Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why Host An African American Read-In?

Two years ago through my awesome professional learning network on Twitter, particularly thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, I found out about the National African American Read-In.  This event is sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Black Caucus of the NCTE and has been held since 1989. You can find out more on the NCTE’s African American Read-In site. The more I read and researched about the Read-In, the more convinced I became that I needed to host one at my library!

And yet I knew that when someone thought of my small town (population around 17,000 - but that’s being very generous, really) they might ask themselves why I felt an event like this was a perfect fit for my patrons.  According to the 2014 census the African American population of my small mountain town in New Mexico is .07%. For New Mexico as a whole, the African American population is 2.5%. That, of course, was exactly why I thought it was a perfect fit.

It is White people’s racism that makes us think African American literature is only for African Americans.  By that same account, it is our work as White people to dismantle this misconception.  No one assumes only White people will want to read Shakespeare or, say, Emily Dickinson.  We are taught those works are universal, they are for everyone. But too often, racism tells us that books by Native people or POC are only for the members of those groups.  We conveniently forget the windows element of “doors and windows” and assume that means minority groups have windows into the White experience.

The African American Read-In was the perfect chance for my libraries to open some windows.  And to share some great books - of course. For one week, we designed all our programs for 0-5 around books and songs by African American artists and writers.  We sang and danced to Ella Jenkins songs and read Langston Hughes poems at Toddler Time.  After school, we lined the spaces of our reading circle with books by African American authors and read picture books by Jacqueline Woodson and N Joy out loud. In the second year of our celebration, three local AP English classes visited from the high school and spent an hour reading picture books.  We designed a program for our homeschool book club around Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach.

Because I had a clear vision of how I wanted these programs to happen, getting staff buy-in wasn’t really hard.  Instead of vaguely hand-waving “let’s do something for Black History Month, I guess?” the African American Read-In gave staff some real direction and a framework. From there, it was easier to see why we were doing this - and measure impacts.

In each of these programs, we talked to patrons about the African American Read-In and we shared bookmarks we’d downloaded from the NCTE toolkit.  We always had piles of books (for all ages) by African American authors and illustrators on hand and encouraged them to check them out or even just browse through them. One thing I trained my staff on in preparation for these events was that we wanted to be deliberate about these programs.  I didn’t want to present it as an incidental program - I wanted patrons to understand that planning and thought had gone into these events, that our library was choosing to promote and spotlight this work. I agree that we, as White Librarians, need to do more than just talk about and use these books during Black History Month.  But I also love that the African American Read-In takes place in February.  It’s a way to do more than make a display but to put the titles in hands and in action. Every time we saw how children laughed or were entranced by this work, it was a reminder that these books are for everyone during every month of the year. Using them, programming around them, thoughtfully choosing them, watching patrons embrace them made a much stronger impact and meant so much more than just putting them out with a “It’s February, You Know The Drill!” sign.

This year, during one of the AP English classes sessions, a particularly intense boy suddenly started waving his hand around, calling me over.  It was such an elementary school gesture for a senior in high school to make, it made me smile.  When I walked over to him, he had two books spread out in front of him, a juvenile non-fiction book and picture book.  

“Look,” he whispered, gesturing at them both insistently, “they are both about - about - Gullah.” He was especially proud that he had made this connection and he was grinning at me.

I realized this very smart almost 18 year old boy had never heard of Gullah before.  “Yes,” I said.  “Gullah is a language and a group of people.” He was nodding but had already looked away and was reading the notes in the books.  He mostly, I think, just wanted to show me what he’d found.  He was already back to the books.

This encounter is why I knew the African American Read-In was valuable, essential even, to my patrons.  Windows matter.  So do White librarians unequivocally standing up for the concept that these books deserve a place in our collection and our programming because they are relevant, useful, and even joyful for everyone. Promoting and programming for the African American Read-In has been eye-opening for patrons and staff, which was another goal.  It’s on White librarians to start the progress and push forward on the idea that books by African American authors, any by Native writers and other writers of color, are for all our patrons: no matter where we’re located.

The African American Read-In was our first push forward at my library, but it won’t be our last.  I urge you to look at your community connections and your programs and see how you can participate in the African American Read-In next year.  It’s not too early to start planning now. 

Here's some pictures from our Read-Ins!


K T Horning said...

This sounds like a great program, Angie! And thanks for the photos -- the kids all look so engaged.

I have a few questions:

1) How did you select the books to use? Was there any method to your selections?
2) Have you noticed any changes since you instituted the Read In? e.g. increased circulation of African-American authors/illustrators or increase in requests of A-A books in readers advisory?

Angie Manfredi said...

Hi K.T.

1. We pull TONS OF BOOKS. That's basically it - I go through and find as many books as possible for ALL AGES written or illustrated by African American writers. Then we fill up a cart/displays with them and just let the kids choose. I think there's something important to be said for the importance of how many books/choices/topics there are in the collection. For each read aloud, staff selects themselves what books they think will fit the crowd, but we try for variety. For instance - I had a group of older kids from a local private school come and I did a whole program around Ashley Bryan since they were older and could sit through one of Bryan's longer stories/hear about his life. I think this also helps staff become more familiar with these titles so they think about them year-round.

2. Well, for instance - the high school teacher who brought her kids to the Read-In the first year liked it so much she had her classes come as a program in the second year, so I think there's definitely the idea that word will spread and community members will want in on it (which is great and a way to tell your community you're an active ally in progress). And, after every session from storytime to the afternoon read-ins, piles of books checked out. And, see above, it makes staff - I think - more aware which is good in every way! :)

AWholeLottaDreaming said...

HI, I've been following this blog for a bit ever since I heard about the controversy swirling around 'A Fine Dessert'. My comment is not in response to this post, just my general thoughts on diversity and inclusivity in books.
I'm an Asian, living in Asia, where my race is at the top of the pecking order, so to speak. So I am aware that I definitely have a certain amount of privilege that a person of colour living in the US or a European country may not have, and I guess I also may have a different perspective as well.
Growing up, books by white authors, about white kids, were a breath of fresh air for me- instead of narrowing my experience, they opened my thoughts and my world to a wonderful diversity of perspectives and experiences. They were a welcome relief from the conservatism of my Mandarin language textbooks, where all teenagers were considered 'bad', and all adults knew best even when they didn't. Enid Blyton and Judy Blume were very much a part of my childhood and many, many of my friends' childhoods- I don't think it even registered that they were white. We loved those books and those characters because they were so different from us, not because they were like us. I remember all those secret club meetings and adventures we tried to model on the Famous Five books.
I think it is truly wonderful that we are focusing on racial and cultural diversity and inclusivity. As much as I loved and still love those books, it does no one any good for those books to be the dominant voice in YA literature, when we have such a diversity of cultures just waiting to be heard. As someone who writes- even if only for fun- I can only imagine how frustrating it is for we people of colour to have to 'whiten'/'whitewash' our books to make them more palatable to a mass market audience. When I heard about the drive to find '1000 black girl books', I could feel the frustration of coming up against a homogenized literature landscape, where stories you can identify with as a person of colour are never told or even acknowledged.
But what makes me a little sad is hearing- and I hear this a lot these days- " I can't get anything out of the book/ I can't relate to the character because they, being white, don't look/sound like me, or they are not from my culture." When I was ten, my favourite character was Sally from Starring Sally J Freedman As Herself. Sally was nothing like me. She was Jewish, a typical 'girly' girl, from New Jersey, growing up in Miami. I was from South East Asia, and I was a typical tomboy (I would later learn that I was agender). Yet I totally got her. I identified with her so much because our imagination and thought process were so remarkably alike. I felt like I knew her, the same way I understood Jill Brenner from Blubber.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is, let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. I'm not saying let's be colourblind, but let's not underestimate the power of a book to cross racial and cultural boundaries- and the ability of a reader to truly make a book their own despite its limitations.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I'm a new librarian, and I'll be hosting my first AARI this February. You make such an obvious and excellent point. These books, like all the books, are for everyone. Rock on!