to cry because it was vital to pay attention so I could find out who I was. But Mr. Will never got back to me.

This was part of the beginning of my search. And, the flashback ended with the deaths in my family. Once again, the questions unanswered.

Hurston was committed to capturing the plight of the impoverished and rural African Americans and in essence help to keep alive what a lot of us ran away from. We know of the Harlem Renaissance stories that spoke about our people leaving the south during the great migration but she went back to the south to preserve what those who didn’t leave, had. In revisiting, preserving and reminding us that no matter how far we go or have come we still must allow ourselves space to weep.

 

Bookish Details around Philly

The main reason we went to Philadelphia is because of books….And when you travel because of books you are rarely let down. Stacy and I ended up in  Uncle Bobbie’s Shop, a book store in Germantown after visiting the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum.

Some of the books I came across that I made a note to purchase.

Below, Stacy and I smiling with Mrs. Ragsdale, the director of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum. She gave us a very informative tour. The tour changed the way I see the world and how I see myself. Learning about the slave trade and the atrocities of it, did something to my joyous spirit for the rest of the weekend. Stacy kept asking me, What happened?

I realize when one begin to dig into history, one have to be ready for the good, the bad and the ugly. That was the first time I visited a museum and actually cried.

 

As mentioned before in a previous blog, we also visited the African American History Museum which was rich with history but a totally different experience.

Philadelphia prides itself in being the forerunner in Black Press. In 1884, Christopher Perry published the  Philadelphia Tribune making it the oldest black paper in the United States.  IMG_2324

The street newsstand…IMG_2315

Right before we ate, we caught the last few hours of the children’s book fair. Where we met authors and Illustrators, Nikki Grimes, Renee Watson, Carole Boston Weatherford, Eric Velasquez, Tami Charles and Floyd Cooper.

 

Judge Sotomayor

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At the beginning of the school year, I got an email from the cozy children book store on 18 West 18th street, Books of Wonder, informing me that Judge Sotomayor was coming to town for a meet and greet book signing!!

When I arrived, I picked up both of her children books, the picture book, Turing Pages: My Life Story and the adaptation for middle graders based on her bestselling adult memoir, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor 

When she asked me who to sign it to, I told her to my third grade class.

Where do you work? she asked.

In the Bronx.

She smiled and replied thank you, thank you. Your job means so much. She asked me what part of the Bronx and spoke to me about how important teaching can be. Then she thanked me again. Knowing she grew up in the Bronx, made her encouragement even more meaningful.

I shared the books with my students during the months of  September and October, prior to our career week celebrations. I turned to the page with her signature and showed them that the judge herself, had taken the time to sign the book just for them! Their eyes got big and they sat even more still during the read aloud.The little boy who usually sits at the back, squiggled himself up to the front.

The students were engaged in her life story and I was extremely happy when one of my students declared that she wanted to also become a judge.

 

The National Book Awards Ceremony

I first learned of Jamel Brinkley during the Brooklyn book festival. I made a mental note to read and support the author who was a Bronx (and Brooklyn) native. But was too busy to attend his event during the festival. I was able to meet the author and purchase my copy of A Lucky Man during the National Book Awards Ceremony.

I also was blessed enough to meet poet Elizabeth Acevedo who reminded me of Tami Charles, author of Like Vanessa. I don’t read poetry as  much as I would like and definitely don’t buy poetry. I was surprised to see her novel written in poetry. She did so well during the reading, she made me curious enough to purchase a copy of her book.

Lastly, I met Leslie Connor whose reading style and mannerisms reminded me Kate DiCamillo.

Christopher Paul Curtis

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I was super excited to meet Christopher Paul Curtis at the National Book Awards Ceremony this month! I attended without finding out who were on the finalist list. I love surprises…especially if I can control them in some way.

The first thing I would always do when I arrive at the New School (which is where the ceremony is held) is visit the book seller’s table. I do this even before looking at the program. Looking at the books for sell tells me who I will be listening to that night.

When I came across The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis, I asked the vendor if he Mr. Curtis was going to be there that night. Sometimes authors don’t show up to the event.

Yeah, I believe so, he responded.

And, sure enough. He was there!

I was really happy to meet him in person because his writing kept me up at night as a little girl. His books were among the many books my favorite librarian, Mr. Hardy, placed in my hand when I was in middle school.

When I introduced myself to him during the intermission, he looked at me and smiled.

It’s a pleasure meeting you, Lystria. Do you teach?

Yes! I do! How did you know?

I actually didn’t. I didn’t know weather to ask if you taught or how old you were! You look so young.

Thank you, Thank you. I get that I a lot. I teach third grade.

Oh, third grade! I still remember my third grade teacher.

He signed my book and we spoke a little bit about his writing habits. I had remembered some of his habits by reading all of his books closely over and over again as a little girl.

Do you still wake up at 6 to write?

He started smiling. Well, Lystria, it’s getting earlier and earlier.

After we spoke, I met other authors. But meeting him and hearing him speak was by far the most nostalgic and settling for me.

Before I left, he introduced me to his wife Mrs. Curtis and author, Andrea Pinkney. They all looked at me in my eyes and told me how thankful they were that I was teaching.

Thank you for teaching our children.  They told me constantly.

I would be lying if I told you I did not leave that event feeling better then when I walked in. The same feeling I felt after reading  Bud, not Buddy or The Watsons go to Birmingham had returned to me when I met Christopher Paul Curtis in person.

The Locals and Legends Wall Mural

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That Saturday while in Jacksonville, I walked down A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and saw some amazing wall murals.

This was my second time in Jacksonville but my first time venturing places alone and learning of the city where James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston once lived.

Every block I walked, I inhaled the amazing culture. I took in the sights of my people Bar-B-Queing on their front lawns and of them walking in and out of shops owned by them. I took in the sounds of R & B, Hip-Hop, Jazz, and Gospel all hovering under the hot still sun. Each couple of blocks I walked, it was a new sound track. I took in the southern hospitality, the smiles and how-do-you-do’s.

I did not expect to see much art though and was surprised when I looked on the side of the Man Cave Barbershop building on the corner of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and Pippin Street! I saw a colorful wall mural with seven figures. My first instinct was to try to connect with the historical figures. I could only name two.

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I knew who Zora was from her trademark hat and I knew James Weldon Johnson. But the rest… I was struggling with. I photographed the mural in different angles. Trying to get past the two cars in the lot.

I found out later through WJCT.org that the mural was painted by the locals, students and artist together.  It’s called the “Locals and Legends” mural and it features famous African American’s celebrated throughout history as well as local African Americans celebrated for their work in Jacksonville.

  1. The first subject on the left, Asa Phillip Randolph, is who the main street  is named after. He is known as A. Phillip Randolph and is a natural born leader. He was a civil rights activist, one of the few men who headed the March on Washington, and organized the first African American labor Union (just to list a few).

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2. The second one is my heroine Zora Neale Hurston, a writer and anthropologist who is best known for the novel, Their eyes were watching God. I love how she traveled through the south collecting stories from everyday people so that our rich culture would not be lost. She even recorded the southern vernacular.  ( I am looking forward to reading her  new book that  just came out this year Entitled Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, it tells the true story of the last known survivor of the slave trade…  it’s on my birthday list).

3. The third figure is someone named Clarence Williams, who once owned the building where the art lies.

I had to call around to find out more information about him and spoke to Ms. Pickett who is the curator of street art in Jacksonville (isn’t that a hot job title?) She told me the purpose of the wall murals is to bring in visitors into the East Side of Jacksonville. One of their goals after the painting is done is to set up wall mural tours.

She told me that Clarence Williams was a citizen of Jacksonville in the Eastside. He was an entrepreneur and business owner and  passed away a few months before the mural was completed.
4.The fourth figure is Pearlie Graham, the long time owner of nearby Spot Rite Cleaners and the only living subject in the mural. She also owns the building that has the mural of the girls graduating.

5. The fifth figure is James Weldon Johnson, a writer, actor, activist, and most popular for writing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.

I just finished one his books, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. This book should be placed on every high school summer reading list or read closely during the school year. After visiting his city I found myself reading more of his work to figure out who he really was. I love love Johnson. If you don’t have much time to read, then you should start with his poetry. His poem, ‘The Creation’, sits on the wall in The Ritz Museum in Jacksonville. It is a lyric that retells how the world came to be. The fourth grader who was with me named MJ had just as much fun as I had reading it aloud.

6. The sixth figure is Bullet Bob Hayes, an athlete….I read about him on wiki.

7. The last figure, A.L Lewis, was the president of the (Afro- American) Life Insurance Company, and he also started American Beach, a Nassau County vacation spot for African-Americans during segregation.

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And down the street there’s another mural (which I already posted) in progress depicting an old school in Jacksonville for African-American girls which I learned a little history about.

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This building is owned by Pearlie Graham. However, the school that this mural represents is closed. It was called The Boylan Haven Mather School and was the first school for African American girls on the East Side. It started out as a school to train girls to be servants.

The school was founded in 1886 and was named for a benefactor, Ann Boylan DeGroot, treasurer of the Newark Conference. She’d hoped to atone for, and change the image of, her family, which had operated two large plantations. In 1901, the school established a nurse training department, which later became Brewster Hospital – the first for African Americans in Jacksonville. (taken from Wikipedia)

I must say here that their modest dressing was what made me take the photo. Believe it or not, this is how I dressed in high school. My mother got the uniform company to make my sisters and I long skirts. Can you spot me in the photo below?

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My Classroom Door

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The theme for this year was based on Javaka Steptoe’s book, Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I got foam like crowns and pieces of foam for the frame from the dollar store. The radiant stars had to write one radiant thing they learned so far in the third grade.

100 Day of School Activity

 

For the 100th day of school, I wanted an activity that would encourage thinking, writing and even some math.

I found two coloring books with African American greats and made 19 different copies (one for each student) of our ancestors. Each sheet had a small paragraph or two about that historical figure along with their birthday and the year of their death (if they died).

My students had to figure out how old their figure was 100 years ago then write about what they thought their character was doing.

There was one student who got Crispus Attucks  (1723-1770) who figured out that he wasn’t alive 100 years ago. He was the only one who had to get another figure.

Becoming

NEW BOOK—This cover image released by Crown Publishing Group shows “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama, which comes out Nov. 13. (Crown Publishing Group via AP) NEW YORK (AP)—Michelle Obama has a picture to share. On Thursday, the former first lady unveiled the cover for her upcoming memoir, “Becoming.” She posted that image, a smiling close-up shot…

via Michelle Obama unveils cover for upcoming memoir — New Pittsburgh Courier