A Coretta Scott Celebreation


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.


Celebrating Hurston


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.


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?


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.


Kweli Literature Conference


Over the spring break, I attended Kweli’s book conference (the third annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference) held at CUNY graduate center in Manhattan.

I was super excited about going to the conference because I enjoy reading and writing stories for children.

The Kweli conference keynote was given by author, Angela Johnson. A trendsetter for children books and an admirer of mine. It was my first time meeting her and hearing her speak.

Her speech set the tone for the conference.  It was full of purpose, yet very comical and light. She began with short funny anecdotes about her book tours at schools. The following story (paraphrased) is one story she told that was my favorite. It made me think of a little girl in my class:

She began, Every elementary school has a little third grade girl who just knows everything. When I arrived at this particular school, I was assigned THAT girl. Her name was Ashley. When I told Ashley I needed to use the bathroom, she replied, I’m going to take you to the bathroom no one knows about; and she took me up to the third floor…I stayed in that bathroom for about a half hour or more locked in! Finally, when Ashley returned. She asked, Ms. Johnson, are you ok? Yes, I replied, I’m locked in. Ms. Johnson, she asked, did you push or pull the door?  

I laughed out loud at this story as I could see and hear the little girl in my class asking the same question.

As she continued her speech, the theme of memory and high expectations kept recurring. Even though she spoke about serious topics like race and acceptance,  the mood was very settle and light.

She spoke of her traumatic experiences as a first grader in 1967. It was interesting to hear how her parents did their best to prepare her for a world that was not welcoming to people of color and at the same time, her parents also seemingly managed to keep her sheltered enough so she could enjoy her childhood and the skin she was in.

“I had been told earlier on, she said, that the world would expect a little bit more of me”. Many parents of color often tell their children even today, that they have to work extra hard. However, her father put it in a more subtle way.

“My father, she continued,  “had told me I couldn’t be ordinary and I didn’t understand that…I been told gently by my father that some people wouldn’t accept me…I knew it had something to do with maybe the color of my skin. He never came out and said it”.

It seems like Ms. Johnson was given an opportunity (as most children) to look past people skin tones and treat everyone equally and expect the same fairness back, because her parents guarded her innocence.

Nonetheless, in first grade, she begin to understand the the world wasn’t all it was cut out to be.

On the first day of school during roll call, her teacher escorted her out of the classroom, pinned her against the wall then proceeded to ask her why was she there.

She continued, “I ached to be in the first grade…I always felt like I belonged in my world…they had showed there was no difference in all of us…so why was this teacher who was suppose to be my first grade teacher asking me why I was there?”

‘As a first grader, I  understood very little of what was going on’.

Eventually, she was moved  to another first grade class. Nonetheless, the memories stayed.

In her story, I learned that the person who placed her in the first- first grade class was seemingly a daring person. She was painted as a hippie, someone who believed in change and taking chances. However, this hippie teacher, an adult,  had to know how this other teacher was. As Ms. Johnson spoke about this hippie character, she praised her. But, I wondered, was she really praiseworthy and fully innocent?  She probably could have saved Johnson the trouble of experiencing this trauma as a little girl by not placing her in this prejudice teacher’s class altogether.

Johnson went on to explain how much [we] are responsible for children and I would even say, their memories. True we do not control how children perceive experiences but if we work really hard to give them great ones, (and we know when they are great because a happy adult makes a happy child) then we have met them half-way.

I relate this story only because it was one of my earlier memories, I relate this memory because it was one of my earliest traumas, I relate this trauma because it’s gone a long way in my understanding children and those people that are responsible for children and how we treat them on this planet. 

I am very happy I was able to attend the Kewi book conference. It was like a breath of fresh air to hear many authors and illustrators speak about their work! Ms. Johnson’s welcoming and friendly tone set the mood for the rest of the conference. I walked away with a strong sense of who my work was for and why I am responsible for their experiences and memories.


All-Star Reading Of Ta-Nehisi Coates Debuts At Apollo Theater — CBS New York

By Hillel Italie AP National Writer NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Apollo Theater audience cheered and cheered for Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the readers of “Between the World and Me.” A capacity crowd at the famed New York City venue was on hand Monday night for a stage recital of Coates’ prize-winning book, one met throughout…

via All-Star Reading Of Ta-Nehisi Coates Debuts At Apollo Theater — CBS New York