The Juneteenth Book Festival Symposium on Black Literature & Literacy

>> From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC. >> Mary-Jane Deeb: Good morning. Good morning, everybody
and welcome to the African and Middle Eastern Division
and to the Library of Congress. I’m Mary-Jane Deeb, Chief of the
African and Middle Eastern Division. And I and my colleagues
here at the Library, Jane Sanchez who is the
Chief of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division, the — our Deputy Associate Librarian
who is here, especially to meet with you today, Sandy Lawson
and Sibyl Moses, Marieta Harper, Eve Ferguson, Robert
Casper, Paul Zany and many, many others who have worked so
hard to make this event possible. We are all delighted to see
you here to celebrate together at the Library the 150th
Juneteenth Anniversary which has been celebrated
in Galveston, Texas since June 19, 1865. It is Maria Fenton, the President
of the Juneteenth Book Festival who we must all thank for coming
up with the idea of having an event at the Library to celebrate
this occasion with a symposium on black literature and literacy. But before we begin, we need
all to stand up for a minute in silent prayer for the
victims and their families of the tragic shooting on
Wednesday in Charleston at Mother Emmanuel Charleston
Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Described in 2013 by its pastor,
the Reverend Clemente Pinckney, who was slain two days ago as a very
special place because this church in this site, in this area have
been tied to the history and life of African-Americans
since the early 1800s. Thank you. This tragedy reminds us of the price
so many have had to pay for freedom. For all the freedom
is a universal right. It is not always recognized
as such and we should never, never take freedom for granted. There are still today an
estimated 30 million people who are illegally enslaved in
Asia, Latin America, and Africa. What is important is to remember
that freedom is not only a matter of physical freedom i.e. to be able
to live where one wants to live, to travel wherever one desires, to
choose how to earn one’s living. But it is also the freedom
to say what one thinks, the freedom to follow one’s
faith, the freedom to read, write, create in a way that
is unhindered and free. In many parts of the world, people
are killed for their beliefs, imprisoned for their writings,
flogged for their blogs, beheaded for their views. So today, we should remember all
those who gave their lives to fight for those freedoms and again, we
should not ever rest on our laurels and believe that freedom is a given. We should always in every
way defend those rights, speak up against attempts to limit
or to curtail them in any way. And today, we have you here. We have you here to speak to us
of black literature and literacy. Of this important, incredibly
important issue of the right to speak up, to write, to
think freely, to create and to share with others. So let me pass on now the microphone
to our Deputy Associate Librarian who has been here, who has come
especially today to welcome you in the name of the Library, in the
name of the Librarian, Sandy Lawson. [ Applause ] >> Sandy Lawson: Thank
you, Mary-Jane. And good morning, everyone. I do bring greetings to
you from Library Services. The Deputy, the Chief of
Library Services, Mark Sweeney, the Associate Librarian
for Library Services, and also from the Librarian. This is a very special occasion,
a very special celebration. Today is Freedom Day. Today is Emancipation Day. And today is Juneteenth. We celebrate today the end of
slavery in the United States and this — with this exciting
Juneteenth Book Festival Symposium. I want to thank the staff of the
African and Middle Eastern Division, the Humanities and Social
Sciences Division, the Poetry and Literature Center, and the Juneteenth Book
Festival Incorporated for sponsoring this event. And as Mary-Jane said,
unfortunately, we must also reflect today during
this celebration, the devastation that took place in
Charleston, South Carolina. We have to keep the victims,
their families, friends, the City of Charleston in our
thoughts as we look at the program and listen to the speakers today. Thank you to all the speakers
and to all the honored guests who are here today for bringing
the literacy and literature of the people of the African
diaspora to the forefront. We’re all in for some very
exciting panel discussions and some interesting
information I’m sure will emerge from this symposium. So I hope that you all enjoy it and
thank you for inviting me and hope to see you and talk
to you later today. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Jane Sanchez: Good morning. Thank you for joining us for the
Juneteenth Book Festival Symposium. We welcome you and we are
pleased to welcome you to the nation’s library,
the Library of Congress. My name is Jane Sanchez and I,
along with the very talented staff, comprise the Humanities and
Social Sciences Division. When the opportunity to co-sponsor and support this symposium presented
itself, we seized the opportunity to join with the African and
Middle Eastern Division, the Poetry and Literature Center and the
Juneteenth Book Festival Inc. We did that because the subject
of Juneteenth encompasses so many of the disciplines that we are
responsible for in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division. We are responsible for developing
collections for that area and so many different areas that
include African-American history and culture, education and literacy,
literature, political science, local history and genealogy,
poetry and many, many other areas. We hope you will enjoy
today’s symposium and we hope that as a result, you will develop
new strategies and new opportunities for publishing and promoting black
literature, enhancing literacy and for capturing the stories and
lives of Africans in diaspora. Please come back and make use of
the rich and varied collections that we have preserved
in your nation’s library. We hope to see all of you again. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Maria Fenton: Good morning. >> Good morning. >> Maria Fenton: This has
been a long time coming. And I’m not just talking
about the 16 months that I’ve been working
on this project. I’m talking about 150
years a long time coming. And I welcome you all and I
feel so welcome and I want to first thank the
Library of Congress for making me feel so very welcome. And yeah — [ Applause ] And making it not just a nice
little cliché, but an actuality, and a knowing that
you can do anything that you apply your
mind and your heart to. But it has to be a combination of both the mind and
the heart, the both. So why Juneteenth? Why a book festival? Why you? Juneteenth? Book festival, for real? So first of all, I’m an immigrant. I was born in London. I came over as a young child. And so I don’t have the
African-American story. I have the African story. And the beauty of the African
story and the African diaspora is that waters, borders,
governments set lines and this is where this one begins and this is where that one ends means
nothing to the African people. You know your people, right? And so for me, being
able to say, “Okay, I want to put together something
that celebrates the thing that I love which is words, the
thing that was given to me early on in life which is words. Whereas we didn’t have a lot
of money, we didn’t have a lot of access to a lot of things but
we had access to the libraries. Libraries at school, libraries
at home and we made use of them.” So when things happen that were
as wonderful, I went to a book. When things — something happened
that was horrible, I went to a book. And that’s exactly what
they were doing back 1865 — 1773, Phyllis Whitley was
writing when it was uncalled for. She was supposed to just survive. How dare she sit back and create? How dare she take the word and make
it her own, form her own sentences, create her own thoughts,
write her own story? Write her own story. That is what I want us to remember
is to write our own stories. Be stewards of our stories. One of the things that makes
a person free is the ability to define and think for yourself. There’s a reason why we’re doing
this here in the Library of Congress because this is the land of
the primary source, people. You don’t have to go to another
source to have something fed to you. You can go to the source. It is open and available to you
and find out and write about it and critique it for yourself. Juneteenth is about, yes, Galveston
and the emancipations and it’s kind of story but the history of
emancipation is a storied history. There are, we have
emancipation Day on April 16th in DC then you have Juneteenth
on June 19th and people kind of throw their hands up in the air because they don’t
really know what it is because that’s exactly
how it unfolded. It was storied. It was complicated and then
the story was retold in ways to benefit some and
to demote others. But what I’m calling for
us to do, this festival — yes, we want to celebrate
but it is a call to action. It is a call to read your books. It is a call to publish
books of quality. It is a call to write your own story and to critique the
stories that are out there. Engage with it. So yes, I’m excited that we get to
celebrate it but as what’s going on in South Carolina, as
what’s happened in Baltimore, what happened in Chicago with all
the places that are around us, all the violence, all
of the tragedies. One of the key things that we
get to do is know our stories and own our stories and
retell and share our stories. And I hope that this festival
is an inspiration for those, for average people, right? I’m an average woman. For average people to say,
“I’m going to make my mark and I’m going to lead it and why? Because it needs to be led.” So thank you and thank
you for coming. [ Applause ] >> Mary-Jane Deeb: Okay and
now we call upon Hari Jones, the curator of the African-American
Freedom War Foundation and Museum. All right. >> Hari Jones: Good morning. >> Good morning. >> Hari Jones: Today, I will
begin by telling you a lie. That lie is that on June 19, 1865,
slaves in Texas finally learned that they had been freed by the Emancipation
Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This lie has been advanced in
legislation, in the popular culture as an explanation for
Juneteenth celebrations. This lie is predicated on a
fundamental misunderstanding of the Emancipation
Proclamation and its enforcement. President Abraham Lincoln issued
the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 as, “A
fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” In that fit and necessary
war measure, President Lincoln declared forever
free all persons held as slaves in the 10 states that were
at war with the United States for the independence
on January 1, 1863. And the five still holding states
that did not Abraham Lincoln as — that accepted Abraham
Lincoln as president; the Emancipation Proclamation
did not apply. It only applied to the states
that had to be brought back into the Union by military conquest. On September 22, 1982, in the preliminary
Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln warned the rebellious
states, giving them 100 days to return to the Union or he was
going to declare free their slaves. Frederick Douglas, eight days later,
wrote in his monthly that in order for the Emancipation
Proclamation to free any slaves, two conditions had to be met. The first condition was that the
states in rebellion still had to be in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. And the second condition was,
“We must have the ability to put down the rebellion.” In late 1862, the enslaved
knew that an order to be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation,
they would have to contribute to suppressing the rebellion
thus to preserving the Union. And this would have to be done
through military conquest. Thus begun — thus began
their military campaign for emancipation and union. It was understood by many members of
Congress, the President’s Cabinet, the Confederate Legislature
and Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, that the Emancipation
Proclamation was a cry for help to America’s African-descent
population. Jefferson Davis told the
Confederation Legislature in January 1863 that the
Emancipation Proclamation was, “An authentic statement by the
government of the United States of its inability to subjugate
the south by force of arms.” Meanwhile in Texas, there is clear
evidence that enslaved persons in Galveston knew of the Emancipation
Proclamation in late 1862. Galveston was captured the
Union Navy in October 1862 — a navy comprised of 25%
African-American sailors. The Austrian Council at
Galveston wrote a letter to the Union Naval Commander,
Admiral William Renshaw, stating that Texas
slaves had run away and been given refuge
by Renshaw’s fleet. The Council wanted to know
if his slaves ran away, would the Admiral return them? Renshaw unequivocally said, “No.” Only a small army force, the 42nd
Massachusetts Infantry was assigned to occupied Galveston and the
rebels recaptured Galveston on the day the final Emancipation
Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863. Union soldiers and sailors
were taken as prisoners of war and these Union soldiers
and sailors with knowledge of the Emancipation
Proclamation reported contact with enslaved Texans as some were
assigned to the POWs as cooks. The Union strategic plan
neglected military operations in Texas through much of 1863. Lincoln’s priority in the west was on controlling the
Mississippi River. And Lincoln believed that the
only way the Mississippi could be controlled is with the help of
the African descent population. When General Nathaniel Banks started
a Texas expedition along the Red River, he was ordered back
to the Mississippi in support of General Ulysses Grant’s
campaign against Vicksburg. The Louisiana Native Guards, the first African descent regimen
mustered into the Union Army under the field command of African
descent commissioned officers led by Captain Andre [Inaudible]
assaulted the rebel position at Port Hudson along the Mississippi
three times on May 27, 1863. Though these sable soldiers
failed to capture the rebel fort, they were successful in keeping
the rebels at Port Hudson from reinforcing the
rebels at Vicksburg. Therefore they had accomplished
their primary objective. Grant captured Vicksburg
on July 4, 1863. Now Lincoln had called
Vicksburg the key to victory. And after capturing Vicksburg,
Grant wrote to President Lincoln and told President Lincoln that Vicksburg could not have
been captured when it was without the help of these
African-American soldiers. The general goes on to tell the
President, “By arming the Negro, we have added a powerful ally.” Such powerful allies
would participate in General Banks’ Texas
expedition in November 1863. Rebel blockade runners
were able to bring supplies into Texas along Texas’
southernmost coast. And Banks was ordered to take
that part of the Texas coast. Five [inaudible] regiments — regiments comprised of
African-American soldiers from Louisiana took part in Banks’
successful Texas expedition making up 10% of the conquering force — capturing and conquering
the Texas Gulf coast from Indianola to Brownsville. These conquering soldiers
brought word of the Emancipation
Proclamation to Texas. John Bates was 10 years old when these military operations
were going on in Texas. Bates pointed out in his WPA
slave narrative that word, “traveled purty fast,” and
that’s P-U-R-T-Y [laughter] — traveled pretty fast in Limestone
County, Texas where he was enslaved. Indeed Bates goes on to report
that it was the enslaved on the plantation where he was that told the planter
that they were free. The first state in
rebellion to be brought back in the Union thus having
its enslaves free — enslaved free by the Emancipation
Proclamation was Arkansas. It took one year and four months to enforce the Emancipation
Proclamation in a rebellious state and that state was not Virginia
with its proximity to Washington. That state was the western state
of Arkansas bordering Texas. When Arkansas was brought back
into the Union as a free state on April 11, 1864 there
were thousands of African descent soldiers
enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Arkansas. Meanwhile back in the East, in
1864, African descent soldiers for the first time were deployed
in the Army of the Potomac after General Grant became
the general in charge in command of all the armies. In December 1864, General
Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the
Department of Virginia and North Carolina organized the
25th Army Corps, the only Army Corps in American history made up of
only African descent regiments. Butler wrote of his
African descent soldiers, “Better soldiers never
shouldered a musket.” General Grant wrote in his
memoirs that on April 3, 1865, the 25th Army Corps
under the command of General Godfrey Weitzel
captured Richmond, Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy. The headlines in the
Washington, DC newspaper, The National Republican
read, “Glorious Fall of Richmond Captured
by the Black Troops”. These sable soldiers of the 25th
went on to stop Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House,
Virginia forcing their surrender — his surrender there
on April 9, 1865. Though some contemporary
scholars falsely claimed that these highly regarded soldiers
were prohibited from participating in the grand review of the armies
in Washington on May 22nd — 23rd and 24th, 1865
because of their race. Without complaint, these highly
motivated sable soldiers stood ready to go to Texas and enforce
the Emancipation Proclamation in May of 1865. Thomas Morris Chester, an
African descent war correspondent, reported that on the
eve of the grand review, the word that they were
embarking for Texas was received in their camps, “With a
great deal of satisfaction.” Out in Texas, African descent
soldiers who had been there for months engaged rebel
soldiers in combat in May of 1865. Galveston was captured and occupied
by the Union Navy on June 5, 1865. By the end of the first week
of June, the 25th Army Corps and thousands of other
reinforcements were arriving in the Lone Star State. In the early morning of June
15, 1865, the rebel governor and thousands of rebel soldiers
were chased out of the United States into Mexico by this
imposing Union force. The tradition of the Juneteenth Ball
on June 16th was thus established. General Gordon Granger
was the commander of the New Department of Texas. His immediate superior, General
Phil Sheridan, ordered Granger to publish general orders
informing the people of Texas that all the laws enacted by the
rebel governor and legislator — legislature were null and
void, that federal laws applied and thus the Emancipation
Proclamation had freed all the slaves in Texas forever. Granger arrived in Galveston on
June 19, 1865 and he reported to General Sheridan that
when he arrived that morning, there was a brigade of the 25th
Army Corps already in Galveston. Over a thousand African-American
soldiers, heroes of Virginia, were in Galveston over a week
before Granger showed up. Later that day, Granger published
General Order Number Three and the military campaign
for emancipation and union was officially
declared over. Let us therefore celebrate the
150th anniversary of the end of the successful campaign
for emancipation and union. On this Juneteenth, let us
embrace the truth, reject the lie, and pledge ourselves to achieving
liberty and justice for all in this our indivisible
American republic. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Mary-Jane Deeb: Thank you. Thank you for setting
the story straight, telling us the history the way it is and for a most inspiring
presentation. Thank you so much. And now, we call upon Michael
Graham, a poet and 2015 graduate from the Washington Latin
Public Charter School. >> Michael Graham: So my
name is Michael Graham. I’m Maria Fenton’s son. I have — I’m actually the
youngest member of the JVF team. Oh sorry, and I’m going
— thank you. I’m going to be sharing two
poems by Paolo [Inaudible] and one poem I made for myself. So, should I [inaudible]
the name — title? Oh, sorry. Wait just a moment — Oh, iPhone, iPhone,
iPhone — okay, all right. So the first one’s called “Love and
Grief” by Paolo Lawrence Dunbar. Out of my heart, one
treacherous winter day, I locked young love
and threw the key away. Grief wandering widely,
found the key, and hastened with it
straightaway, back to me. With love beside him,
he unlocked the door and bade love enter
with him there and stay. And so the twain abide forevermore. Okay, I’m sorry. The second one is called “Life’s
Tragedy” Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It may be misery not to sing at all, and to go silent throughout
the brimming day. All right. It may be misery never to
be loved but deeper griefs than these beset the way. To sing the perfect song, and
by a half-note, lose the key. There the potent sorrow,
there the grief. The pale, sad staring
of life’s tragedy. To have come near the perfect
love, not the hot passion of untempered youth, but that which
lies aside its vanity, and gives, for thy trusting worship, truth. This is indeed to be accursed for
if we mortals love, if we sing, we count our joys not
by what we have, but by what keeps us
from that perfect thing. Okay, now here’s a poem I
actually made on the spot. I was on a youth leadership trip in
Tennessee this past month, I think, and there was a talent show and I
had to make up a poem on the spot. So here’s my poem. I entitled it — I’m sorry. I’m very nervous. I don’t have much to say. Except the experience
for my life in DC. Please listen to me. They want me to fail. That’s all they want me
to succumb to, failure. The prying eyes of the
ones who despise me try to make me feel like I have failed. What they do not know is
that I have prevailed. Prevailed over the prying
eyes for they look up to me. So I watch the sneaking
eyes trying to look at the mystical figure
that they despise. On the train, I smile and laugh. At work behind the bar, I smile and chuckle while keeping
up my belt buckle. Trying not to be that
black DC stereotype. Yes, that is all they see, the
tall violent untamed black animal with the dangerous
locks, the DC inhabitant. Hating on me because
I do what they can’t. Now this is not only
for the people of white and red combined skin
before other complexions. This is about the war between
the light skins and dark. That’s what they, those of the
higher power want us to say. Light versus dark, dark
chocolate versus not. What we are fighting each other
on the ground for attention, we are blinded by the
constant gun smoke. Our lungs are filled
— our lungs are filled because of the weed smoke. Mother Earth’s weed smoke
chokes us for pleasure. We get caught for the earth — we get caught for the earth
that we bought and breathed. You best believe that our protectors
are now our fear dealing defectors. And now aren’t — yeah, I
myself tried to be friendly and give the killers a smile
so I can walk around with them for a while and not
minding their blank smiles, hiding the hate but keeping control. I would rather not like them. I hang my head in fake like I have
respect in order to protect myself from lying on the floor silent
because of the bullet hole. They want that to be my future so
they could see another black one down and give no cares
and yes, it sucks. And so they realize
the best drink made for them isn’t made
by me in Starbucks. It is I in public they do not
want to see but behind bar of a coffee shop or
eventually prison. But like I said, I have
risen above the contempt and kept my sanity in check. For I am that young black — young black adult who had not
succumbed but surpassed failure. Before my body leaves the stage, before I go away, I
have one thing to say. I’m sorry I’m so nervous. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Mary-Jane Deeb: Thank you,
Michael and I know that every one of us wishes you the
greatest success. We know that you will succeed. Thank you. And now, we are going to
start with the first panel. And I would like to call upon
the moderator, Sibyl Moses and Dr. Haki Madhubuti, Yanick
Rice-Lamb, and Ethelbert Miller. We’d love to have you up on
the stage for the first panel. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Sibyl E. Moses: In 1969,
Amiri Baraka issued a call, SOS, calling black people,
calling all black people. Man, woman, child, wherever you are. Calling you, urgent,
come in, black people. Come in wherever you are. Urgent, calling you,
calling all black people. Calling all black people, come in. Black people, come on in. Today we invite you to come in. Come in to celebrate Juneteenth. Come in to explore, celebrate
and embrace the creativity of all black people without
publishers and bloggers on the state of black literature, our
stakeholders in literacy and our independent artists
engaged in telling our stories. We also invite you to come in
and come in again in the future to make use of the Library of Congress’ vast collections
both primary and secondary sources about the black experience
and created by people of African descent
all over the world. So please come in, listen, learn
and contribute as we are here to once again — Haki —
change the conversation and to define what is needed
and to go forth and create more. We welcome our three distinguished
panelists for the publishers and bloggers on the state
of black literature panel. We have Dr. Haki Madhubuti. We all know the prolific author,
Third World Press publisher, and founder, one of the longest-running independent
black-owned publishing companies in the United States. We welcome Yanick Rice-Lamb,
Associate Professor, Department of Media Journalism and
Film, Howard University, author, former newspaper reporter
and editor, and co-founder of, a
digital health and fitness network. We welcome with most love — our most love, the distinguished E.
Ethelbert Miller right here from DC, a literary artist,
activist, poet, and editor, former chair of the
Humanities Council of DC and a teacher of many of us. And so, we will begin with
our panelists [applause]. >> Haki Madhubuti: Good morning. >> Good morning. >> Haki Madhubuti:
I’m happy to be here. My wife is with me, Dr. Carol Lee and we both came in
last night to DC. I think first, it’s in
order to give, you know, deep thanks to Dr.
Deeb, and Chief Sanchez, and Executive Director Fenton
for this wonderful day. It’s not easy to do
this kind of work. My wife and I have been doing this
kind of work for over 45 years in Chicago and the
rest of the nation. And I’m here primarily
because of, I guess, my work. I’ve published many books
and actually I taught at Howard University
for seven years — eight years that when I met the
distinguished Ethelbert Miller. And I’m really happy
to be here with him. I haven’t seen him for some time. My journey to this place
has been a long one. In 1967, with $400 and a
used mimeograph machine, I founded Third World
Press a basement apartment in South Side Chicago with
a used mimeograph machine. I started there. We now own half-a-block in Chicago
where my wife and I, and others, not only operate Third World Press. We have four schools for our
children, the New Concept School, the Betty Shabazz International
Charter School, Barbara Ann Sizemore Academy, and
the DuSable Leadership Academy. And we serviced over a thousand
black children each and every day with an African-centered education. Our journey has been a long one. It’s been a difficult one. But it’s one that we chose. And with all the problems that
we’ve endured in terms of trying to build these institutions,
this is what we chose to do. This has been our job,
our task and our journey. My journey started actually in
Little Rock, Arkansas 73 years — I’m 73 years old — 73 years ago. With my mother, at that time, father
had escaped up towards Detroit, Michigan and as Juan
Killens would say. And then the journey somehow my
mother who is not with us now — in fact my mother — this is
my memoir, Yellow Black . This is my mother here. You see, she’s a very
beautiful woman. She was in the sex trade and by
the time she was 34, she was dead. But before that time, she
introduced me to literature. I write about it in Yellow Black
and I write that and I talk about libraries because
my mother introduced them. My introduction to the
library was the first place where I could — I could hide. Libraries are free, brothers. It was kryptonite. An oxymoron to the 10th power. Libraries in Detroit in the
1950s were white, quiet, safe and sacred places with books,
ideas and white children trying to feed their minds and stay ahead. For me, the necessity of
libraries was early liberation to my young mind and soul. I devoured their content
like running oil in a bad engine of a used car. I was hot for knowledge
and the more I received, the greater I realized
the supreme ignorance of my ways and that of my family. For the first time, hope for
me appeared on the horizons with the acquisition
of my knowledge. Defining the pure, practical answers that seldom entered the
black community propelled me into a long [inaudible]
that I would never leave. To talk about ideas other than those
of the books, other than the work, beating weakened women and money
placed me according to most brothers on another planet [laughter]. It was like a musician discovered
the beauty and brilliance of Charlie Parker and
Dizzy Gillespie, realizing that their music
was genius and wondered if he could ever do that. The real task of getting the
young musicians to try books and music encouraged me to try. Maybe it was God and
[inaudible], our supreme judge who instructed my mother to actually
go to the Detroit Public Library to check out Black
Boy by Richard Wright. I, at first, refused to go
because I did not want to go to a white library and ask a white
librarian for a book with black in the title authored by a black man who I was told was challenging
white America’s concept of itself and black people. Apartheid America had worked. I was completely ashamed of who
I was, felt inferior, inadequate and unprepared to answer the
simple question if asked, “Why do you want to
read Black Boy ?” I found Black Boy with
luck on the library shelf. There were two copies. I took one of them, walked into
one side of the reading room and sat down and began to read. I was immediately captivated by
the boldness of the language, the clarity of the ideas, the
similarity of the [inaudible] and living experience within my own. The familiarity of the
landscape, the intellectual genius of the protagonist to get what
he needed at any given time, the feeling of Richard
Wright to present a world in which our people were completely
locked down emotionally, physically, economically and culturally — yet still functioning
as whole human beings. Which brings us most certainly
to what happened in Charleston. Whole human beings being shot
down by you know, white supremists and I know Miss Fenton spoke about
it this morning but I just wanted to again — bring it back up that
our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Charleston. But as I read each word,
each sentence of paragraph after paragraph, page after page, it was like a sledgehammer
hitting me upside my head, stating in no uncertain
terms, “Wake up, Negro!” I checked out Black Boy . Ran home, went to the room I shared
with my sister and read all night. The next morning upon
completion of the book, the first serious book I
read in less than 24 hours, I was not a different person
but a different questioner. Wright gave me content, a long
content as I was beginning to move to the age of 14 and now
they focused on direction for my own culture and
intellectual development. His words formed the circle in our
own investigation into the ways and whys of white folks and my own. Life suddenly, suddenly it
slapped me right in the face. Read the white books,
newspapers, magazines and journals and [inaudible] and questioning
what was read is fundamental to developing a quicker
consciousness and world view. Knowledge of oneself, of
one’s culture shapes a person. I do not know how my mother felt
about the literature she read. We never talked about it. All I remember is that she
once wanted me to read. She was never angered by my spending
countless hours in the library. As our lives slowly slipped into
another world, mine did too. Into the pavement of countless of
books that put me into other worlds, cultures, places and
without me knowing it, helped to determine my future. Black music had freed me creatively
and black literature began to find [inaudible] me
intellectually and culturally. For the first time in my young life, I realized that life
has greater meaning than my personal circumstances. And I began to chance a smile
in between books, concepts and what I perceived was a
fine girl interested in me. I also picked up a pen and
began to write my own thoughts. I didn’t call my words poetry but
became like square in a 12-round — sweat in a 12-round fight that
you didn’t know you could win. Over proper training, there
was always a possibility of gaining ground if only a
yard, a word, a round at a time. You know, there’s more but this
whole question of literature and reading, it is
absolutely necessary. For the last 75 days, I’ve been
getting up every morning at 4:30 in the morning to write this book
which will be published in August. The title of the book is
“Taking Bullets” — black men — black boys and men in 21st
century America fighting terrorism and violence and seeking
human space. And what set me on
this task and many of you may know I’ve written
two other books on black men. Black Men: Obsolete,
Single, Dangerous , African-American family
transitioning Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Creating
Exceptional Black Men . That my life has revolved
around black people. My wife and I spend over 90% of
our time in the black community. And I’ve had all — you know,
I’ve taught at research one in universities, in urban
universities for the last — I’m retired now, for
the last 22 years. But the point is that our
community needs so much — — and needs so much. >> Oh yes, yes. So much. >> Haki Madhubuti:
And the great majority of our people do not know it, do not
understand what we are dealing with. You know, we’re dealing with empire. The United States is
the last empire. >> Yeah. >> Haki Madhubuti:
And these brothers are in these family corners,
you know, talking, “Mac, you know, this is my turf. They paying rent.” >> Yes. >> Haki Madhubuti: They
don’t own it, you know. I’ve lived here for
eight years in DC. Commuted every week
between Chicago and DC and I don’t even know
this place anymore. >> Yeah. >> Haki Madhubuti:
And we don’t know it. > That’s true. >> Haki Madhubuti: And if such
a question to ask, “Who are you? Who are you?” You ask 10 black people out on
the streets, “What’s your name? Who are you? Where’d you come from?” You will get 10 different answers. In fact sometimes,
20 different answers. >> Yeah. >> Haki Madhubuti: If you don’t know
who you are, anybody can name you. And they will. And so we find ourselves
in this continued war, this continued pattern to just
to be human, just to be human. Black people don’t have
no place else to go. And you know, these clowns
are like, “Go back to Africa.” What? [ Laughter ] You talking about Africa,
Mississippi? You know, Arkansas? And so for us, my wife and I
and — and trying to create, we need independent
black institutions. Not Negro institutions, not
imitation white institutions. We need institutions that
are essentially going to talk about us, to give us direction. We need family. We need community. And people say, “Well, why — you
know why does black [inaudible]?” You know, black-on-black
crime exists because of white-on-black crime.” >> They all do. >> Haki Madhubuti: What we
do, we’ve been taught to do. >> Yes. >> Haki Madhubuti: You see, women
taught to kill white people, not in [inaudible] — the people
who raped us in another continent so we don’t do that but
we kill black people because we devalued
black people’s lives. You see, so we got a
lot of drive-by shooting but we got drive-by looters. The central problem in America is
white supremacy based upon white nationalism, you see. That has infiltrated itself
and lived within the context of these institutional structures and most certainly
the police structures in this country — the
military and police. I’ve served three years
in the military. I understand what exactly
that meant there. And so, in trying to build these
independent black institutions in Chicago, our focus
has been what do we have? What do we own? You see, I’m not talking about
your, you know, 18 suits. I’m not talking about
your Lexus from Japan. What do you own? You see what I’m saying? And this is critical. And I just got to — and
what I do in this book, I talk about the United
States’ empire but what’s critical
about empire is wealth. We have no idea of what wealth
is in the black community. Bill Gates is worth $79 billion. That’s with a B. Warren
Buffet is worth $73 billion. That’s with a B. If you look at
the total wealth of black people in the United States
including Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan,
this [inaudible]. [ Laughter ] And Beyonce and Jay Z
and all the athletes, you’re only talking
about $20 billion. That’s chump change
in the real world. And so we have been detached
from each other and what we hope in one level of literature, and I
started telling what [inaudible], we have to tell our own stories. >> Yes. >> Haki Madhubuti: If you don’t tell
your own stories, somebody’s going to tell it for you and that
is essentially what happened. The winner tells the story. And the winner’s getting the
story out very quickly and we end up studying their story
rather than our own story. >> Exactly. >> Haki Madhubuti: And so, you
know, brothers and sisters, this has been a long journey and
I’m rather passionate about it. And every day, you know, poetry
and [inaudible] are the same but for the last 75 days, I’ve
been working on this manuscript and all my life, all my adult
life, I’ve been involved in literature, in books, you see. And I think that books in
part represent an answer — not the only answer
but an answer, you see. And I’ll just end with this. When I wrote — when I published
Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous , I got invitations
from all over the country. [Inaudible] a lot of folks
and the brothers down there. We sold the books to prisoners all
across the country for a discount. So I was invited to
a lot of prisons. And what I learned, you
know, clearly and I got — I’ve got a brother in prison now
and another brother who’s in and out of prison as well, another
sister in and out as well. But what I learned
quickly and very forcefully that the average brother
cannot read in prison, cannot read at a sixth-grade level. If you can’t read at a
sixth-grade level, you can’t write at a fourth or fifth-grade level. If you can’t read at a sixth-grade
level, you can’t write at fourth or fifth-grade level, what can
you do in the black community? And you find all across this
country, black communities around 50 blocks, you see. We still segregate
their lives and stuff. And so what can you do in that
community other than go back to the [inaudible] which is
largely illicit, illegal. What can you do? And so education what can —
how do you bring young men, young women into an
educational system? When as you said, they’re
pushing us out. And one of the reasons and
this — my wife is brilliant. She’s educated. I’m a poet [inaudible] and
what we found was that you have to have your home must become
a mini-learning institution. That the children must be — the babies, the children
must be introduced to literature early and often. I mean, we have to
read to our children. We have to read to ourselves. We have to be involved in the elite
intellectual pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge — and I’ll
just end with this. One of the major problems this
nation I think is facing — we have ignorant people telling how
to keep [inaudible] other people on it — 85,000 black churches in
this country, 2.3 million black and brown boys locked
up in the [inaudible], in the criminal justice system. There’s a disconnect there. Thank you. >> Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Yanick Rice-Lamb: Good morning. >> Good morning. >> Good morning. >> Yanick Rice-Lamb: I’d like to
thank all of you for being here and I consider all of us word
warriors and thank Maria Fenton and the organizers at
the Library of Congress for putting this program together. And it’s an honor to be
between these two giants. I first met and heard
Dr. [Inaudible] — Haki Madhubuti when
I was at Ohio State. We used to have a bus to go to the invitations conference
at Howard University. >> Haki Madhubuti: Oh great. >> Yanick Rice-Lamb:
You were speaking. This was in the late ’70s. And Ethelbert Miller, of course. I was introduced to
him by my cousin, Van Jordan, who’s also a poet. And he considers Ethelbert a mentor
as to why and he’s also helped me with some of my own writing and also
my students with their writing too. And some of the things that he
mentioned earlier, I agree with. The library was very
important to me and my sister, Michelle, who’s out there. But we lived on up the
street from the library. It was four blocks from us so
we spent a lot of time there. There were a lot of
books in our house. We started reading
and writing early. I read the newspaper
with my grandfather. And my grandmother told me at an
early age that I would write a book and it seemed an impossible
feat but I have done that. And that time, it was a seed that
she had planted at an early age. And growing up, I also wrote poetry
as a child and wrote short stories. I escaped through books and some
of you remember back in the day, the list that they would give us at
schools where you could take it home and talk to your parents into
trying to buy these books for you, little paperbacks and
things like that. So my mother, whether she had the
money or not, she always, you know, set some aside so we
could order books. And we also, like I said, we
went to the library a lot too. And so I focused on
looking for something for my life’s work that’s
related to English and art. Those were the areas
that I was focusing on which led me to journalism. Because I didn’t see myself in the
media and I learned that I wanted to give voice to the
voiceless and try to tell stories that
weren’t being told. And then also hearing a lot
about my own family history and the stories that, you know,
my parents and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles would
tell us about our family tree. And the importance of reading and
I tried to do with my son also when he was a baby, reading to him. And it got to the point
where he wouldn’t go to sleep unless I read him
a story or he would say, “Tell me a story about your life.” And I would tell him
about our family history. And sometimes — and this is, I
guess, something for those of you who are parents, for other
people who are parents — sometimes, we’re tired after a
long day and it’s hard to find that time to read to our children. And sometimes, I couldn’t — literally couldn’t
keep my eyes open. And so then I would tell him to tell
me a story or read a story to me. And he could — really
couldn’t read yet. But he knew some of
the stories by heart and he would turn the
page at the right place. And I remember once we were at
a naming ceremony for a child and someone ran to me and
said, “Your son can read!” And I was saying, “No,
he can’t read.” He just knows some of
the stories by heart and he turned them at
the appropriate page. They thought he was
reading early [laughter]. But, you know, as an
instructor now — I’m teaching at Howard University. I can see the difference in
students who were read to, in students who have a
love for reading growing up and students who continue to read. And if you look at any
statistics, children who were read to at least three to four times
a week, they performed two to the time — two times or at
least a third better than children who aren’t read to on every
level that you can look at.- Whether it’s learning
their alphabet, whether it’s reading stories,
whether it’s taking tests or whether it’s getting into college
or the reading comprehension. So it’s really important
that we do that. And whether we have children
or not, we have to kind of expand the village with
our nieces and nephews, the children in our
neighborhood, giving books as gifts so that we can get them away from
the video games and also trying to counter align this
teaching to the test. Because students, they’ve
learned through the test. So at this point, some students
only retain as much information as they think is necessary to
pass a test and that follows them in the way they handle their courses or the way they handle
information throughout their lives. And we spoke earlier about you know,
the opportunities that people have for their careers or
whether they’re participating in the underground economy if they don’t have the
skills of literacy to read. And we have to make those
examples by what we do, you know, so we practice what
we preach in terms of reading ourselves
and sharing that. And sometimes even with — my
younger brother didn’t like to read but he was very into sports. So I would buy him sports
magazines so later on, now he reads a lot of books. And I always give my nieces
and nephews books as gifts. And sometimes, they would look at me like there’s Aunt Yanick
again with another book. But I didn’t care. I was going to give
it to them anyway. So what I’ve done, I’ve worked — I
started off at newspapers and worked at the Toledo Blade , then
later the Journal Constitution , The New York Times . Then switched to magazines
so I’ve worked at Child Magazine , Essence . I was editor-in-chief of BET Weekend and
Heart and Soul Magazine . And now, I’ve started a website
called and another one called And with Fierce, one of the points
of that is to tell our stories through health and fitness because we set the wrong
records when it comes to health. And those stories aren’t
always being told. So we’re also interpreting a lot
of things like different studies that come out and we don’t know
to eat this, don’t eat that or take this, don’t take that
— and how that affects us. And as writers, I also encourage
people to do whatever, you know, write by any means necessary so
even, you know, I write books. I used to write poetry. I’m not as good as these two
here so I kind of abandoned that a little bit or do
it every now and then. Articles, blogs, people are
telling stories through tweets but if you would say you want
to be a writer, you must write and you must do it often. And it’s really important
to tell our stories. And also — and I think
another reason it’s important to tell our stories because there’s
so many distractions out there and there’s a lot of disproportionate
focus on some stories. So in the past week or so,
we’ve had disproportionate focus on a certain person
who shall go unnamed but she’s been everywhere all over
social media, all over the news to the point where it
overshadowed a lot of other things. And some people started
putting out lists of 10 stories that you didn’t pay attention to
because you were focusing on her. So there’s that, you know,
accountability that we have as consumers, as readers, and also
as writers in terms of what we put out and how we put it out
and being good at what we do. A lot of times, people
also want to write but they’re not developing
the skills they need and there are a lot of
resources out there. There are other people that we can
bond with to help us, you know, develop into the writers
that we want to be. And also trying to put
those stories out there. There are a number of different
places to do that — whether you — there’s an abundance of stories. Sometimes, there’s not always the
outlets if you’re looking at going through traditional routes
because in some of the places, if you were a publishing
company, there’s fewer imprints that we’re focused on our stories and fewer editors at
those companies. But we also have Third World Press. We also have self-publishing. A lot of people are
doing eBooks now. But the important thing is
to understand the process — understand all the facts of it and know what you’re
getting yourself into. And making sure it’s sustainable
too because a lot of times, we’ve lost institutions whether
they’re magazines or newspapers or book companies or
bookstores for various reasons. And so we have to make sure that
they’re financially sustainable and that we support them as well. So understanding what we’re getting
ourselves into and making sure that we’re also focusing on
marketing and distribution and all of that — and word of
mouth is very important in terms of supporting people. A lot of times, particularly some
of my friends who are writers, if they have a book signing, if
they have three, six stops here — I’ll go to every single one of them. Because as writers, some of you
who write, you value every face out there whether you have
six, 60 or 600 out there in the audience is really important so do everything we
can to support them. And in this area, we’ve lost a lot
of bookstores, the Caribbean chain and on and on and throughout
the country. So it’s important to kind of
support the ones that we have and to find new ways of telling
those stories and making sure that people know about them. Let me see, what else
didn’t I mention? Also that, you know, and that
also goes to literary festivals, book clubs and also
starting book clubs. I’m in two book clubs, one of them has a number of
journalists in there. If you don’t read, you feel guilty
and ashamed if you’re behind. And sometimes, if I haven’t had
a chance to finish the book, I try to talk about the first
chapters that I have [laughter]. Lately, I have finished them. But the other one is
the neighborhood — it’s in my neighborhood
and some people are content to have the most prolific readers
in our group tell them what happened in the story and it’s more
of a socializing situation. But it’s an opportunity for
me to make sure that I read because I’m juggling a lot of things
and also we started a writer’s group as an offshoot of the Color
Me Red book club that I’m in because we discovered that we all
had stories on the shelf that we — some of them we hadn’t
done anything with. So some — we have worked
together on screenplays and books. And we encourage each other by
meeting together to write together, meeting together to read
our work, doing it by email when we can’t read together,
meet together and do the process. I was able to finish the
first draft of my first novel and another member
finished her screenplay. So I also worked on Born to
Win, The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson and The
Spirit of African Design , which is a coffee table book. Rise and Fly which is about Bid
Whist and space but also weaves in history and all of our kind of wild behavior playing
cards sometimes. And various anthologies, writing
about my Aunt Rose who lived to be a hundred but I didn’t know
she was a hundred until I walked to her wake because she lied
about her age [laughter]. We lived in New York and one of the
reasons she lied about her age is to make sure that she
got good healthcare so people wouldn’t ignore her
when she was in her 80s and 90s. And then a piece called Daddy, My
Brother Barack and Me which was in a book called BET on Black ,
African-American Women in that write on fatherhood in the
age of Barack Obama. So a number of women — we wrote
about our brothers, our fathers, our husbands and other men in
our lives who were good fathers. And that’s really important — Father’s Day is coming up and we
have a piece on Fierce this weekend that will encourage women to make
sure that they keep the fathers in the lives of their children. But as I — again, as I said, I
think it’s really important for us to give voice to the
voiceless, to tell our stories. And you know, whether we
tell them in words, you know, through other forms of art, and
or when we write them down — it’s important that
we write them down too because we have a lot
of rich stories. And I’ve also been encouraged to
see more people writing memoirs. A lot of times people didn’t think
that they had stories to tell and that — or you had
to have accomplished so much before you told a memoir. But we now see a lot
more people doing that. And encouraging children to write
stories too and write their books. So I’m encouraged to
see in school sometimes where they’ve been buying
some of the books that some of the students have and have
programs built around that. And also at Howard, in the
Department of Media Journalism and Film, we tell stories there in the various different forms
whether they’re through journalism, through audio, through television
production and also through film. And Haile Gerima will
be here this afternoon. He’s one of our esteemed filmmakers
and please support Sankofa, one of our remaining
bookstores in this area. On that note, I will stop. [ Applause ] >> E. Ethelbert Miller: It’s always
good now and then to assess a state of African American literature. What does this mean? First, it should mean a close
examination of all genres. Second, it might consist of a
study of the work of writers of significance, as well
as writers of applause. By applause I mean those writers who win mainstream
acceptance and awards. Third, the state of African American
literature should also be evaluated while taking into consideration
technological economic changes within our society. These changes can have
a key influence in determining how our literature is
produced, distributed and consumed. Four, if we could look at the
literature through the eyes and works of literary critics,
whose work attempts to offer clarity and understanding to the body of
work created by African Americans at any specific time in history. Finally, the state of African
American literature offered mirrors [phonetic] to social
and political transition and transformation of
global black culture. Let me for just a few minutes
present what is simply a probe into the state of African
American poetry today. Any study of African American poetry
begins with an acknowledgement that there is always two streams,
one oral and the other written. Now and then, they overlap creating
hybrid structures, as well as poets who have diverse literary
portfolios and bodies of work. Spoken word, for example,
is very popular today. Its energy incurred by social
movements, changes in social media and even urban gentrification
driven by the opening of new cafes. Spoken word at time,
competitive in nature, can be viewed as empowering
a young generation. A generation coming over age
during the occupied movement, the rise of police brutality,
income and equality, power of spring and the growing [inaudible] of
radical Islam, drones and hashtags. If black lives matter in
2015, so does black poetry. Yet, I would underscore that
the most important development responsible for the changing state of African American poetry is
the organization Cave Canem. In 2015, we probably have
more African American poets than ever before in our history. The same way we have
more photograph — photographers because
of cell phones. Maybe the cell phone and iPod
is the reason for so many poets. Consider how this poem
by jazz poet, Ted Joans, takes on a different meaning
because of our technology. The Truth — “If you should see a
man walking down a crowded street, talking aloud to himself, don’t
run in the opposite direction, but run toward him,
for he is a poet. You have nothing to fear
from the poet but the truth.” There’s a good chance someone
walking towards you talking aloud is talking on a cell phone. The question we should ask ourselves
is whether we should ignore this person. What are the social
implications if we do? We could also ask,
where are the poets? It’s just a matter of time
before someone fascinated with numbers issues a report of how many young people
are doing spoken word on a given block or subway car. Like money ball and baseball, the state of African American poetry
has given voice to the voiceless. So many numbers to consider. If everyone is reciting
poetry, is everyone a poet? Today there’s an unregulated
freedom of expression, which mirrors the internet. What we are now witnessing might
be the true poetry of the people. Where poet and critic, Larry Neal,
once pondered the possibility of black poets being as
popular as James Brown, today common might be
just common to all of us. Meanwhile, what cannot be overlooked
is the impact the organization Cave Canem has had. This organization founded
by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady might
best be compared to NASA. Instead of training astronauts
for space, Cave Canem is helping to create literary stars. Started in 1996, Cave Canem’s
mission was to be a home for the many voices of African
American poetry and it’s committed to cultivating their artistic
and professional growth. Still, how does Cave Canem affect
the state of black literature? Never before have we
systematically attempted to educate and train African American poets. We have a new generation
of African American poets who are now teachers
of creative writing. To some degree, we have started
to workshop the black experience and place a heavy emphasis back
on the craft of making a poem. I think Cave Canem has three tiers
consisting of first, faculty members and workshop leaders, poets — poets currently accepting and
participating in the workshops and a strong politically
active network of graduates who maintain creative and social
ties despite geographical separation and distance. Pick up any number of new books
published by African American poets by well-known publishers and one
will notice quite often a reference to Cave Canem in the
author’s bio note. If one visits the Cave
Canem website, simply examine selected
milestones which consist of the achievements
of Cave Canem faculty. Names mentioned are Elizabeth
Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Nikky Finney, Tracy Smith
and Natasha Trethewey. The arms of Cave Canem
is so outreaching that even E. Ethelbert Miller is
listed as the honorary director. One thing which Cave Canem has
done, which is very important, is a creation of its
legacy conversations. This archive helps to document an
overview of African American poetry. In 2004, Elizabeth
Alexander interviewed — interviewed Haki Madhubuti. In 2006, I sat down with Alexander. This type of documentation of African American
poetry has altered — undertaken by Dr. Joanne
Gabbin, the founder and director of Furious Flower at
James Madison University. Gabbin’s Furious Flower Conference
is another event that once you study in order to evaluate the state
of African American poetry. Last year there was a major
gathering of African American poets at Madison under the
title “Seeding the Future of African American Poetry.” From Furious Flower to Cave
Canem, to [inaudible] Magazine. The literature edition of
Afro-American poetry needs to be critically examined. Too often, for example,
and [inaudible] that exclude as much
as they include. In the future, we should
be suspicious of [inaudible] collections that
attempt to define the state of African American poetry. A good example of this
might be the book, Angles of Ascent edited
by Charles Rowell. If there’s one thing I’ve learned
over the last four decades is that literary politics
is alive and well. If we honor who we are, then
we will never be post-racial. The mirror — mirror reminds
us of history’s horrors. We only need to look out the window
to know our struggle continues. Everywhere we live, not suffocating,
but breathing, our beauty residing in our blackness, everlasting
or shall we simply say, eternal. [ Applause ] >> Enjoyed the comments
of each of you. So I have a question. I work on the campus of the
Historically Black College. And I would like to spearhead
an initiative to get books in the hands of each
of our students. And I’m wondering if
you have any suggestions on how I can go about doing that. I thought about maybe trying
to do a book festival, but our students can’t even
afford their textbooks. A lot of them are not
in the habit of reading. So, I don’t know if
it’s practical to try to make books available for sale. But I guess I’ll just
leave it at that. That’s the essential question. Thank you. >> Haki Madhubuti:
The Third World Press, we have a [inaudible]
program, anybody incarcerated in the country can write us a letter and we will send them
free books [inaudible]. For libraries and especially
[inaudible] talking about College University,
if you write us, we will send you all the books
that have been published, to your library [inaudible]. For your students, we would donate
— how many students do you have? >> [Inaudible] last
spring was about 1500. >> Haki Madhubuti: Okay, I
can’t do that [laughter]. We can send you as a donation, say
50 copies of — of [inaudible] — >> Yanick Rice-Lamb: I think I — I might have some books I
can donate to you as well. But I think that’s one of the keys
is getting people to donate books. And I know that when I worked
on Althea Gibson’s biography, there was someone who wanted
donate books to a school and they had approached [inaudible]
books when it was around and they — they ended up donating our book. And so, then I also went to the
schools to speak to the students about reading and about
the book that I worked on. So that’s — that’s one thing
and I know our freshman class, they choose a common
text for them to read. They read — a couple years
ago, they read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. And I’m not sure if all the
students purchased that book or if they were donated as well. And she came later to speak and
they were able to interact with her and that helped to bring it
home to them a little bit. But I think it is important,
the other thing about — when we talked about reading to
children, students and young people who read for pleasure also
do better in — in school. So we have to encourage them to
do it on their own for pleasure, you know, so [inaudible]
encourage that. >> E. Ethelbert Miller: I could
answer this on a number of levels. First in terms of —
on my first level, I’ve been over the last few
years, creating what I call “eBoxes” giving parts of my personal
collection to writers that identify, who have a lot of potential. I say that because I see books
as sort of like a sacred gift, passing it on, as opposed to
sometimes just putting books out in a box and hoping somebody
comes by and picks it up. What I try to do is customize the — the selection from my
own personal collection to the interest of the writer, okay. So, for example, Giovanni Singleton
was a poet out in California. Knowing that she was a Buddhist,
I gave her a lot of books that were dealing with
Buddhism and spirituality. So I — I got books out of my house that I know were going
into good hands. When we deal with glass schools, I
think the first thing that we have to be concerned about it
is preservation, okay. You know, I was at Howard
University for 40 years. Now that I’m not at Howard
University, I can speak openly. What I would be concerned
about is — is a preservation. And — and this is a challenge to the people outside Howard
University, is that we have to make sure that money
is raised, you know, to protect the libraries, okay. I’ve always looked at historic
glass schools as living organisms where you would look at
the library as the heart. And I say that, especially to
African Americans because of if the library is our heart, just
look at the problems that we have with our heart, everything
in terms of heath matters, as well as the blues, in
terms of broken heart. So we don’t take care of our heart. Consequently, we don’t
take care of our libraries at historic glass schools. Many of them are overheated
for some sort of reason I would like to examine, you know, why
are many libraries overheated? Okay. Which means that
some of these books after awhile are just falling apart. At the same time on this last note,
we have to look at the changing fact of we are living in
terms of the book itself. Okay? At one time, I was a strong
advocate of personal library, but we know now today that people
don’t collect the books the same way, they download them. And we have to look at
it in terms of that way. But I think looking at,
you know, Charleston, and looking at the history
about that one institution, we have to look at books
that need to be passed down to throughout
our family, you know? As a writer, I’m concerned about
the fact that in my household, my kids look at my book collection
and ask, “How much is that?” Not necessarily in terms of
reading the book and passing on the knowledge, but, “Oh,
this book might be expensive because Ethelbert had
this signed by so and so.” And so, they see it
as a commodity, okay. And this has a lot to do with how we
see African American culture today. We sell it as a [inaudible],
you know, how important is it? Going back to like the piano lessons
in August Wilson’s play, you know, you sell it to somebody,
you keep it in the family. >> Haki Madhubuti:
[Inaudible] I just want to add to what Ethelbert stated. I taught at Howard, Morgan State — I spent 26 years at
Chicago State University. I taught at research
ones and so forth. To my black universities
and colleges, the real problem is leadership. These boards are atrocious. I’m not serious [inaudible]
that Tuskegee, I was there for three days and, you
know, it’s just — it’s horrible. Now we do not have enough funds
in terms of monies coming in, but the leadership
for the most part, do not see the library as the heart. And if you work in there, you
can’t say anything, you know, whether you’re [inaudible] or not. But the — the management
of black historic and black college universities
for the most part, I would say are the — are the — the 100 or so that exist,
maybe 15 are doing well. And those 15 that are doing well, they still have serious
trouble, you know? But with faculty members
like yourself, there’s always hope, you see. And just see me afterwards, I’ll
follow through on what I promised. >> Thank you. >> Sibyl E. Moses:
Before the next question, we would like to take
this opportunity to build upon what was said, especially in the area
of preservation. As we move into this new age that we are currently in,
the issue is preserving. How are we preserving the
writings, the stories of those of us who create on the web? Those of us who, what we call, create these born digital
collections where there are no
print volumes available. How do we even know
that they’re there? So, one of the tasks before
us is to begin thinking about how can we create a
mechanism to get control? And that’s not a negative word, but control meaning to
be able to discover. To be able to discover what is out
there so that we can read and — and preserve that information. So that — that is a big issue. One of the things that
we’re doing at the Library of Congress is web archiving,
archiving various websites, archiving blogs, etcetera. And this again, is something for the
agenda of our black institutions, to begin archiving much of
this digital information. I’m turning here because we
cannot carry on this conversation with black publishers, and
bloggers, and black literature without mentioning or evoking
the name of Dudley Randall and so many others that have
really set the stage for us and on whom’s the shoulders
we stand. We cannot leave here, leave this
panel without evoking the name of Monroe Nathan Work and when you
mentioned Tuskegee, this is the man who enabled us to know who the black
writers are all over the world, not just African American writers, but black writers all
over the world. And so, as we have this
conversation, please let us include. >> Haki Madhubuti: Yeah. Dudley Randall [inaudible]. I’m here because of — in part
because of Dudley Randall. The people that mention me as a young boy were el-Hajj Malik
el-Shabazz, Malcolm X. Margaret and Charlie Burroughs, who
founded DuSable Museum, was the first black person
in the country — in Chicago. Dudley Randall, who’s
the publisher — poet and publisher
of Broadside Press. >> And librarian. >> Haki Madhubuti: And librarian. And he used all his money from,
you know, being a librarian and he was my first publisher. I published my first book myself,
which was Think Black in 1966 and then 1967, 1968 — at ’68, Dudley Randall
published Black Pride . I met Dudley Randall after Malcolm
had been assassinated — well, let me just mention
these other three mentors because I can’t go without them. Hoyt W. Fuller, who was the editor of Negro Digest Black
World Magazine , which was a major magazine
to document that whole period between the late 1960’s
and up to 1975. And then, of course,
Barbara Sizemore. Barbara Sizemore was — Dr. Sizemore
was the first black superintendent here in Washington D.C. Of
course, she didn’t last too long because of her love
of black children. Then of course, finally the person that essentially mentioned me
the longest was Gwendolyn Brooks, for 33 years, part of the family. But Dudley Randall and — and Gwendolyn Brooks
were very [inaudible]. In fact, when — when — when
Gwendolyn Brooks left Harper and Row, she went to
Broadside Press. Broadside Press published her
first book of poetry back — I think it was 1969,
which was Riot . And — but finally, this is — the reason I got into building
independent black institutions is because of Margaret
Burroughs and Dudley Randall. So I’m at the — I’m in the army, I’m in the United States
Army going crazy, all right, reading all this black literature. And, you know, nobody to
talk to, you mentioned black, you look like you had lost
your damn mind, all right. And so, I found my way
into Chicago at the — at that time, it was the
Ebony Museum of Negro History. Ebony Magazine sued them so they had
to change the name from Ebony and go to DuSable Museum of
African American history. I walked in that morning in
1962 and Margaret Burrows was in the kitchen working
on a linoleum cut. I didn’t know what a linoleum — she’s a world-class
visual artist, okay. I walked up there and I, you know,
I [inaudible] looked natural, I was in the army — say,
“What you want, boy?” I said, “I need to talk
to somebody, all right.” And, you know, I’m — I’m about
20 years old, 19-20 years old. “Go upstairs and talk
to my husband.” I go upstairs, they got
this world class library in their home, all right. He sitting at the table writing and [inaudible] glass
of water down there. He said — he said,
“How you doing, son?” I say, “Well, I just need
to talk to somebody.” He says, “Sit down. Do you want something to drink?” I said, “I’ll take some water.” He said, “That’s vodka,”
you know [laughter]. Charlie Burrows had been reared in the U.S.S.R. The guy spoke
Russian fluently, all right. So he was the first
person that introduced me to [inaudible] literature,
etcetera, etcetera. Anyway, when Malcolm was
assassinated, Dudley Randall came to Chicago to talk to Margaret
Burroughs about co-editing a book on the life and legacy
of Malcolm X, all right. And so, I gave my first
poem and he — and then I gave my manuscript
to Black Pride , he — I said, “Will you please
consider this?” He called me back in a
week and said, “Yeah, you know, I — I’ll publish this.” He said, “But would you allow
me to write the introduction?” And that was for me, you
know, the biggest thing. Now, the museum started in their
home, the DuSable Museum started in the home of Margaret
Burroughs and Charlie Burroughs and Broadside Press
was in his home, okay. And so, both the museum and
Broadside Press was really funded by their monies, the monies that
came out of their pocket, okay. And so, when I went to
Detroit to sign a contract, which I didn’t sign, I just shook
his hand and said, “I got this. I got this.” That’s it. >> Thank you. >> Haki Madhubuti: Beautiful people. [ Applause ] >> E. Ethelbert Miller: I’ll
just mention one other name. That would be Naomi Long
Madgett, also from Detroit. And she was — >> Haki Madhubuti: Oh yeah,
Naomi, yeah, Lotus Press. >> E. Ethelbert Miller: —
the Lotus Press after — after [inaudible] and
The Third World. >> Haki Madhubuti: In fact, she was
my second publisher [laughter], I — you know what I’m saying. Naomi Long Madgett, who is a fine
poet also [inaudible] all poets, Ethelbert. And, you know, she called me and
said [inaudible] about a book. And, you know, so I
said obviously yes. And so, she — she’s still alive. Dudley is not with us anymore, of
course, Gwendolyn Brooks is not with us anymore, nor
Margaret Burroughs. So Naomi Long Madgett, she’s in her
— can you tell, I don’t know — >> E. Ethelbert Miller:
Ninety-nine, she’s about 99. >> Haki Madhubuti: — she’s
about [inaudible] 90’s. But what happened, Ethelbert, Broadside Press is
still functioning, but not in a very high level. So Broadside Press and Lotus
Press have combined, okay, to try to keep both
of the press’s going. >> Yanick Rice-Lamb: Some of the
people who influenced me are some of the people that
influenced a lot of people. Like James Baldwin, I read a
lot of his books growing up. And then being from — I’m from
Akron, Ohio, so Toni Morrison because she’s close by and she
always made references to things in Ohio, so my sister
and I always got excited when we saw those references
in her books. Rita Dove is also from Akron, Ohio,
went to the same high school I went to — I graduated with
her younger sister. And she was — she’s a poet, and
I sat in her class, the Pulitzer. And then — then a number
of journalists that I have – I have met over the years
and — and poets, authors, all sorts of writers, screenwriters that I’ve met who have
influenced me. Her question, she’s — she said,
she was asking about discerning between blogs that give you
good information and blogs that don’t give you good
information in a nutshell. And I wanted to point out, Ingrid
Sturgis, she’s standing back there. She’s also from Howard University, but she teaches digital
media literacy. If any of you want to
grab her afterwards, but one of the things
we’re trying to do is to help students understand all
the things that are out there in the digital world and —
and what’s good and what isn’t. And to — we all have to
be discerning about that. Sometimes when we’re looking
at information, if someone — is their [inaudible], is
their opinion, in a — and sometimes it’s
incorrect and unfortunately, the corrections take a long
time to catch up with the truth. One of the things we’re
starting also at Howard, working title right now is HU
Insight, but we may change the name. But we are starting kind of a
truth squad or a verification — verify information, myths,
stereotypes, false statements that are made about us and even
things that have persisted, you know, for a long time. So we could say, you
know, what’s true and what isn’t true
and do it in real time. And there’s some site like,
called PolitiFact that does it for politics, but we want
to do it across the board because as it affects people of
color because there’s so many things that are said about us
that are completely false, or partially false, or whatever. We want to address that, but
I encourage you to call people on it when, you know, when you’re
reading blogs or reading, you know, whether it’s mainstream media, or
whether it’s a one person situation, you know — call them on it when you
see errors and when you see untruths that are out there because we
really do need to stop that. Because a lot of times people take
that information as fact and a lot of people don’t do their homework
or they rip off information from someone else and if that
person has false information or has made a mistake,
they just keep repeating it and perpetuating it. And with social media, a lot
of that information goes viral. And, you know, one of the
things that I’m committed to, which is one reason why I teach,
is to, you know, encourage and train young people to tell
the truth, to do the homework, to get out in the community,
to go to places that aren’t being covered
to tell our stories. And I’m thankful to Ethelbert
because a lot of times I say, “You know Ethelbert Miller,
you should go talk to him.” And he always, you
know, talks to them and gives them great information. But it’s really important
that we do that because we so often allow stories that they
aren’t being told period about us and they’re told in the wrong way. But there’s a lot of bloggers and
there’s a proliferation of bloggers and they definitely are
not all created equally, so you have t kind of, you
know, watch what you’re reading or what you’re consuming, so that
you’re consuming good information. >> E. Ethelbert Miller: Yeah, I’ve been actually blogging
every single day since 2004. And I look at how I use blogging
to move into other forms of media. So if you look at what I
did a couple years ago, I created E channel,
which was a blog. And I interviewed the
novelist, Charles Johnson, every single day for an entire year. That is not a book that came
out in January, 672 pages. It’s one of the most — most comprehensive thing about
Charles Johnson and, you know, this year is the 25th anniversary of
his key book, the Middle Passage . But I used to blog in such
a way that was like a tool and — and to help people. If you look at my — another
thing I’m doing right now, the critic Aldon Nielsen —
interviewing him pretty much four or five times a month trying
to look at the development of a literary critic, okay. So I’m using the blog as a way
to interact with other, you know, media the same way you go
back to Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan always felt that
print was the key [inaudible]. So my thing is that if I can
control the print, you know, and — and have things come out of
that, then that would be a way of staying a breast with the
technology where we don’t see it as either or, but connected. So when I look at how the E channel
became a book, I realized, okay, these things are not separate, okay. I can just reach more people, okay. But the thing I found out with the
blog when I was doing the E channel with Charles Johnson, I was happy I
was interacting with Charles Johnson because he’s a perfectionist. And if — and the thing about
bloggers, blogs have a tendency to be very sloppy and —
and that’s the difference between blogs and journalists. Charles just would not
let me post anything if there was a period
of comma out of place. And I — and I had to reformat the
whole thing because he said, “Oh, no, you’re not going
to put that out there.” But what I realized is — it was that he was dealing with
this project in such a way, he said, “Okay, this is extremely important. This is literary history
that’s being made.” And every now and then, I would be
joking around and whatever, and — and he said, “Yo, but
this is serious,” okay. The other thing about the blogging and the technology is
how it makes the — the black world smaller, okay. And that is — I would not have been
able to do this if Charles was not in Seattle and I was here. And the time thing
helped us to be connected. And I say that now in terms of when
we talk about the literary world. We have to be international. We have to be supportive, you
know, whenever there’s crisis, we are the survivors, okay. That’s the key thing in writers. Something happens during
the world [inaudible]. We have to be responsible to that
and we have to use the technology. >> Haki Madhubuti: Actually,
repeating the question, she is concerned about the
reading level of [inaudible]. And actually we have
a house [inaudible] in that area [inaudible]. And if I can [inaudible] ask Dr.
Carol Lee to come forward please. Can you come up here to speak? She doesn’t want to come [laughter]. My wife is — is — she —
she’s really — she’s an — she’s one of the living
experts in [inaudible]. A former [inaudible]. But she’s very modest and that’s why
she married me, so she [inaudible]. But she would, “Baby, come up
here for a minute [inaudible]? Everybody encourage
her to come up — [ Applause ] >> The challenge us not
unique to black boys. I think they’re two things. One is that the challenges
that we have to — that we have an education,
we need to understand in an international context and
that is the things that we try to do to impact education
in the United States. No other high achieving
nation in the world does any of the things that we do. So, politically and this — it seems
to me, we need to be advocating. We don’t have an infrastructure —
so part of what I’m trying to do is to say that the challenges that our
children have in school relative to reading is part of a bigger
challenge in the country at large. So if you look at national
educate [inaudible] — and national assessment
of educational progress, which is the only national
assessment that we have. And you look at the growth over the
years, for example, of 17 year olds, there’s no growth at
all, for decades, right. So, the challenges our kids
face are extreme exacerbations of a bigger problem. We don’t have — we don’t have
strong capacity in our schools for supporting most
kids, but particularly for not supporting black kids. So I think that while we
struggle in terms of policies, certainly being here in D.C., we have to equally
struggle within communities. And to have what Haki and I
have talked about for years, what we call liberated
zones where we say some — to some degree, maybe something
like the Harlem Children’s Zone, where we go neighborhood by
neighborhood and say that, we are responsible
for the young people, whether it’s 10 square blocks or
what — we are responsible for them. And we’re not going to depend solely
on public education to be the place to educate our kids [applause]. And all kinds of communities
do that as well. And so, everything they talked
about in terms of, you know, working with kids, reading
kid — well it’s not — there’s no magic to how to read — teach kids to read or
teach them to love to read. We’ve all done that ourselves in
our own lives with our own kids. It’s just that we don’t reach out,
we’re dependent on other people to do this for us, as opposed
to saying, whether it’s our own, you know, extended family,
the kids on the block, the kids in our church, that
we’re going to make sure because we know how to do
it, it’s not rocket science. >> Haki Madhubuti:
You know [applause], what she didn’t mention
was the professionalization of the whole area of
teacher’s education. When you look at nations like
Finland or look at even Hong Kong, that their teachers are paid as
much as doctors, MD’s and physicians because essentially you cannot
become a teacher unless you’re from the top tier, all right. And so therefore, their whole — and
in Northern Europe, you find that — that education from preschool up to
graduate school is free, all right. So these young people — their young
people do not come out of college or university with thousands and
thousands of dollars of debt. In fact, the student debt in
this country is $1.3 trillion — $1.3 trillion, that’s a shame,
that’s a crime, you see. And that started with
Ronald Regan in California. I don’t need to get into
all politics [laughter]. >> Sibyl E. Moses: Thank you
[applause] E. Ethelbert Miller, Yanick Rice-Lamb and Haki Madhubuti,
we thank you and embrace you for really encouraging us, for
providing such an informative and provocative discussion. We’ve had an effort to
change the conversation and to begin defining
what is needed. And so now we go forth and we create
our stories, create liberation zones in our communities, develop writer’s
workshops and what I focus on, biography workshops and begin to
capture so many more of the stories. In closing, I just want to say that
in terms of our black institutions, they offer opportunities for
us to begin capturing the lives of the people’s — people who
have built those institutions. I work with the Prince
Hall Freemasons and so many of those organizations throughout
the country, which have roots in the late 1700’s and the true
histories have not been written. The lives of those
people involved in — in really, preserving
our culture and — and helping our people
have not been explored. So we encourage you to go
out into your communities and capture not only the lives
of you and your families, but also the lives of others
to help us preserve the word. Thank you [applause]. >> Marieta Harper: My
name is Marieta Harper. I’m an area specialist here in the
African and Middle Eastern Division. We’re going to start with
the second panel called, Stakeholders of Black Literacy. I’m going to intro — start
the panel with Betty Entzminger and fourth generation
native Washingtonian with our National Anthem. >> Lift every voice and sing,
till earth and Heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise,
high as the listening skies, let it resound loud
as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the hope that
the dark past has brought us, sing a song full of the hope
that the present has taught us. Facing the rising sun of our new day
begun, let us march on till victory, let us march on till victory is won. It is won, it is won, it’s won. [ Applause ] >> Marieta Harper: Our first speaker and panelist will be
Dr. Brenda Greene. [ Applause ] >> Brenda Greene: Thank
you, thank you very much. I’m really, really
pleased to be here. And I first give thanks to God
for continually blessing me and my family, for doing his
life’s work and for placing me in this moment, and time, and space. It’s really a privilege
and an honor to be here. This is a legacy and historic event. And I also want to thank
Maria Fenton for her vision and her commitment to sponsoring the
Eleanor Holmes Juneteenth Festival. As Haki mentioned earlier, this
— it took really a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of passion. So I think you should
give her a hand. [ Applause ] Okay, I think what better way than to celebrate Juneteenth
then by celebrating literacy. And I think this day
and this test — this program are also testament to
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who also put her support
behind this program. She’s an outstanding leader who embodies the whole
spirit of what Juneteenth is. A tireless advocate
for social justice, and women’s rights, and liberty. And I also want to acknowledge my
colleagues in the audience, Eric — Eric White and Linda White, who
I’ve known for many, many years. It’s really good to see you here. And my colleague from Medgar
Evers College, Richard Jones. And of course, the writers
who are here, it’s really, really a please —
pleasure to be here with Haki and with Marieta Golden. Maria Fenton asked me to speak
on the challenges and triumphs of literacy from my perspective
as a parent, a professor, an academic literary activist,
and a media professional. I smiled when I saw that, I said,
that must be related to the work that I do as the director of the
National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College.” And I’m also executive director
of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College
and also chair of the English department
at Medgar Evers College. So, I’m the mother of
two outstanding sons and a grandmother of four. So I do have many,
many roles to play. And it’s really a challenge to try
and reconcile all of those roles through my work at the school
in educating young people and teaching writing and
literature to college students, and teaching future teachers and
in educating the general public about the range and complexity of
the textbooks produced by writers from the African diaspora. And in supporting writers
through conferences, such as the National Black Writers
Conference, symposium, workshops, readings, and — and publications,
it is really a challenge. In her anthology, I don’t know how
many of you know Pamela Newkirk, wrote letters from black America. She’s an award winning journalist
and editor of a wonderful book, also of love letters
called, A Love No Less . And most recently, this is a
book you should get, Spectacle, The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga
, who was an African man used as a human zoo exhibit at the
St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. That book just came out
and it’s an important book and it tells an important story. And it’s part of what we’re
doing in telling our stories. She writes in Letters From Black
America , despite their importance as historical markers
and as literature, the letters of African
Americans like so much of black history have historically
been undervalued or ignored. Newkirk, she just decides
to correct this by presenting a multidimensional
portrait of African American life from the 18th through the 21st
Century through illuminating letters of ordinary and exceptional
African Americans enslaved and free, powerless and privileged. In fact, one of her last letters
is a letter that Alice Walker wrote to Barack Obama when he was elected. She has a letter from Toni
Morrison, when he was — when Barack Obama was nominated. But letters or the [inaudible]
narrative provide windows into our interior lives
and represent one of the first forays into literacy. Letter writing has
become a lost art form, so I decided that I would
celebrate and talk about literacy by writing a letter to you about
the triumphs and challenges of promoting literacy today. And so my beloved friends
and colleagues, the reading of literature has
always been very, very dear to me. I was also one of those people
who spend hours and hours in the library, and also recognized
that there were very few books that represented depictions of me. But I was interested in the story
and stories of famous people and how historical figures
overcame obstacles, and mysteries, and friendships, and triumphs. I remember one book about a
little girl who faced racism and it’s interesting that I can’t
remember the name of that book, since that was the only one
I remember that depicted me. For some reason, I
blocked out the title. But books were my comfort, as my other colleagues have
said, my solace, my friends. Because they were a way
of reimagining my life. And when I became a parent,
instilling a love and — of reading and writing
was very paramount to me. I was determined that my
children would be reading and writing before
they entered school. In fact, I even thought
about homeschooling and opening my own school
because like so many people in my generation, I
was very disillusioned with the public school system. I had worked in a middle
school and elementary school and the students were
two years behind in their reading at both levels. And I viewed this as a tragedy and
determined to do something about it. So the first thing I did was when
I worked on my Master’s Degree, I decided to get it in
the teaching of reading. And I did my Doctoral Degree
in the teaching of writing, so that I could really
become proficient in that. And one of the things that I’ve
learned over the years as a educator for over four decades, is that
children come to reading processes at different stages
and in different ways. Everyone has their own journey. And what you have to do is to
surround students with language, with read — opportunities to read
and write to them as we all know. And there was a book
that had an impact on me. It was a woman named Glenda
Bissex, who did her dissertation on her student’s growth
into literacy. It’s called Gnys at Wrk . And she spelled genius
G-N-Y-S, Gnys At Wrk . She chronicled her son reading and
writing, and by the time he was in late primary school he was
writing newsletters for his school. And I was concerned
that, as an educator, my son should have been reading
early, because I had a master’s in reading and was doing my
doctoral work in reading. But I realized that there are
different ways of reading. One other thing, my son is a
hip-hop artist, Talib Kweli. He began writing before
he was actually reading. He actually — he loved telling
stories and he loved drawing. So he would draw these books. And he — I would give him
reams of computer paper and he would draw these pictures. And then, he would put captions
on the bottom of the pictures. And so, he was writing picture books
before he was actually reading. He was doing that reading we
talked about earlier, you know, my son can read, but they
had memorized the text. We all know that. You know, children go
through that, right? So he actually also had a
special journey into reading, and by the time he was
five years old, was writing and then producing shows about
books that he had written. Whenever there was a family
gathering he would take his — produce this show and get all
of his cousins together and put on a production based on what he had
written and the characters he had. So my love of books and
reading really formed the seeds of literary activism, which
always attribute that to my friend and colleague, E. Ethelbert
Miller, who calls — said, “I’m a literary activist.” I also am a literary activist. And when I was student teaching, I worked in an alternative
school with reluctant readers. And one young man who was reading
years below on the school level, never writing, I said,
“Well, I’m going to make sure and get you — motivate
you to write.” And so, he loved music. He played the guitar. So we went to a guitar
store and he got — I got him to buy books that represented lyrics
of songs he wrote. And then, he would come
back and that was his way. By the time the program
was over, he was writing. In my work as executive director
of the Center for Black Literature, we have a program called
Re-Envisioning Our Lives Through Literature. We go into the public schools — we bring teaching artists into the
public schools, in middle schools and high schools, sometimes
elementary schools. And we work with students
on creating — giving them opportunities
to create stories, to create poetry, to create skits. They create and anthology. In fact, I have one here
that they just finished and it’s based on “Roll Call.” When we give them a
book, and we used — we’ve been using “Roll Call”
for the last few years. Hakeem Abuhti, [phonetic] mentioned “Roll Call” that’s
published by Third Row Press. And so, we give them Roll Call
and they read the stories, and then they take those
stories and use it as the basis to create their own
stories and literary text. And I just want to read to you one
of the stories, one of the letters that came out of that,
just a part of it. This is by Yassim [phonetic]. it’s called “The Struggle.” “I stare at the empty black
hole that is my future and the bright light
that is my past. I examine the struggle
that my brother, mother, sisters, ancestors have survived. What was the purpose, what
did we do to deserve this? Red fills my eyes. I can hear the blood pumping through
my veins as my pulse quickens. I can hear the screams
and the yells. I can feel the wipes and the cotton
thorns as they prick my skin. I read the White Only signs. And I feel the desperation
as a man runs from the house, a girl cries, a woman dies. It’s over. Is this it, was that all? Is this what my ancestors
have survived, have fought against
for me to be here? As I witness the brutality
of the past, as time goes on, I see my future brighten. I shall stand strong, for this
is what my people have struggled through, what I may
struggle through. But that’s okay, I can turn around
and walk towards my bright future.” And that’s an example of
the kind of work that we get from our young people when
we give them opportunities to use their imagination
in the schools and give them some
real text to read. We ask — we give them the book. They’re not just reading
little passages; we’re trying to make reading
very meaningful to them. So, that’s Re-Envisioning
Our Lives Through Literature. One of the things that
Talib says to me is that you can’t just
give people the words. You have to give them a hook. If you want them to get the message, you have to find out
what the hook is. And I think one of the main
challenges that we face as educators and as parents is how do we find
a hook for our young people? How do we find creative ways for
them to get hooked into language and to writing and reading? We have to create those spaces, and they have to be
intentional and deliberate. And when we look at the impact
of the internet and social media and popular culture, the decline
in independent black book stores, the merger of publishing companies,
the disappearance of sections in bookstores devoted
to black writers, we understand what
those challenges are. Our students are reading and
writing in different ways, and we cannot ignore the
21st century technology. Have you witnessed those students,
who, when they read the poem, they come up with their iPad? They’re reading from their iPads. Right. You know, they’re
not reading from the text. So we have to find a
way to draw on that. I mean, how often do you
see a young person sitting down and reading a book? And look at what’s happened, at
least in Brooklyn, in the libraries. The libraries are full with
young people in the afternoon, and that’s because there’s no
other place for them to go. They go to the library. It becomes a place
where they can hang out. They’re not necessarily reading, but
we can draw on that and capitalize on that to create a space to get them more involved
in reading and writing. Which means we have to
support the libraries more, they have to be funded more. We have to demand that. When we look at reading behaviors,
someone mentioned the third grade. The third grade becomes that first
step when you lose the readers, and then it’s the sixth grade. There’s a correlation between
students’ reading behaviors in sixth grade and then
what happens later on? So we have to — we have
some formidable challenges, we have to make the
literature produced by writers throughout the
African diaspora more available in our schools and for
the general public. Which means we have to make sure that we get librarians
to order those books. And in our schools, we have
to make sure that they’re part of that cannon, which is
one of the things we do in our Re-Envision Our
Lives Through Literature. A large part of what we have to
do is professional development for teachers, so that they’re
not just teaching the add-on, the one book. Like, how do you incorporate books
by people of color, and black books in the curriculum, so that it
becomes part of the curriculum? We have to find ways of — we
have to support the black writers by buying their books, even
if we have to give them away. And I like — I love what I hear — heard this morning about
giving the books away. So you may not want it,
so you give it to someone. And then, we have to support the
conferences and the festivals, Column [phonetic] Book Festival, National Black Writers
Conference, this festival tomorrow. I hope all of you are going
to come out and see it. One of the things I did as I was
looking at what was happening, preparing for this panel, I looked
at the “New York Times” book review and I realized that
over the last year, every week there’s one book
reviewed by a writer of color, usually African American. One book. Which means that
we have to have more people who are writing those reviews,
and we have to populate that. They find that one
person to do that — and, as you know, in the
newspapers and in print, book reviews are disappearing. Which means we have to
find ways to write them. And then, perhaps we need to go back
to the bookstores and say we have to have a section on
African American writers. Because if you’re going into the
bookstore and you’re looking to see who the writers are, if you
don’t know who those writers are, you’re not going to find them. You have to go through the entire
book; maybe we have to go back. And even I understand some of the
libraries have taken away some of the African American
sections, because we are what? Post-racial, right? We have to say that we’re not. And we have to support
our bookstores. One of the messages that came
out today is, Telling Our Story. One — I remember Valerie
Boyd, who wrote the biography, the most recent biography,
of Zora Neale Hurston. And she said she wrote that
biography because Robert, I think, Robert Hemingway, the
white biographer, had said, “It’s time for a black woman to
tell Zora Neale Hurston’s story.” We have to tell our story. And she said when she
wrote it, she was called. She felt a calling
to tell that story. So in closing, I teach
African American literature and the early part, in
the first book we read, is “The Interesting Life
of Olaudah Equiano,” or “The African,” written
by himself. And of the things we talk about
is there’s been controversy as to whether he wrote
this — his book. But one of the important messages is that this book was a form
of liberation for him. He eventually bought his freedom,
and he wrote his way into literacy. As is Phillis Wheatley,
the first African American to publish a book of poetry. She used literacy to write
her way into freedom. Our young people have stories that
represent liberation narratives, and there are many examples of liberation narratives
throughout the cannon of African American literature. So our role is to teach these
writers, these historians, and educators and find creative
ways for our young people to develop their own
liberation narrative. So, the end of my letter. Yours in solidarity, Brenda. [ Applause ] >> Bahiyyah Muhammad:
Good afternoon, it’s such an honor to be here. I come to you directly from Asia, where I spent two months doing
research in the prisons, in Asia. I went to Bangkok, I went to
Cambodia, I was in Thailand, Malaysia as well, and Vietnam. The king in Asia apparently felt
that incarcerated individuals who were mothers were unfit to
live in prison with their children. And therefore, he released all of the incarcerated
mothers and their children. And so, I was brought in to do
policy implications with them. And so, I come to you from that. It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you very much for the invite. There’s so much creativity
here, there’s so much power, and there’s so much strength. And I wouldn’t want to be
anywhere else right now. I want to start by reciting a
poem for you that I performed for the mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka,
during a meeting two months ago, when I spoke with him
about the importance of creating a family halfway
house, the first in the nation, in the world, in Newark, New Jersey, that would be directly
connected to my research. So it was really interesting;
I walked into his office, this was the first time we met, and
he says, “Begin wherever you like.” And this is what I said. Ivory tower blues. My mind and intellect and critical
thinking skills are at an unrest. I mean, my brain is exploding,
erupting like a volcano. Hot lava flows from my soul,
burning and paving a new path. A new way towards academic success, a new collegic [phonetic]
yellow brick road that truly leads lost souls home;
the true and only way to the top. The ivory tower is my
lighthouse, not my safe haven. A place I go to garner
the verbiage needed to overturn the miseducation
of modern day research. I keep a ladder in my briefcase to
climb down from the tower’s balcony that overlooks it all; the
good, the bad, and the ugly. My PhD is my access, my ability
to walk freely between the hood, my roots, and the blinding
tower of untold truths. This PhD is my over ground railroad,
an unhidden pathway of truth and familiar resources that
keep children, parents, and families bonded by embracing
the root, the root causes of intergenerational curses;
miseducation labeled as technology, politics as revenue, and
parental incarceration. Listen to me, I’m telling
you something. Something that nobody, I
mean, no B-O-D-Y wants to see, or hear, H-E-A-R and H-E-R-E. You, come here. Come over here and listen. Listen to this message,
because it must be told. This message is for those
with eyes who can see. Those with ears who can hear. Those with hearts who can love. And those with light, to brighten
a path that will lead the way. Now, move out of my way as I charge
forth with this message of truth. Researchers, how dare you? Politicians, how dare you not? Ten-year track, why would you
professors, how could you? Department chairs, deans, and the
APT committees, cut those shackles. Peer reviewed articles, journals, why don’t you incorporate
innovation? Innovation that pushes those
research subjects involved to a new place. Why do articles take
the place of the people? How can secondary data
be respected as human? Why are we bringing life to
statistics and not to people? Research has to stop killing
the people, to save the numbers. Research has to stop killing
the people, to save the numbers. Percentages and greater likelihoods of a negative outcome
cannot be the norm. There has to be more to the story. I’m not asking for
remorse, rather, reality. Nothing is single sided;
everything has another side, an additional angel. I advocate for the full
view, not just a zoom. And if you want your dose up close,
move up close and personal and talk to those have lived it
and walk at every step. Use their narrative to create
and not the other way around. I’ve done it, and it works. Fifteen years of riding
buses with children affected by parental incarceration has given
me the courage to be the truth, write truthfully, and create nothing
of lies, deceit, or one-sidedness. Conducting interviews in
locked bedrooms of children, it gets no more truthful than that. I can still hear the tears shed and
the whispers of help to this moment. I remember every qualitative
interview and every quantitative
file assessed. I put this experience in
every fiber of my soul. I live it, but I am not it. I live it, but I am not it. I am impassioned by
it, but not lost in it. I am simply leading the
way, creating a new path, the only path to the
top, the true top. I use my research to create
an educational coloring book for children of incarcerated
parents, “The Prison Alphabet.” It was born out of Mr.
Critical Fill-Work Jr, married to Mrs. Critical Me. It is a publication that
gives back; it is a legacy. The legacy, my legs,
that allow me to see. A literary masterpiece that
addresses illiteracy, lies, knowledge, and the unknown;
all empirically based. It is accessible in
four different languages and used in various countries. Its knowledge is a legacy
that belongs to the world. “The Prison Alphabet” has been used
in Uganda, Dubai, Europe, and Asia. The truth is unstoppable,
and it doesn’t end here; it never ends where it started,
rather travels far beyond. Howard University. HU, you know, prides
itself of truth and service. And that is what my
track record shows. The ivory tower blues,
ivory tower blues. The ivory tower is blue and cold. And it’s easy to make it warm. Create and make for the community,
serve the people, and allow them to help you serve, create, and make
for the community, serve the people, and allow them to help you serve. Climb out of the ivory
tower and walk onto the ground amongst
the people as one. Find the answers to
the next creation and fully support it,
support the truth. Support the truth. Support those who support the truth. Support truth. I am the truth. I support you. You support me. We support me. When? Now. Ivory tower dismantled. Now we have ivory grounds,
ivory minds, ivory souls, ivory everywhere, ivory shared. So truthful, so true. I have access to the ivory tower
although I don’t reside there. No more blue ivory tower. No more you ivory tower. [ Singing ] Thank you. [ Applause ] So thank you very much. I just wanted to share briefly
that the present alphabet, the educational coloring book,
was born out of the spirit and the energy of the children. I read literature for many years
that identified these children as angry, as frustrated, as
non-intellectual, and when I went into the homes to interview these
children, they were brilliant, they were bright-eyed, they were
respectful, they were remorseful, and they were not their parents
although they loved their parents. So I knew that at the end of this
journey that I would spend the rest of my life allowing the world
to see that true narrative. Right now I’m working
on a book called Far From the Tree and it looks at
success stories amongst children of incarcerated parents, one
of the things you don’t hear. Right now we use the statistics that identifies children have
a greater likelihood of going to prison if their
parents are in prison. If they knew the parents are not. One of the things that we
don’t balance that argument with is the reality that
African Americans supersede a lot and sometimes it’s
the worse situation that builds the brightest stars. So I have been travelling
all around the nation and interviewing amazing children at
top Ivy League universities, Yale. Some individuals who have JDs, who
had parents in prison knew the truth about their parents being
in prison, accepted it, and were able to move
past it and be an example for their parents once they
re-entered, to not recidivate. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Bomani Armah: Good afternoon. My name is Bomani Armah. Before I do anything else,
I’m a hip-hop artist. I’m a poet. I’m an [inaudible], so I
got to make sure the energy in the room for [inaudible], right? When I count to three, I
need everyone to say peace and throw up the deuces like this. All right, you all ready? Here we go. One, two, three. >> Peace. >> Bomani Armah: Not bad. All right. It’s a small room so if you
don’t participate I can see you [laughter]. Let’s try this again. One, two, three. >> Peace. >> Bomani Armah: Thank
you very much. I needed that. That helped me. In fact, a bunch of smiles coming
this way now, so I appreciate that. Thank you. I am blessed to be in this audience
and being a part of this panel. Once again, my name is Bomani Armah. I am not a rapper. I am a poet with a hip-hop style. If nothing [inaudible] today,
please check out my website. It’s I have a — that’s not a joke. It’s literally my website. Go check it out. I realize some people think
I was joking with that. So I have a bunch of aliases. I’m a hip-hop artist so I
have a bunch of aliases. I’m the Watermelon Man. I am Mr. Read-A-Book. That’s probably the most
relevant to today’s panel. I am the Hip-Hop LeVar Burton. I am the Black Colin Powell. I have a bunch of them. I’m not going to go
through them all. But I take my art and my poetry
and my activism very seriously. The first thing I wanted to do. We [inaudible] just because
of my energy and the events over the last couple of days, I
want to encourage everyone in here, I want to encourage the previous
generation, my parents’ generation, their parents’ generation,
that black people, young black people,
we are doing good. All right? We’re not doing exactly what we
want to be, but we’re doing good. We are doing better
than we were [applause]. Yeah, you all give that
up for young black people. Sometimes we get discouraged. Sometimes we get discouraged
and we believe, and we think and we internalize all the negative
press that we hear about ourselves. But the energy that has been
fighting against us for 400 years of slavery, 450 years of de facto
slavery, is strong and insidious. It keeps coming at us with
different things all the time. Nobody was ready for the
crack epidemic of the ’80s. Nobody was ready for the
economic bubble burst in the ’90s. Nobody was ready for the
economic class of 2015 — or 2008. So all these things
keep happening to us, but black people are still fighting, young black people
are still interested in the liberation of their people. Do not get twisted by the
media that you’re hearing. I work with them directly. They tell me directly. They’re very interested
in the struggles and don’t feel discouraged,
all right? You’re doing a very good job. I’m at the age now where college
kids are half my age so I’m in that weird timeframe,
you know what I’m saying, where they’re trying to explain to me how broke J Cole
is, and I’m like, really? You know what I’m saying? I wanted to come up here to tell
you a little bit about what I do. I am a product of the free black
spaces that we have been trying to create for the last century. My mother’s side of the family moved
up here to escape South Carolina and the oppressiveness of
racism and no job opportunities. My father moved here from South
Carolina to go to Howard University. They met here. I’m so into being black. It’s like one of my favorite
things about myself [laughter]. It comes from growing
up in this community. It comes from being a product of
Marion Barry’s Washington D.C. It comes from being a
product of P. G. [inaudible]. My father brought me — they came
before Columbus when I was 13. You know what I’m saying? Like that doesn’t happen
in like normal households, you know what I’m saying? I had to have one my [inaudible]
employees make me understand what kind of free black space I lived in where my father would
buy me that kind of book. I’m in the same generation
as Dr. Green. In fact, I’m a huge fan of his. So this is the result
of that happening. So I don’t want us to
be discouraged at all. What I do for a living
— I am creative. I’m a poet, an M.C., a
producer, and an edutainer — a term coined by [inaudible] when
I used education to entertain. I am the Director of Poetry
Events for Busboys and Poets which is a chain of restaurants
throughout Washington, D.C. There’re six of them. We do 39 open mics a month. I direct all six of
them which actually — I miss, actually, being in
the crowd and being the host so I’m going to go
back to that soon. But we take freedom of speech very
seriously here in the literary and black community
here in Washington, D.C. We currently have the
National Slam Champion Team. We currently have the National Teen
Slam Champion Team take writing and literacy very seriously
here in Washington, D.C. When I’m not doing that, I
have a creative writing program that I do mostly through an
organization called Young Audiences of Maryland. But I’m actually doing a workshop on
July 1st at MLK Library with teens. If you have teenagers who are into
writing, have them come see me. I just, this past week,
ironed out the deals to teach my creative writing
workshop to other teachers through the Kennedy Center. The first workshop will
be March 16th [applause]. Thank you. I’m excited about that. The first workshop
will be March 16th, and the way my workshop
works is it shows how — our kids are into hip-hop. It shows how a well-written song
resembles a well-written essay, with the chorus being the — with the chorus being the
introductory paragraph and the verses being the
supporting paragraphs. Showing how the writing
process is the same across the board no matter what
style of writing you are doing. I got my break into
the literary world as a 19-year-old working
for Karibu Books. There’s a whole bunch of locals here who probably won’t
understand what Karibu Books. I was responding to the [inaudible]
system [inaudible] press sometimes. I was really cool to actually
meet Dr. Myra [Inaudible]. I was sitting behind — a lady turned around and
said, “Oh, you’re Bomani.” I was a kid. I’m Bomani. She’s like, “Oh, my
son’s named Bomani.” I was like, “Cool. He must be handsome and
intelligent” [laughter]. She said, “Yeah.” Then Dr. [Inaudible] said, “Can my
wife come up to the stage, please.” She walked up and said
hello to everybody. I said, “Whoa.” My life is like a poem in so many
ways I can’t begin to describe it. But, anyway, it started from there. The first day at Karibu
Books, one of the owners, Yao Glover, pulls out the lease. He doesn’t pull out the
instruction manual, the instructions for being a good employee. He’s like, “I understand you’re
just passing through here. I want you to see what
kind of business I run because telling our
people’s stories is what I do for a living and it
has to continue.” So the first thing he
did was show me the lease so I could see what kind of
money he was paying P.G. Plaza, you know what I’m saying, and how
we worked out our best when I get to my own level of
trying to understand that in education —
I mean, in business. So I am very much hands-on. One of my very next jobs was
working for Martha’s Table. I lived above Martha’s Table. There’s an apartment there. I don’t know if you’re
familiar with it. It’s on 14th and W Street. It’s basically a soup kitchen. I lived above it as an employee. One of the most amazing things that I saw while living there
was gentrification in action. It was something that
I was able to take to the prison system
when I talked there. Fourteenth and W Street
is notorious. What is notorious? Eighties and ’90s. I joke with people all the time. If you got caught at 14th
and Clifton, 14th and W, you call somebody to come get you. They’d tell you to walk a couple
blocks south before they came get you, right [laughter]? So I’m living above
Martha’s Table, 2003 I think, before they broke ground for
what is now Busboys and Poets. Once again, the corner’s notorious. You know the signs
of gentrification. First you start seeing
homosexual couples because they’ve been ostracized
from the rest of their community and so they come to the place
where they can buy stuff. Then this is what happens next. I saw it right on my corner. They brought in the National Guard
with [inaudible] and M16s and camped out on the corner for a month. Right? During that month they shut down whatever illegal
operation was going on. Then they brought in the
developers and broke ground, right? I saw the process happen
out of my window, and what blew me away the most was
that as notorious as 14th and W was, the government, the politicians,
the military, the police, could have shut it
down at any moment — during the ’80s, during the ’90s,
when it was dangerous there. They could have shut
it down at any moment. They waited until they
realized there was a point when it was valuable to them,
and then, all of a sudden, all the crime stopped
immediately [finger snap]. Then the next stage
of gentrification, when you see whites going
jogging with their dogs at 11 p.m. You feel weird about it because
you’re like why do they feel safe? They shouldn’t feel safe. They shouldn’t feel safe. Someone comes — I’m not the only
one who’s been making these things, right? I’ve lived this thing and
seen it happening first-hand. So when I’ve walked to these
different prison institutions and talked to young people
about writing and about reading, the first thing they always say
to me is, “No one understands me. No one gets what I’m trying to say. No one gets my words, my
feelings, my emotions.” I’m thinking, ah, literacy and
wring is exactly what we need in this situation — the ability
to tell each other stories. So what I’m able to
tell young people back, that that’s what they’re missing. Their inability to articulate their
feelings comes from their inability to read, from their
inability to write. Now I’m automatically able
to spark their interest. Most of these young people have
children, have younger brothers and sisters, and they want
to be able to use their story as a positive message in
order to change the world, and so they’re able to do
that once they learn how to be literate and communicate. When I use literate, I don’t
completely just mean book literacy. We definitely need multimedia,
social media literacy at this point. It’s unavoidable. Most young people are getting their
news through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, so showing people how to navigate these things
is a very important thing. We also need musical literacy. I have people get their
political/philosophical philosophies from rappers. They’re quoting Kendrick Lamar. They’re quoting J Cole. So we need to start breaking
down poetry for them. That’s been my blessing
through my entire adult life. So I’m really into
practical solutions about how to affect our young people and
increase their literacy rate and to move on to the next
generation even stronger. My favorite quote is
from Jonathan B. Clark. When I was into tattoos I was
going to get it tattooed on me but I changed my mind, so it’s good. That is, “We must start projects
our grandchildren will finish.” >> Oh, okay. >> Bomani Armah: He said, “There
should be a railroad across Africa. But no one man will ever live to
see it happen, so no one does it because you have to
trust your children and your children’s
children to do it.” That’s what we have to
start talking about. That’s why I’m encouraged. That’s why the state of our
streets doesn’t bother me because we’re better than we used
to be, and we’re moving forward. Dick Gregory says all the time,
“Don’t let people tell you you need to go back to the old days. There is no better old
days to go back to.” We’re all moving forward. So these are some of the things I
want to start moving forward with. First of all, as a community we
need to start adopting our schools. They entire building,
the entire block. Everyone who lives within
a 10-block radius — someone said something close to this
— a 10-block radius of a school. They need to think of
that as their school. They need to be having
their events there. They need to be doing
their birthday parties and their bar mitzvahs
at that school. They need to be — we need
to feel free that if we’re in the 10-block radius of
a school, and we see some of those obviously
school-aged, we need to feel like we’re in our community. We can tell them, “Why
aren’t you in school?” We can ask them do they understand
the importance of their education. The same thing with the libraries. Now from what I understand about
the libraries – they might not be as visible as D.C. Library, but
D.C. Library has treated me well and I feel like it treats
the people of D.C. very well. There are always opportunities
for the young people to come in and learn something. Opportunities for young people
to come in and be read to. One of the biggest
problems with learning how to read is you need to be read to. So there a whole bunch
of opportunities for that with the D.C. Public Libraries. In our black communities, we need to make sure all the libraries
are operating like that. We need to do — I’ve done
this because I don’t sleep. We need to do a surge the way
Iraq got the surge, right? I calculated the [inaudible]
one of the school — Johnson Square Elementary
in Baltimore is one of the worst educational
schools I’ve been in. What I did was I went and found
out how many professionals live within Baltimore City
and Baltimore County, how many black professionals, right? If we get — I forgot exactly
what the numbers are — but I calculated what it would take,
how many volunteers it would take to put a volunteer adult
in every classroom, every week for an entire year. What these teachers need are
other adults in the room. They don’t even necessarily
need other trained educators. They need other people who are
willing to be a fellow third-grader for a day, and when they’re teaching
that third-grader their basics of reading, you can sit at the table and give the kid more
input, all right? There are definitely enough black
professionals surrounding Baltimore that, if each of them took
a vacation week and did it for one week, we could
do that and make sure that the student/teacher ratio,
the student to adult ratio, is no greater than one
to seven or one to six. That needs to happen. We need to take our own
talent and not even wait for the Federal Government
to clear a program. It’s a long-time dream of mine
but I already put it out there because I feel like I’m in a room with like-minded people,
so I’m excited. We also need to have our
ability to empathize for people who can’t read, go
beyond the children. All right? We say, oh, this poor, this
18-year-old can’t read. Oh, this 12-year-old can’t read. Oh, this 16-year-old can’t read. Oh, this 20-year-old is on her own. You know what I’m saying? It’s like you’re not
making the connection, that that 20-year old
needs to be able to read so the next eight-year-old can read,
and the next four-year-old can read. So I think that it needs
to be extended well beyond when they’re cute, and we
have to do that as a group. One of the things I’m realizing,
and one of the myths that happens with young people is that they
think that learning isn’t cool. It’s a myth that we’ve been
repeating over and over again. All kids know learning is important
and they all know it’s cool. What it is is once you get into
the third grade and you can’t read, you realize you’re never going
to catch up, and so your goals in the classroom setting
become different. They become getting attention. They become being cool. They become living your
life at that moment because you know you are lost. You know that what the teacher just
wrote on the board is not going to have any effect on your life
because you cannot comprehend it. They understand that they need it. What they need is more
understanding. They weren’t ready
when they got there. So we need to have that
empathy go all the way to the heart of who they are. Let me see. I want to share with you guys
some good ideas that I’ve seen. There’s a brother — if you follow
me at or on Twitter, there’s a brother who has a kit
where you can buy a bookshelf and a pack of books that you might
— somewhere I’m out of time, but a pack of books that you
can put in black barbershops, and what we’re encouraging
black men to do is if you see a child
in the barbershop, someone will pick up a book and read
it to them, to leave the books there and just read them at all times. Kids who have adults
read to them read better. One of the hardest things for me
the last couple of days was looking at the whole situation
at Emmanuel Church. I personally am working
on a poem, play, a whole bunch of things
about Denmark Vesey. That was Denmark Vesey’s church and
it’s been burned down four times. The saddest part of what we’re
going to have to explain this story to young people, is this — is
they don’t understand the story of that church, all right? We have to make sure that
doesn’t happen anymore. It’s an interesting story. It’s a gangster story. You know what I’m saying? There’s no way why we shouldn’t
be able to tell the story of Emmanuel AME Church to a
group of 12-year-olds who are into like thug rappers and tell them
the story of the AME Church like, yo, these people went hard. You know what I’m saying? They saw a battle. They [inaudible]. That’s what young people —
we all remember 13/14 roles. They’re rebellious, you
know what I’m saying? They want — all these
kids want to fight and we’re not telling
them who to fight. We need to tell them who to fight. We need to tell the
story of Emmanuel Church and do a much better job
of articulating that. I’m going to share with you all the
three creative writing rules I give all my students. First rule is, the only wrong
answer is a blank answer, all right? Make sure you tell
young people that. We are trying to get their opinion. We are trying to get
what they think. You cannot possibly get
that wrong, all right? We can make you improve on it, but the only wrong
answer is a blank answer. Number two, artists
do not make mistakes. We make discoveries. When I tell this story I talk about
Thomas Edison who quote/unquote, “discovered the light bulb”. Evidently at one time
he electrocuted himself and made his hair stand up on end
and all that kind of stuff, right? When he finally did it,
he did a press conference and the reporters asked him how
did it feel to fail so many times? He said, “I did not
fail a thousand times. I discovered a thousand
ways that did not work.” All right? We need to make sure these young
people understand they are not writing down the wrong word, they’re
not writing down the wrong phrase, they’re not writing
down the wrong sentence. They are writing down
the words, phrases, and sentences that will lead
them to the words, phrases, and sentences that they want to use. They need to talk about it. They need to do research. But they can always improve. The third thing that’s involved. This will be the third thing. Do not edit in your head. That’s the rule I have
to use myself. I’m so bad about that. Some of my best ideas were bad
ideas that I wrote on paper and I saw them, and
I rearranged them. When I go over to these classrooms
I will pictures of Eminem’s notebook which makes absolutely no sense, but he comes up with
these incredible rhymes. So these are the things we need
to be telling young people. To end with, what made me infamous
is eight years ago I did a song called “Read a Book.” It was the subject of an
animated video that was on BET. BET basically hired an
animation department that started doing all these jokes
about how bad BET programming was and putting it on the air. I was a part of that. The song is called “Read a Book.” It used a whole bunch of profanity. The idea of the song was to make fun
of the current state of the hip-hop when all they do in krump music
was curse and repeat themselves. So I made a song like that. Most of the educators
were down with me. Most of the educators know
what we’re dealing with. A couple of dignitaries
came against me. Jesse Jackson came out against me. He said whoever wrote this song was
illiterate, uneducated, and unkempt. I gave him unkempt but the other
two were like really uncalled for. [ Laughter ] But the biggest piece that’s
missing in transferring literacy from one generation to the next
generation is the older generation’s inability to try and relate to the
next generation in their art form, in their culture, and the
way that they are illiterate. Jesse Jackson’s organization
revealed accidentally that they don’t have
anybody younger than 40. You know what I’m saying? Because somebody would
have gotten the jokes. Someone would understand
who Little John was. You know what I’m saying? Someone would have been —
understood the reference. The reason I am saying
that is we have to open our ears to
the young people. The young people know
what’s going on. They want to know who to fight. They want to know how to fight them. They want to know how to
get their skills together. So please don’t be discouraged. There was one more
thing I wanted to say. I’m always [laughter]. I’m always afraid I’m
going to miss one of the crucial points
I wanted to make. But I advocate for these
people, for young people, even when they make mistakes. That is my job. Even when they aren’t following
my instructions correctly, even when they argue with
these bad things in the street, I’m still advocating for them because I understand what they’re
working against, and it’s my job to help them articulate
their story better. This is the point I wanted to make. Every generation thinks the
next generation is going crazy. I saw young people
yelling to get the story, because I don’t have
any young hip-hops, so I’ll tell you a better version. I’ve seen clips of Ella Fitzgerald
in the middle of a concert in the ’60s breaking down, like I don’t know what the heck
these young people are listening to. She goes into a James Brown
impersonation, all right, because in her mind James
Brown is the kid doing this what-in-the-heck-is-that-music? You know what I’m saying? Every generation thinks the
next generation is crazy. As the older generation, we need
to start breaking down that wall. I want to believe that’s
not an African thing to do, that every generation respects the
other generation, and understand that they are carrying on the
tradition but also building one. So what we have to
stop doing is thinking that the young people are crazy. The young people are a part of us. They’re taking what we’re doing
and remixing it in their own ways, and we have to embrace them
and help them become better at articulating their voices. Thank you very much. [ Applause ] >> Rahman Branch: I always hate
following Polson MCs [laughter]. Hate it. Every time
I speak in a place and there’s a folder MC
there I always [inaudible]. They’re like the headliner, right? I’ve known Bomani for
years and I never want to go behind him [inaudible]. My name is Rahman Branch. I’m a liberator by definition,
and I say that because so many things being similar,
my first gift from my uncle at 12 was Stolen Legacy , which kind of spiraled my
belief system and such. But I think I’ve used
several different things over the last many years to
push for black liberation. What I’ve used in the
past has been education. I’ve used politics. I’ve used music, and I think
all those different ways to get to the goal. But I’ve started to
find ways to kind of incorporate everything together. Currently I’m the Executive
Director for the Mayor’s Office on African American
Affairs here in Washington, D.C. But my most exciting job
ever, and my most loved job ever, was as a high school principal. Before I took over that I was a high
school principal of a school here in D.C. called Ballou High School. Anyone know Ballou a little bit? >> Yeah. >> Rahman Branch: A little bit? Yeah? It’s the best school. It’s a — hello. It’s the M.C. in me. Ain’t that right? A Ballou High School? >> Bomani Armah: Yeah. [ Laughter ] >> Rahman Branch: So
does anybody know that Ballou High School
is the best school in the city of Washington, D.C.? You understand that. Got to make some noise [laughter]. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad:
Make some noise. >> Rahman Branch: Geez. So I adopted a high school where,
on my first day as I’m walking into the hallway, there’s
a young man sitting on the floor smoking a cigarette
in front of the main office. It was a school that was
popular for all the wrong reasons and there was a teachable moment
at that point, on my first day, seven minutes into the day, and
I encountered an opportunity to help someone understand that
they’re meant for something better. So I began to actually step over the
young person to get to the office and he makes a noise as
if I’m invading his space and he’s offended by that. The young man kind of makes a noise
and kind of stands up to his feet and at that moment, for me
as the adult, I wanted to — I had the unchoice to make, and the choice was do I let these
young people know that you’re crazy and I have to now address that? Do I take that route
or is there another way to have a teachable moment? Every young person
will tell you at Ballou that I’ve always used the term
“conversation brings about clarity,” so the conversation I had
with the young man was that what you’re doing
is unacceptable. I introduced myself as an
adult, not as the principal, and that there should be a
different exchange we have. The young man thought
that wasn’t good enough and so then my teachable moment
became — I’m six foot five, 320 pounds [laughter],
and I’m not an easy take. So we had a different kind of
conversation at that point. So there was a teachable moment in that [laughter]
moment right there, right? It was we can go about this one
way or there’s another series of things that can occur. Needless to say, we got to
a agreeable place [laughter] and that young man moved forward. One of the things that
I realized when I got to the high school was the
amount of despair that existed, the lack of belief that existed,
the level of apathy that existed, and that’s before I met
any of the children. That’s before I met any
of the young people. That’s where I met adults in
the neighborhood and adults in the school who had lost hope in
what our children could accomplish. The conversations that kind of ensued always became
about those kids. At some point the conversation
had to turn into these kids are a
product of what we have or haven’t done as adults. That case was making many of
the decisions that brought them to this space physically,
that brought them to this space emotionally
and mentally. It’s what we have or haven’t done
as the adults who are responsible for the care of and the
teaching of these young people. So the conversation that we
began to have, had as a staff, began to turn because one of the things I thought was the most
important lesson we teach the school was literacy. It came from the reading of the
last valedictorian’s speech, the valedictorian of the
class before I arrived. Seeing the speech of this
student who was the valedictorian with a 3.9 grade point average, and recognizing fourth-grade
literacy skills within it, and the kind of crime
that was committed by so many adults to
allow this to happen. The crime that had been
committed by so many people to say this our brightest star. We’re going to put this person on
stage for the world to see knowing that we haven’t done
this child justice. There was the necessity
of having the culture of conversation at our school. Everything was on the
table to talk about. We were able to discuss everything,
and that was from decisions that I’d made as the principal,
that was decisions that our adults in the building had made
that I clearly wanted to have a discussion about. That came with the conversation
that we had to have with children because we all were assumed
we knew what they wanted. We all assumed we knew
where they were coming from, and we were way off
track to the point of what exists in various cultures. Our young people were speaking
a language that identified with the culture that many adults
had chosen to remove themselves from as if they’re
not of it or from it. There was a teacher who told his
science class and, pardon my French, but I’m quoting him directly. “I’d make more money off you
niggers opening a funeral home than I would teaching you.” Yeah. So we had — so there’s a — so in a cultural conversation there
was the necessity of understanding that this person had severe,
severe issues mentally to think that was all right to say
to a roomful of children. We had to then — so we
had a teachable moment with that teacher and myself. It entailed a closed and
locked door and [laughter] at a conference room table and,
needless to say, he made his exit from Ballou soon after that. But there was the necessity
of fighting for our children, which a lot of us aren’t
doing, and in fighting for our children there is a
necessity of letting them know. That was an amazing poem that I
actually wrote into my device here which is that we start
[inaudible] our grandchildren. Well then we’re finished. There’s a necessity in making
sure we understand that continuum as not just one directional. We have an obligation to learn and
understand who our children are because then we can
impart information to them in a much better sense. So as we got to the place where
we had a culture of conversation, we made sure that we
had opportunities for young people to
express themselves. In my other life in music I
represented a group called the Unspoken Herd. There’s a young man named Asheru,
a young man’s named Blue Black, and we were hip-hop musicians. Still are to some degree
but at some point you put on a shirt and a tie for songs. So what we did was we brought that
group into the school and we had to figure out ways to get literacy
across to our young people. We found values in our
young people’s value system. We found valuable information in the
news our young people listened to. The beautiful thing about hip-hop — and I am also of the
hip-hop culture — and I had to put that out there
first most times that I speak. The thing about hip-hop
that’s so beautiful is that there is a blending
if you will. There’s a real blurred
line between what is adult and what is not adult
as far as music. Within hip-hop you can turn on
the radio station and your child and you are oftentimes listening
to some of the same music. So we found common
places within that. By finding those common places — the young man asked a
roommate, a remarkable product. I think he’ll be here shortly. He made a remarkable product
called the HELP Project, and the HELP Program is
a hip-hop literacy tool. He’ll do it much better than I can. But it ultimately takes
popular hip-hop music with a socially conscious message
and it binds literacy lessons to it, based upon national
reading standards. As I looked at the product and I thought it would be
a great opportunity for us, we brought that into the school and we saw young people’s
engagement increase. Their interest in what
was going on increased. Their participation
in class increased because there were teachable moments
both ways, from both the adult and the child around this work
because kids saw themselves in the work and they were able
to express a level of knowledge about what was being presented. They were in-room experts
on the topics. A lot of our teachers, one of them walking away having
learned a whole heck of a lot, one of those things being a
value in who our young people are and what they’re expressing. A really, really exciting thing
happened as a result of that. We saw our math and reading scores
that year go up by 18 and 20 points which we thought, or
the world thought, would never happen at
Ballou High School. But it was funny because one
of the young men who had been in Asheru’s class says to our
class of students, “The cool thing about this is now that they know we
can learn, they’ll no longer come and tell us what we have to do. They’ll come and ask
us what we want to do.” That’s how empowerment was probably
one of the most beautiful moments that we experienced at the school. It became the lynchpin for all
the things that we began to do. Someone else in this room is
of Ballou experience as well. There’s been several
opportunities for us to make sure young people
have avenues of expression. When they have those avenues
of expression they want to make sure they come off
correct, that they perform, as they communicate, well,
so they’re opening this — their willingness to literature
and literacy began to skyrocket. “I want to say this right
in front of the crowd. Can you help me with this speech? I want to do this right in front of the Chancellor when
we show our PSA’s. Can you help me write the script? I’ll [inaudible] better.” So young people, as they start
to see relevance in the work that we’re providing and opportunity
to express themselves within it, their engagement and desire
around academics began to increase and it was our cool scoopful of
sugar to help the medicine go down, if you will, and it’s that
kind of work that I feel — it has to continue to happen. I see that my time is up. But literacy is important. Once we understand that young
people have information to give, then literacy can go both ways. All right? Thank you. [ Applause ] What is my role? As the Executive Director of the
Office on African American Affairs, what I envision my role to be? To continue this conversation,
move this platform forward, and also get residents
of the district engaged in supporting this effort. Okay. So, but the big three for the
Office of African American Affairs in direct conversation with
my immediate supervisor, Mayor Muriel Bowser, is to
push housing, education, and economic opportunity. If we want African Americans
to thrive in the city, we know that housing is way
out control as far as cost. We know that education
is a situation that needs to be drastically improved. We know that there has to be more
opportunities for African Americans to open businesses, to
establish themselves financially in the district. Specifically around education,
I think that the first thing that I would probably say, and this
is a shameless plug, is that events like the Juneteenth Book
Festival need to be a part of our annual conversation. It needs to be part
of annual programming, not just from an independent
organization but from the city’s standpoint,
from the community’s standpoint, we have to begin to make sure
the world knows that we want this and we need to have this
conversation consistently and constantly. The more we make noise
about its importance, the world tends to respond. If I’ve seen anything throughout
the history of the diasporas, that when we make something a big
deal, that the universe responds to meet our needs, and so I
think that’s the first thing that the residents should
do is make sure we’re vocal. It’s important to an
event like this. Additionally, Bomani
brought up a great point about the algorhythm he kind of
discovered in Baltimore, right, by professionals and
giving some time to your local school in
that 10-block radius. The funny thing is, at Ballou we
made — we had a little struggle — sure it was with a six-block radius. But in every direction we
called that my country, and we figured it was our
responsibility to make sure everyone in the community was aware
of, and felt a comfort in engaging the school,
because the days of the adults are inside the
building, and so we don’t have a lot of energy to go and poke it loud. But we did want to make sure we made
an inviting situation for anyone who wanted to give to or
support our young people because the more hands we have
on deck, the easier the lift is. >> [Inaudible] you’re the
first Director of the Office on African American Affairs. Do you think this is going to be a
tradition that tries to [inaudible] around America or [inaudible]? >> Rahman Branch: So in looking it
up, I am the first in D.C., yes. In looking it up, I think there — I’m the first one in the
country in a major city. Yeah. I — >> You laid the foundation for
what happens in [inaudible]. >> Rahman Branch: Ha-ha. >> Bomani Armah: Good. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad: Yeah. >> Bomani Armah: The
Director of African Affairs, so he used to be called
the Mayor [laughter]. >> Rahman Branch: Yeah,
yeah, yeah, yeah. So the awkward thing is that — as we’ve seen gentrification
occur we do know that in 1990 there were — this is a
way tangent so I’ll be really brief. We know that in 1990,
Washington, D.C. — 71% of the District of Columbia
residents were African American. We know that in 2013
it dropped to 49%. So if anyone tells you
that’s not alarming, then they’re completely
buggered out. It’s not just a D.C. phenomenon. It’s happening in North
New Jersey where I’m from. It’s happening in Chicago. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad: New York City. >> Rahman Branch: It’s
happening in New York City. It’s happen — I mean,
Brooklyn is not Brooklyn any — it’s not the planet anymore. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad: That’s right. >> Rahman Branch: It’s
something much different. So there is a need for this template
to be followed in other places. Thank you. >> Bomani Armah: I got you. I think we have to start — we have stop guaranteeing
our children things based on the United States
economic [inaudible] policy. I think we have to stop saying that if you get educated
you’ll get a job. If you do the right
things you’ll get a job. That if you participate, these
good things will happen for them. Well, when you start
telling young people this — you need to learn to be literate,
you need to learn to be educated so you can relate with
your own people. So you and your people can make
it better no matter what goes on around you. I think that — you stay
down here and what you see — your daughter may tell you son is
that there’s some kind of guarantee in literacy beyond the
ability to communicate. There is no guarantee other
than the ability to communicate. But that ability to communicate
can lead to a whole bunch of other beautiful things. But I do like — I personally
am wary of telling young people to further [inaudible] to enter
the system that we have here, that if you pass and you get
the stamp from the state council or the county council in education
that you have an education, that that guarantees you a future. I mean we have enough issue to know
that that’s not necessarily true. I also think that we are still
begging for a group to see us as human, to invite us in, and
they do every once in a while, but we need to be okay whether
or not they let us or not. I got asked in an interview
the other day how I felt about Black Lives Matter. I’m sorry. Paying a little bit of attention. How I felt about Black Lives
Matter, and I am unable to repeat it forcefully because
saying black lives matter feels like saying water if wet. It feels like — it
shouldn’t be news. You know what I’m saying? If we’re still explaining to people
that we are human, we need to — like that was my father’s fight. I’m done with that fight. I’m done explaining
to people my humanity. I’m trying to learn
how to communicate with other African Americans,
other people who relate to African Americans and provide
job opportunities amongst us, so it doesn’t matter if they
see me [inaudible] or not. People ask me for — why’d you
give your sons such funny names and not be able to get a job? Good. Good. All right, folks, if you’re working
for a racist who doesn’t like you because you have some
racial or ethnic connection that you feel strong about, but
you’ve saved yourself some time by having that name and them
[inaudible] over your application. My sons learn [inaudible]
other Africans and African Americans
looking for jobs. So I would encourage your child to
read so he can better communicate with his community, with his people,
and that we will find a way whether or not they hire him or not. Here’s the other one, and this
is what I tell all young people. Tell your story. So that they — and
this especially coming from the hip-hop angle
working with young people. It tells young people that
their story’s interesting. So I will go into a classroom,
I will go into a prison, I’ll go somewhere and be
like, yo, so what’s going on? Where you from? What are your aspirations? I may be [inaudible], I want to be
a lawyer, I want to be a track star, I want to be an engineer,
I want to be a biologist. I’m going to be this,
that, and the other. Okay. You want to learn how to rap. We’ll put on the beat
immediately [rapping]. Like they automatically — because they’d been told that
is black art for masculinity. They go to that. Like, no, we just spoke. Your mom’s a doctor [laughter]. We just talked, like that’s not you. Like I really want
to know your story. What’s going on in your life? At one point it changed
a little bit. At one point — the reason
we come [inaudible] is like in the [inaudible]
top 10 artists, seven out of 10 are
always a gangster or very closely gangster related. I would go into the
worst neighborhoods. I’d go to Trinidad. I’d be like I’ll show
them this stat. I’ll show them the seven [inaudible]
recognize who are gangsters. Sometimes eight or nine. I’m like, so they say
eight out or nine people in the black community
are gang/drug related. I’ll say, “Do you live in Trinidad? Are eight out of every 10 people
you know are drug related?” They’re like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “No, think about it. Eight out of 10? Like that’s the mailman. That’s a Sunday school teacher. Like there’s a whole life
happening outside of this.” So my four [inaudible] the first
is, please tell your story. Don’t feel the need to say what
you think black people are supposed to be doing. One of my favorite
black — oh, who is it? [Inaudible] was getting a lot of
flak for not writing black poetry. He wasn’t writing about black stuff. He said, “I’m black. I wrote a poem. It’s black poetry [laughter].” That’s what we got to
tell our young people. They need to tell their story. Thank you. >> I just want to add to that. I would say also find
out what your passion is because I think that’s
what’s motivating the people. What if it that you like? What are you passionate about? Make that your life’s work. It’s not — don’t be
concerned about finding a job. Be concerned about finding
what your passion is, and then you won’t even
realize you’re working. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad: Mm-hmm. >> Bomani Armah: Amen. >> Hi. I’m Marita Golden,
writer, literary activist, and head of the Zora Hurston/Richard
Wright Foundation [applause], and I just was just so amazed
by this wonderful panel, and the brother mentioned — you
said Komunyakaa, and I have to, now that I have a captive audience, let you know that this
is the 25th anniversary of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and for 25 years we’ve been
creating community safe spaces for black writers, teens, adults, and the international
community of black writers. October 23rd will be 25th
anniversary celebration and annual Legacy Award. This year we will be
honoring Edwidge Danticat with our North Star Award. Yusef Komunyakaa and Nikki
Finis have been asked to compose original poems that they
will read in honor of Zora Hurston and Richard Wright, and
the law and order lady, Effie Pinker Merkison
[assumed spelling] is going to be our Mistress of Ceremony. We have a wonderful — we
have 18 black writers from all over the world who had been
nominated for the Legacy Award, and who will be in attendance,
including Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist,
Chris Avanni [assumed spelling], and so it’s going to
be a wonderful event. Go to,
join our mailing list. I’ll see you there. >> We have the great honor of having with us Congresswoman
Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the Congresswoman is now — [ Applause ] — I’m really — we’re
really delighted, honored, and — I don’t know. I’m losing my words. But, anyway, we’re
delighted to have you. Congresswoman Norton is now in
her 13th term as a Congresswoman for the District of Columbia. She’s the ranking member of the House Sub-Committee
on Highways and Transit. She serves on two committees,
the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
and the Committee on Transportation Infrastructure. Before her Congressional Service,
President Jimmy Carter appointed her to serve as the first woman to
chair the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She came to Congress as a national
figure who had been a civil rights and feminist leader, a tenured
Professor of Law, and a board member at three Fortune 500 companies. Congresswoman Norton
has been named one of the 100 Most Important
American Women in one survey, and one of the most powerful
women in Washington in another. The Congresswoman’s work for
full Congressional voting and presentation and for
full democracy for the people of the District of Columbia
continues her lifelong struggle for universal human
and civil rights. Her accomplishments
have been enormous and I will just skip a number of
them just — and point out to a few. The most significant of her
economic development projects that she’s had was to bring
to D.C. the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Headquarters Compound, which is the largest Federal
construction project in the country. She has also been successful
in bringing to the District the new
headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, along with an additional Metro
Station at New York University — New York Avenue, sorry, which
has resulted in the development of the [inaudible] neighborhood. The Congressman who taught law for a time before being elected
is a tenured Professor of Law at Georgetown University, teaching
an upper-class seminar there every year. After receiving her Bachelor’s
Degree from Antioch College in Ohio she simultaneously earned
her Law Degree and a Master’s Degree in American Studies
from Yale University. Yale Law School has awarded
her the Citation of Merit for Outstanding Alumni, and
Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has awarded
her the Wilbur Cross Medal for Outstanding Alumni, the highest
awards confirmed by each on alumni. She’s the recipient of more
than 50 honorary degrees, and I’m just cutting it very short so that we can hear
from the Congresswoman. [ Applause ] >> Thank you very much. It is a very special honor
to say a few words to you at what is your first
Juneteenth Book Festival. I appreciate this English speakers
who have spoken and will speak. I particularly appreciate your theme
that relates Juneteenth to literacy, to literature, to American artists. Juneteenth, of course, is
not nationally celebrated because it is not well enough known. That’s why I appreciate that
here in the nation’s Library of Congress you are
having this symposium, this two-day book festival,
which will draw attention to this very important, yes, event
in our nation’s history, and, of course, I note that we’re in the
150th anniversary of the Civil War. You have found a really
seminal way to link our past with our future because, if you
just think a moment about it, literacy is as much a key to the
future of our young people today as the slaves regarded it as
central to their own freedom. What was a free man or woman? Well, a free man or woman didn’t
go around saying free man or woman. But a free man or woman had
somehow overcome the resistance of the master to literacy. A free man or woman
could read and write. How rare in a country and at a time when it was understood the most
dangerous thing you could do for a black man or a black woman
is to teach them to read and write. Keep him ignorant and you
will keep him enslaved. That was a cardinal principle. You know, in a real sense it works
better today than it worked then because as illiterate as they
were they yearned for freedom, and the first things they wanted to
do was first find their relatives who had been sold off into
slavery God knows where, and then they wanted to learn,
to do what was forbidden. There must be freedom in it if
they said we couldn’t do it — >> Yeah. >> — so we got to learn to read
and we’ve got to learn to write. >> Yes. >> What a yearning there was
at a time when learning to read and write certainly
didn’t guarantee you a job. You could read and write
as much as you wanted to and you will still be scrubbing
floors if you could get a job at all as a free man or a free woman. Yet, if you wanted to feel free — you knew your mind was free when
you could put that mind on a piece of paper or on a book,
see what it said, let alone write it for yourself. Somehow or the other we have got
to be able to convey that sense that the slaves understood
inherently of what it meant to be free to our children
and our young people. The most tragic deficiency a child
can have is the inability to read. Even if somehow she can’t speak,
if she can read she’s on her way. So for us and for the
African American community, reading is as much a priority
today as it was 150 years ago. In a real sense if it
was seen as the key to freedom then it is obviously
essential to freedom today. When reading and writing is
not enough, when appreciation for literature, for culture, for the world in which
you live is now required. But you can’t do that if
you can’t read and write. So how to inspire our young
people, how to use our history. That is worth. Laid out for us to inspire our
own young people to learn to read and write in the very same
way that their forbearers did. In this city we are especially
inspired by Juneteenth because in this city the slaves were
liberated nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation . We were the first to be liberated. So on April 16th in the District
of Columbia that liberation is so important that it is a holiday
in the District of Columbia. Don’t even go to work [laughter]. That’s how important it is. So there’s a big parade downtown. That’s our wig day when
everybody else is working. Well, we’re walking in
the District of Columbia because we understand how
important being free and free first. Oh, my goodness. My own great-grandfather, Richard
Holmes, was in the District of Columbia on that day that
the slaves in the District of Columbia became
the first to be freed. He was not a free man. He was a runaway slave. He walked away from a slave
plantation in Virginia and made his way to Washington. Now I don’t tell any stories
on miss about Richard Holmes. He didn’t gather himself together
a group of slaves and said, let’s sneak away from the
master and look at the hour and then hear my call
and let’s be gone. Richard Holmes looked around. When he saw nobody was looking,
he left that plantation, and for three generations
in the District of Columbia, if your name was Holmes, you
learned to read and write. You went to the public schools
of the District of Columbia and you learned to read and write because you remembered
Richard Holmes who did not know how
to read or write. But his son knew how
to read or write, and his son knew how
to read or write. So, when I understood
that here in our own — in the nation’s Library of Congress
we were commemorating Juneteenth I then understood that the
process of national education of our people of every
race has begun. They will be grateful to
have another occasion, particularly during this 150th
year of the end of the Civil War, another occasion to celebrate
the liberation of slaves. But you will go far and wide before
you find any people than the people of the District of Columbia
who are more grateful to what you’re doing today as the
first to be liberated and who, as a people will not
entirely be liberated here in the nation’s capital until
we become the 51st state of the United States of America. Thank you for what
you’re doing today. [ Applause ] >> Thank you, Congresswoman. We’re really moved by
your words, by your story, by the story of your
family, and we hope very much to continue the tradition
that we started today. Now we will continue
with our third panel. Eve Ferguson will moderate
the panel. She is a Reference Librarian for
East Africa and also a journalist, also a graduate of
Howard University, and one of our very own scholars
on Africa and on African Americans. So Eve Ferguson. [ Applause ] >> Eve Ferguson: Thank you
very much and good afternoon. I’m glad that you all stuck around
for the best, the last panel. I really feel spoiled
because I picked this one. So we are going to hear some
really wonderful presentation. I just want to say
a couple of things, and that is that I was a
school teacher for 16 years. The thing that — [ Applause ] The thing that made me the saddest
was when I had to teach children who were reading on
a third-grade level, and they were in junior high school. That really bothered me. That was in Florida. But then I came to D.C. and I taught
remedial reading to UDC students, and I’m saying, how are these
students getting into college and they don’t know how to read,
and they didn’t know how to read. So we tried using Toni Morrison but
that was a little bit too complex, so we had to bump it
down to the House on Mango Street and
anybody who’s been a teacher in here knows the House
on Mango Street . It’s a middle school reading level,
and that’s what we had to go from, so we have a long way
to go for literacy. But I applauded those students
because they went to college anyway, even though they couldn’t
understand what was going on. They used to come and tell me, Miss, this is like 13th grade,
and it was in many ways. But they had the ambition to
try to overcome their obstacles and I really had to be
appreciative of that although I knew that those kids came from
houses where people didn’t read. I started reading at three. That’s really early but I have a
sister who’s about three years older than me and another one
who’s five years old than me, and my middle sister used to
whisper in my ear the words to the book as I’m turning the page. She said one day she
wasn’t whispering but I was saying the words. So did I memorize it? Was I reading? So they kind of did an experiment
and they gave me another book that she hadn’t whispered the words. But I did know how to read. So ever since then it’s like
reading has been important. You cannot read if you can’t write, and you can’t write
if you can’t read. So the two go together. I just want to say to
anybody who has a college-age or high school child, please don’t
let them do all their research on the Internet. They end up using wrong
information and creating what I used to call the Scotch Tape Special
— cut and paste from everything. That does nothing for their learning
experience so read books with them, newspapers, have them around the
house or something like that. So, to go on, I have this great
panel back here, and I’m not going to take a lot of time
because we’re running behind, and I want them to have their say. But our first panelist was one of
my instructors at Howard University. I dropped his class [laughter],
which he’s never forgiven me for. But we went on further to work
together and when I was a senior at Howard I wrote the
first article on his work for the Washington Post . So we’ve always kept
in touch since then. He has constantly told me,
“You have to tell your story. You have to tell your story.” I haven’t told it yet, but I will. So we have the distinguished
Professor Haile Gerima from the Film Department
at Howard University. [ Applause ] He’s a celebrity in his own right. I don’t even have to talk about
his movies Sankofa, Teza, Bush Mama, Harvest 3000 , right? Harvest 3000 ? Yeah. That was actually the
film that I did the story on. So we are glad to have Haile here. Been trying to get him in
the Library for a long time. Next to Haile we have Hafiz
Shabazz who I met yesterday and I find him completely
intriguing. He is a Professor at Dartmouth. He teaches a course
which is called — — let me make sure I get it right. I don’t want to get it wrong. Oral Tradition Musicianship? Is that right? Yes. Oral Tradition
Musicianship at Dartmouth. So I really want to
hear what that is. But he’s also Adjunct
Assistant Professor and Director of World Music Percussion Ensemble. He’s the producer of more
than 85 major concerts. I was absolutely floored
talking to him yesterday, and I’m sure that what he has to say today will also give
you all something to take away from here and think further about. Next to Hafiz Shabazz
is Beverly East. She is a leading authority
in handwriting, international forensic
document examiner. I want to know what that is. I’m not sure what it is. She’s author of Bat Mitzvah Girl, Memories of a Jamaican Child
which I hope she’ll discuss because that’s been — I
know a number of book clubs like the Caribbean Professionals
took up that book as one of their books to read
in the Book Club. I haven’t read it yet, but I will. Last but not least is
Gabriel Asheru Benn. Now what I have to say about his is
he must have a reputation everywhere because in the last three days
I’ve gone to three public events and at every public event
they have mentioned his name. Monday at Busboys and Poets,
Wednesday at Eatonville, and the third one I don’t
remember but it was somewhere. So he is listed as an
educator, youth activist, international hip-hop artist, co-founder of Educational Lyrics
whose cornerstone program is HELP. We heard a little bit
about that earlier, the Hip-Hop Educational
Literacy Program. Now I’m just so curious to know
about him as an artist and now that his name is all over the place,
next time it pops up I’ll make sure to hear what he has to say. Then I just wanted to
leave you all with a poem that is really my favorite poem by
Langston Hughes because I think — I always thought Langston Hughes
was a children’s poet because he was so present in our house as well as he wrote short poets
that you could memorize. So I didn’t realize
until I was much older that he wasn’t a children’s poet. But I’m glad that my
parents exposed me to him. But one of my favorite
poems by him is “Dreams,” and everybody probably knows it. I have it on my phone
because I’d had a tendency to change the words around. But he said, “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die life is a
broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams for when
dreams go life is a barren field, frozen with snow.” These panelists will talk about
how they made their dream reality, and I hope it will be inspiration
for everybody to hold fast to your dream, tell your
story, and pass on the torch. Thank you very much. [ Applause ] >> Haile Gerima: First I
just want to thank you, my [inaudible] and my supporters. Miss Ferguson, I don’t
want to say her first name, but I’m very grateful to all
the nice words you had to say. But I am very nervous and
I feel I’m like I was sent to Siberia [laughter], and I have
to first paraphrase my presence of how I got myself
into this situation. A sister who I would consider — I
told my wife, “This sister is crazy. She wants to do this thing. I know she’s not going to
put it and I’ll say yes because it’s not going to happen.” That’s how I got in trouble. This is Miss Marie Fenton here
sitting next to my sister. So I will tell you that I never
wanted to set foot in this place. I don’t know why. But you got me trapped
and I have to admit that you are a very powerful person. I just hope you were a
counsel outside the institution where I met you because we don’t
want to lose the people’s story that doesn’t get to make it here with all these Jefferson
leftover books. [ Laughter ] But I want to speak about
the stories because I felt at this short time the only
thing I could do is speak about the battle to tell the story. It’s only bourgeoisie
people who want to make it look like
it’s entertainment. But every battle in
contradiction is built on stories — whose story are we telling? The official story where that
negative run of the official story? There’s the unofficial story. Now, for me, I don’t think — the human beings that
went into the caves to write their story
anticipated war, conquering, enslaving, et cetera. They were just saying this is who
I am, this is who I belong to, and this is where I came from. All human beings do this without any
instructions because it’s very human that changes us or distinguishes
us from the animal kingdom. We pass our story. But it’s not also anticipated that
we will enter this digital period where stories cross-dress thinking
they are our stories when, in fact, they are really the official
stories that possess our tongues and our minds to tell
the official story and make us pretend we are
telling the unofficial story. That’s the time we live in. I have my students. I tell them, “Empower your story.” They think story is what they
see on television and film, and their grandmother or grandfather
don’t figure out in this idea of storytelling because once
[inaudible] is made, it’s impossible for black people to
empower their story from the time they came in contact. This is not just every contact. It is the colonial contact
ushered, the middle passage. Now in storytelling a lot of
people talk about Sankofa , and they don’t know
where it comes from. They don’t know how to trace me from
Ethiopia to Chicago to California, and the most agonizing
journey I took to know who these black people
are in America. I’m still trying to figure out
there’s black people in America because they’re a symbol of a
complicated journey of a people. I will not underestimate
by saying I know. I’m learning. I’m in the university of
black people in America because it does have
a direct relationship to my personal life in Africa. Not many people know that. So the battle in America
is one that — for example, when I wanted to do
Sankofa white people wanted me to tell the story in the
official story-telling of their empowered position. Black people did not have the
power to begin to infiltrate into my consciousness to
influence me any other way. I knew who they were. I knew my brother Haki. I knew Baraka. In fact, I was really going to
tribute my [inaudible] to Baraka because I used to do the Dutchman
at the Goodman School of Drama just to liberate myself and try to
get in touch with black people. He usually said drama, that scares
the hell out of white people, and a lot of black people who
feel excluded in the acting world of the Goodman School of Drama
just — there’s no parts for them. Hamlet comes. No parts for them. Macbeth comes. No parts for them. Othello comes. They still have a white guy
picked to playing Othello. No parts for them. So what do they do? They do the Dutchman in
the revenge, just to revenge in that house at the
Goodman School of Drama. I took that all the way to
UCLA because I wanted to kind of why people — no, I am
not a grateful foreigner because I have liberated myself from that grateful
position thanks to racism. So stories is a battleground. A simple illustration is in
the Palestinian struggle. It’s a struggle of stories. Whose story is what? The same thing in America. When it comes to race issue,
slavery is a contention. Slavery is a story not to
be told by black people. The monuments and poetry and books
to be written officially have to be commissioned by white artists. But what are they taking when
they take a black film away from a black filmmaker
dealing on slavery issue, they are denying the black
artist to exorcise the demon and toxic ingestion of
a thing called slavery. White people in their [inaudible]
of position snatch the story from a black person
and make films that — I don’t have to enumerate
them for you, but Amistad would be a
good enough story for you. I don’t know. Black filmmaker in school — we never fantasized to someday
do a film on [inaudible] because it spoke something
different to us. Yet, not only are they
denying the black filmmaker — they’re denying the black
community to make that leap because when an artist, when a black
artist makes a monument he exorcises this evil toxic into arriving there. In so doing, he or she takes
the community by that act. That is a very privileged
position only given to white people in America. Face it. Every story black
people want to do is scrutinized and realigned by white dictatorship
I would call it of storytelling. They used to have this game called
“What’s Your Point of Entry?” Point of entry means do you
have a Brad Pitt in your story? Point of entry does not mean what
Aristotle’s idea of storytelling is. No. It’s the empowerment of white
people over black consciousness or to divert and obstruct the
right to imagine the future from the present circumstances
he or she finds herself. So it’s very important
that you should know — I think we will arrive
someday somewhere where stories would exorcise
the evil toxic of all that is passed to all of us. In this case, racism. The most divisive toxic
on Earth is racism. We know it; we see it here. I don’t have to mention to you. But what helps you to exorcise
the toxic divisive nature of racism is not allowed
to be exorcised because of the dictatorship
of white supremacy in America. When I speak about this
— I don’t have time — but I’m also talking about
the vocabulary and tradition and convention of storytelling. I’m talking about the
mindset, the thought process. White America would want
the whole world to think, to go into the thought
process, the thinking source where you imagine story
is obstructive. When a black kid goes to say, “I
want to write a story,” and when he or she bends and takes the
pencil, this subliminal power of white supremacy enters the brain,
deflecting you from what you are about to exorcise, the
points that you’re trying to get out of your system. It’s not allowed. I’m sorry. Even in the Sankofa it’s
an imperfect gesture, imperfect gesture. Why? Because there
is not black finance. There is not black power. There is no black economic power. Distribution, exhibition,
completely controlled. Even when we had it out and we were in the Berlin Film
Festival competing with every big budget film
including Malcolm X by Hollywood, the white American press boycotted
us throughout and throughout. That’s why black people in
America — I went and saw — in Washington I said to
them, “You know what? I made the film. I exorcised it.” I know I owe people with my way. We’re going to pay for it. But if you don’t show
this film it’s on you. I have made it and I’m
going back to Howard, my other plantation,
earn my money, and pay. But I’m not going to fight
to distribute this film. Black people took it on there. Made it a world phenomenon. It’s not repeated again. The whole Sankofa family from here
to Ohio, San Francisco, Chicago — when Haki opened it had Hyde Park. Nobody had ever penetrated
the system in our terms, without letting them own it. I’ll tell you, my life as a filmmaker would have
changed had I given my film to white control from the outset. But I knew that was a kiss of death. I knew it was the end of me
as a person, as an individual. So I just go on and
bogart the time here. But I’m saying when we talk about
story, we’re talking about war. We’re talking about war. You talk about proclamation without
[inaudible] who actually unleashed without [inaudible]
who actually unleashed until the white power structures
say if I’m never going to be free, you’re not going to
have a good life. Gabriel Prosser confronted
the founding fathers and stories are not
going to be told. In fact, the MacArthur Foundation,
when I applied, came and asked me, “You’re talking about a slave
confronting the founding fathers?” Yes, Gabriel Prosser,
1802, they were on there and they were running the country. There were Vice Presidents. They were all the founding fathers. He said, “This Revolution
is for you, not mine.” Whose story? That story’s never told
because there are not gutsy, black capitalists who understand that their capitalism could also
transform when they allow people to transform stories
that need to be told. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Hafiz Shabazz: Good afternoon. >> Good afternoon. >> Hafiz Shabazz: My
name is Hafiz Shabazz. My father gave me the
name Terrell Johnson. However, I chose to change my name
because I want to know who I am, and by doing that I learned a
great deal about the Shabazz, the lost tribe, those
who don’t have a home, those who do not have a
place to call their own. So, therefore, I began to search
and find out where I came from. I searched to some extent
in vain, but I went a lot of places, and so I’m multitude. I’m a number of people. I’m mixed of everything that
you could possibly imagine because I am the original man. Now one of the things that led me
to this journey that they asked me to find out who I am, was my drum. By the time I was seven years old
I wanted to drum because inside of me I was a violent person. I wanted to tear stuff up. I wanted to hurt something. Not necessarily people but everything I touched
I would tear up. So my father, he said, “Son,
I’m going to give you a drum.” He says, “You can hit that
and it won’t hit you back.” That was a good thing. However, studying the drum
I wanted to be the best, so I studied the masters. I went to Ghana. I went to [inaudible]. I went to Brazil. I went to Cuba. I went to Haiti. All of these places to
study with master drummers. So I have all of that
information and as a result of studying drumming I
learned much more about music and I also learned a great deal
about each one of those cultures. I refer to those cultures in
my study as Haitian studies because I studied the Haitian people
and how difficult their lives was and how hard their lives
was, and how everyone on the planet hated the Haitians,
even after this last earthquake. They were just devastated. The Red Cross, okay, the Red Cross
actually decepted these people. They took money, did not
build homes for them. They’re not curing their
illnesses and whatnot, and they spent the
money on themselves. The Haitians. So I studied the Haitians and I
went to Haiti not because of that, because that was — I went to
Haiti a very long time ago. As a matter of fact, it was
1971 when Papa Doc divided — was the President or Prime
Minister or whatever. So I went there because
I wanted to study voodoo. As I say the word voodoo, folks
shudder because they always say, well, you stick pins and
all those kind of things. Well, I said I wanted to
see this sticking of pins. I wanted to see all
those various things. But I did go to a ceremony
which was for Baron Samedi, and Baron Samedi was the god of the
cemetery, and there was a festival for Baron Samedi where a
person stayed in a coffin, slept in the coffin for seven days. At the end of those seven
days there was a ceremony and at the ceremony there was food. There was food, there was a lot
of drummers, a lot of dancing, and I saw within the dancing, people were getting possessed
by their spirits, okay? That just shows the power of belief. They believed so powerfully
and so devoutly that their god could
actually heal them, could actually give them
the strength to live long and to make their lives meaningful. However, there was this
Houngan who was the priest. A little small man. Couldn’t have weighed
no more than 100 pounds. There was a bull in
the hunt for them. Hunt [inaudible] a place where the
[inaudible] ceremonies take place. So the bull was tied to the
peristyle, and there was a pole that held up the roof and whatnot. He was tied to it. A bull. I’m going to say that again. A bull. This little man. So the bull wanted
to go out and leave. He wanted to leave. He was pulling the pole
and pulling and pulling. So this little man sat
down behind the bull, held both of the bull’s hind
legs, and steadied the bull. The bull could not move. A hundred pound man. I mean it. So he was exceptionally strong because he believed this is
what he was supposed to do. So I learned about the voodoo
drumming to the point whereas if you believe, I can play
my drum and possess you. You will then transform. Neurologically you transform. So you could be actually
I’d say to the point where pain could not
invade your body. You could be painless. You could feel wonderful just
from listening to this drum. I went to Cuba. The exact same thing. Belief. People were getting
possessed by their gods and goddesses, the Orishas. They could transform. They could speak in what we
call speak in tongues, right? They could heal you. So I learned that through drums. I went to Brazil. The exact same thing. I went to [inaudible]. The same thing. I went to Ghana. The exact same thing. So we, if we choose to
believe that we’re powerful, then we could do whatever it is that
we choose to do and be successful. All we have to do is believe. That was from drumming,
learning about the cultures, quote/unquote cases, studies. I am now an ethnomusicologist. I went to school and
learned what to say and how to say it, what to study. I went to school to learn. But I did that naturally because I
love my culture and I love drumming, and I love hitting stuff. I still drum. I’m 68 years old and
I play every day. When I leave here I’m
going to go play. >> You don’t want to stop. >> Hafiz Shabazz: Well,
this is not the point. It is not the point. I wanted to tell you the truth. But nonetheless, that is
what actually healed my soul. I cannot get away from [inaudible]. There was a school in Philadelphia, an independent school
called [inaudible]. They were, I think, a school of humanitarianism,
for humanitarianism. It was to teach people to love one
another, to love your black brother and sister, not to kill your
black brother and sister, not to hate your black brother
and sister, but to love them, and [inaudible] is in your [inaudible] language,
it means house of love. I studied there and played there
and I became the master drummer of the dance ensemble for [inaudible] African
American Dance Ensemble. I was the master drummer. All of those cultures that I
studied, I taught young brothers and sisters, seven years
old, five years old, 12 years old, even adults. Now I teach at Dartmouth College. Been there 30 years. I teach three terms a year,
in every term, every term. I have a waiting list
of 200 students. A waiting list. I only allow 25 into my
class because it’s special. That’s how I live my life. It’s how I support myself, and
that’s what I continue to do. So that’s my story. [ Applause ] >> Beverly East: Good
afternoon, everybody. My name is Beverly East and
it’s such a honor and a pleasure to be here, especially sitting
up here with three mindful, progressive, wonderful,
handsome men. You don’t know how it feels
to be up here [laughter]. I’m very pro the black man
because I had this wonderful father who gave me so much love that when
I hear women or anybody talking about my black man,
it hurts my heart because of the man that raised me. Because of the way
the man raised me, my father raised me to
be proud of who I am. Don’t let this British
accent fool you [laughter]. I am a Jamaican woman who happens
to live in other parts of the world. But the diaspora that I come
from, I walk with pride. So my story is that I had your
typical nine to five job in London. I was a manager for a large retail
company, the only black woman in the entire company in
a management position — 45,000 people in that company. I’m the only black
manager in the company. One day I am told that a customer
complained that it was unhygienic for me to be standing near the food. I’m not touching the food. I’m not supervising the foot. I’m not selling the food. I’m just in that division
of the company. I was told to move to the
bra section, the manager. So I moved to the bra section
and that night I got home, I packed up my — and came back
to London, and didn’t resign like you’re supposed
to — give notice. I just quit. I just quit. My family was worried because
you need that reference from your last job to get another
job, and I didn’t have a reference, and I wasn’t going
back to say sorry, and I wasn’t having a bad
day that day that I quit. I just had it. So I decided — the kind of
personality I have I need to set up my own company, do my own stuff. So that’s what I’ve done. I am a handwriting examiner,
a forensic document examiner. So what the hell is that? I don’t read palms. Let’s just get what I
don’t do [laughter]. I don’t read palms. I can’t tell you the future. What I do is I look at handwriting, identify the authenticity
for forged signature. Do you know how many
people forge documents? I didn’t think this business
would survive the way it has. So I do two aspects. I look at profiling. I look at handwriting
and your personality, and I look at handwriting
for authenticity. So it’s two different fields,
but I’m qualified in both. I just so happen to
be the only woman in the world who’s
Jamaican qualified in both. So for a long time no
one took me seriously, not even my mother
who really loves me. So she would tell people. She’s married to a lawyer. She would never say what I did, like I was a hooker or
something [laughter]. She’s married to a lawyer. So for years that was
my claim to fame. So I decided — well,
a friend suggested, “Why don’t you write a
book about handwriting?” So I says, “Yeah, but it
would have to be academic and who would want to read it?” Then this can only
happen in America. I was asked to talk about the
JonBenet Ramsey ransom note back in the time. I did not have the letter. Hadn’t seen the letter. Just knew the basic
story like all of us. But I was asked 26 times to go
to 26 different events to talk about a letter that I had not seen. I would tell them I had
not seen the letter. Come, come, come. So I did. Twenty-six
speaking engagements, for pay, across the United States, to talk
about a document that I hadn’t seen. Only in America. So then I get there
and then I’m not white because they hear me on the phone. They think, oh, she’s white. I get that I’m not white. Then it’s a whole another palaver. One man said to me, “Oh, you’re not
at all how I imagined you to be.” I says, “Maybe a little
taller, yes [laughter]?” So on this trip of going on — I
call it the JonBenet Ramsey tour. Poor baby. What was the most question
I was asked? “I met this man in Barbados. What can you tell me
about his handwriting?” No one wanted to talk to me
about the murder of this child. First of all, I was offended
that someone would be — I’m here to talk about the death
of a child and you’re coming to me to talk about some man
you met in Barbados. So after about 15 cities I’m
hearing the same question. I’m thinking this might be the
book that I’m supposed to write. So that is how Finding Mr.
Writ , W-R-I-T, came about, which is handwriting, how
to look at handwriting and identify personality traits. So this was my first book. I got a major book
deal with Random House. Major, major book deal
with Random House. I couldn’t even believe it. Because my mother always said,
isn’t she married to a lawyer? So I asked the lawyer I was married
to to read the 15-page contract to make sure I was
getting a good deal. So I did. I got a two-book deal
with Random House — unheard of. So I’m really an author now. I’ve always wanted to be an author. But when you’re a little
girl you keep it to yourself because you don’t want
to speak it aloud because you don’t want
to sound silly. Back then. I’m an old woman, so back then. So I had read Fanon
and James Baldwin and so how could I be an author
because the people I was reading, they were so phenomenal, so how
could I be one of these people? So then when I’d written
this book and then I was on Good Morning America with
Diane Sawyer and we sold 6000 books in eight minutes, I was like, whoo,
I really am an author [laughter]. So I had to go back into my
head because there was a story in my heart that had been in
my heart from when I was 18. What had happened is my father
had lost 14 members of his family in one night in a train accident. Two-hundred-and-fifty people
had died, 14 from my family, with the same name as me. That night my father locked it
away, had not spoken about it. So I started to go to
Jamaica to research that book. But because I grew up in England
I didn’t really know enough and I wanted to give
the story justice. So I moved to Jamaica
to write that story because after — I’m an author now. I can do this. So I go to Jamaica, spend
two years in Jamaica, and I write Reaper of Souls . the story that was
untold in Jamaica. I didn’t realize how many
people were still walking around from this terrible night
unresolved, emotions unresolved. This book is now in the
hands of a director. I’m sorry. I would have come to
you first [laughter]. With a movie director. This book is with them. But the thing with this book
was I was told by Random House that it wasn’t Jamaican enough. So I was like, oh, thank you
very much, me gone [laughter]. So I didn’t try to — I don’t know
what it is to be Jamaican enough. I’m not a raster. I don’t smoke weed. I listen to more than reggae. So is that all it is to be Jamaican? I do have more than one job though. [ Laughter ] So I kissed Random House goodbye,
went to an independent publisher in Jamaica, and had the
book published in Jamaica. Then I fell out with them
because if you don’t do it my way, none of it works, so. It was mainly inexperience,
the small press in Jamaica. So then my final — well,
I shouldn’t say my final. My third book, because I’m
working on a fourth book. Because I lived in London and
no disrespect to any woman in this audience, but I
cannot define my childhood through somebody else’s childhood. There are so many young girls who
have been molested as a child, and beaten, and gone to bed hungry,
and all these things, that we — you know Precious
is a typical example of how young black
girls are defined. I am not one of them and
I’m not ashamed to hide that I’m not one of them. I had a father that loved me. Would come home from work 3:30
in the afternoon to be home so when I got home from school
I wasn’t a latchkey kid, and would stay home with me,
cook dinner, and stay with me until my mother came home. I could never get into
trouble you know. There was — the leash was so tight. So I wrote this book as my
young life, Bat Mitzvah Girl , and the reason why it’s called
Bat Mitzvah Girl because I had my mother and I had four Jewish
women across the street from my house who had no children. So I became their girl. So it’s these four sisters, my
life with them, and my life back and forth from London to Jamaica
because I went to Jamaica to live with my grandmother for
a while, and I’m so happy for that two years
that I had with her. So I wrote this and actually for the
first time self-published, which, for everybody in the room that wants
to do a book for the first time, it’s really not as easy
as they tell you it is. Because I had a database from
the Random House and a template of the marketing, it’s
done very well. But I always feel as a first-time
author you try and get a publisher to help you because it’s not
as easy as people try and do. So, I thank you very
much for listening to me, and I knew I [inaudible] talk
for five minutes so I’m sure that five minutes is way, way up. Thank you very much. [ Applause ] >> Gabriel Benn: Good afternoon. >> Good afternoon. >> Gabriel Benn: My name
is Gabriel Asheru Benn. I am an educator. I’ve been an educator here in
D.C. for 18 years as a teacher and as an administrator
for an after-school program and a summer program, and et cetera. I’m also an artist,
a hip-hop artist. I go by the name Asheru
so I guess in the effort of telling my own story
in self-discovery. Asheru is a name that I
gave myself at 17 years old when I was in college, my quest. Yeah, my story is ever evolving. I feel like I’m just kind of moving
through my story as it’s being told or kind of creating it as I go. But because I have these two
backgrounds of being an artist and an educator, I’ve kind of
spent my whole life finding a way to bridge the two. Early-on, I put on my first
independent project in ’97. It was a vinyl. It was a vinyl and tape. I was very proud of that, to be able
to put something out with my name on it, something that I wrote, something that I created,
and I still am. I continue to be proud everytime
I release something new. But I also was in [inaudible]
at that time on my first year as an educator, as a teacher,
and I never — I went to school. I studied Anthropology. My dream was to work
in the Smithsonian. I want to take down that — just be a global traveler and
study different cultures and write and just — kind of like
what Anthony Bourdain does — food, everything. Just experience the whole
thing and report back up. So that was kind of my thing. When I got back home from school,
the job that I thought I would get, because I had interned and done
some stuff with the Smithsonian, when I got back, the
job wasn’t there. So I took this menial job
sitting in a cubicle, and one day, hating my job, I looked
in the classified ads, and I saw an ad for a teacher. It said, “Teacher Wanted.” It just said, “Teacher Wanted”
and a phone number [laughter]. I know. I called it. A guy answered the phone. He was the principal of the school. He had called it [inaudible]
Elementary. It closed down in ’06, but he
answered the phone and he said — I said, “Yes, I’m calling
about the ad.” He said, “You want to teach?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “When can
you get over here?” I said, “Right now.” I got in a cab and I rode to
Union Station to Southeast. Walked right up in the school. I introduced myself and he asked
me if I had ever taught before. I told me no, but I really — I
think it was something that I — all of my mentors were
teachers coming up. I felt like it was
something that I’d like to at least experience, to try. I guess he was very desperate
for a teacher because — this was a Wednesday, and he
said, “Can you come on Monday?” I said yes. He said, “You got to turn
in two weeks or whatever?” I said, “No, let me
worry about that. I’ll be here Monday.” I went back to work, I quit,
I went home, I got ready. I started that Monday. I learned everything on the curve. The students taught me everything. The students in — I had a couple
of older teachers who were kind of mentoring me through my first
year, and I really realized that not only did I enjoy it,
but then I saw a real need and a real service
that had to be done. So I just, from that point on,
committed myself to doing it. Now, while I’m doing this and
learning more about myself and being — and what it
means to be a teacher, I’m still working on
this music stuff. I had family that said, look,
you’re going to have to give one up. You’ll never be able to do both. You got to — eventually
you’re going to have to choose. Everytime I came to that point
where I felt like I had to choose, I had come to that fork in the
road, and I just — I can’t choose. I’ll go straight. So my whole life from there has been
a merging of these two passions. So, to fast-forward. A few years after that I
started working a private school with EDLE students. If you’re not familiar, that
means emotionally disturbed or disabled students. I was encountering students, like
you said, students who were 13, 14, 15 years old, but reading
on a second and third grade reading level. I’m sitting there like
how am I supposed to teach the student this
stuff that you want me to teach and is graded age appropriate,
when they’re reading on such a low reader level? It was something that I struggled
with for a while, and yet I just — I thought about it and I said,
well, hip-hop taught me everything. When I was growing up people like
Mike Kemp, [inaudible] MC Light, Native Tongue, these groups were
like — they were my teachers. I learned about drag nationalism. I learned about manhood. I learned about America. I learned about history. I learned about ancient
Egypt, Black Panther Movement. I learned all of it through hip-hop. So I said, well, maybe I can
just take some of these lyrics and make textbooks, make
activities where they could — they already know these lyrics so
why don’t we use this as our text, and then I could kind of
finagle the rest from there. So that’s how I created the Hip-Hop
Educational Literacy Program. We made 13 titles, we travelled all
over the country, and we started to learn that teachers
were gravitating to it more than the students because
teachers were saying, “Look, I have this issue, too. What can I do for these
kids that I have?” It turned into a professional
development model. We started talking to teachers about culturally responsive
education using these hip-hop materials and other things. So that kind of spun into me
really stepping into being, I guess, a hip-hop educator. It was not meaning that I’m
coming in to teach you how to rap. More that I’m teaching you how
to look at the world critically through the lens of hip-hop culture
and the culture that I identified with as me being a hip-hop person. So that kind of started my quest. I still carry that
banner to this day. Currently I’m doing a lot of work
with culturally responsive teaching. I just quit DCPS in August of last
year from just fatigue I guess and students getting killed. I went to my last funeral and I
just decided in August I was done, and I left in — I’m going to tell
you a quick story because I could go on forever, but I can kind of
sum it all up in this story. So I quit in August. In October — I mean I’m
sorry — in September I — now let me not just say I quit. I quit knowing, okay, I have
a little bit of savings. I have a wife, three children. I didn’t just recklessly walk
away, but I knew, okay — let me start stopping for right now
because come August I don’t want to stop in the school year. I want to find my new thing,
whatever it is I’m going to do. So I had a little bit of savings, what have you, except
— August I quit. September I’m still
working, figuring things out. Not at school but working on
my own and doing my own thing. October comes around. Same thing. I’m lecturing, I’m doing some
little shows here and there. I got an ambassadorship
with the State Department — I’m actually a Global
Hip-Hop Cultural Ambassador — who sent me to Bangladesh
for the month of November. So I said okay. So I’m good until November, and
then when I come back in November, I mean from this trip, I don’t
really know what I’m going to do and to figure it out. So I go out to Bangladesh
and I’m almost — not poor, but I’m getting there. I’m rapidly approaching. I’m over there, I’m overseas, and
I’m enjoying the whole time there. Our job was to kind of use hip-hop
as a form of cultural diplomacy. So leading these workshops
for students and learning about their culture and really
facilitating the process for these youth to tell
their story through hip-hop. Some of you may or may
not know but when I do — when you go overseas and you
meet young people who are in hip-hop culture, they’re
heavily, heavily influenced by American black hip-hop culture. Yes, most of them — what’s
your first memory of hip-hop? Most of them will tell you Chuck D.
Public Enemy is my first inspiration of hip-hop. It’s not that now, but
that was their first. So it was a big deal for
people to empower themselves through hip-hop, to
tell their stories. Then once they stopped
speaking in English and speaking their mother tongue and tell you the story,
it’s a whole new level. So being over there and
going through this transition and seeing these youth that are
starting to step into that realm of speaking in their
mother tongue and speaking to tell their story,
I was very inspired. I met these artists called
[inaudible] musicians who dedicated their
life to reading poetry by this poet named [inaudible]
and some other poets. But they dedicate their life to this
poetry, this poetry so to speak. I collaborated with one of the
artists, and he was singing a song, and the song gave me chills. To hear this man singing
it just gave me chills. I didn’t know a word
of what he was saying but it was a moving, moving song. So I asked one of the
people who were with us. I said, “What is he
singing about in this song?” He was like, “He’s singing about
this bird called the chatak bird, and the bird floats
on water like a duck, but he never drinks the
water under his feet. He only drinks water that rain —
he drinks the rain what comes down. It’s almost like this
bird is dedicated. He’s patient and he’s dedicated
to what the Creator gives him. He doesn’t want to drink the water
that he’s swimming in everyday.” I was like, wow, that’s amazing. So the whole arc of the
song I guess is what happens when it doesn’t rain? Oh, wow. All right,
I’ll make it very quick. So the story is what
happens when it doesn’t rain? What does this bird do? He leaves it hanging. You never really get the answer. It’s left for you to imagine
what does this bird do? So I come home and I’m back
from this amazing trip. I look in my account and I’m
like, wow, I’m really stuck. At this point I’m like,
well, I got to do something. So I’m doing these little
odd things, and I said, well, maybe I can apply for
unemployment just as something. They were like, well, no, you
can’t apply for unemployment. You quit your job. You weren’t fired. You don’t — you can’t just
quit and get unemployment. So I’m like, wow, I
can’t get unemployment. I’m thinking about
these other things, and then I thought about that bird. I was like you know what? I’m not going to drink
from that water. I’m just going to let the
rain fall and I’ll be fine. So November comes, December
comes, and I’m like whoo, now I’m really being tested. January — because I actually
— the end of December, my birthday is December 29th, so right around my birthday I
get a phone call from this sister who I had hired maybe
eight years prior to work on this educational literacy thing
that I was telling you about. She calls me, and she’s like “I’ve been looking for
you for two months.” She said, “I got this job. I’m in Chicago right now. I’m working with Discovery , and I think this job
would be perfect for you. The only thing is you
got to come to Chicago.” I was like, “Okay [inaudible]. Tell me when it’s bad.” She’s like, “No, that’s it. You just got to come to Chicago.” So I landed and took this
job from a woman who had — who was my employee years ago. She turned around and hired
me, and now when I do — after I left in August, I said I
wouldn’t come back to this kind of thing, now I’ve been kind
of deployed to the South Side of Chicago, and I do the same
work on the South Side of Chicago. I do it four days a week,
and I come back home. So I commute back and forth, but
I’m working in the same community. This is a sign for me that no
matter how much I try to walk away, it’s never going to happen. I’m always going to be
pulled back, and that’s fine. I’m perfectly fine with that. But I think it just speaks to the — I think that’s why I’m the
kind of artist that I am, the topics that I speak about,
the things that I talk about, are all in that same vein of
being in service to my people, and the fact that I’m — I
can never be torn from it. I’m always a part of that fabric and
I’m always going to speak about it in every forum that I can, so. [ Applause ] >> Eve Ferguson: Wow. So everybody has a story, right? But these were some
fantastic stories, and I hope you were
inspired by them. I’m going to take the liberty of —
before I open it up to the audience to ask questions — to ask Asheru
if he can give us a little sample of that which his name has been
so on the tip of people’s tongues. Could you do that? >> Gabriel Benn: Sure
[applause].Over there? >> Eve Ferguson: Yeah,
you can come — yeah. >> Gabriel Benn: I’m going
to dedicate this song to — this story, to the film
Sankofa because it meant a lot to me when I watched it. It kind of inspired this beast. Okay. Once upon a time in the outer
reaches were coal-black knights met white hot beaches. The destroyers came
ashore and left speechless by mysterious peoples
with sunburnt features. Among them, healers and
even teachers who knew of God before they
even heard of Jesus. It was fate that they
would cross paths. Neither side would come out
the same in the aftermath. Off to the new world,
through the door of no return. Broke our mind, body, spirit
with very little concern. I guess over time we
learned how to adapt, make a brand new second hand
out of these old scraps. Now we influence the whole planet. Better or for worse the
effects are titanic. Different branch from the same tree. NO matter where I find
myself I’m the same me. It’s a new place to be in, a
new breed of human being made of Africans, Indians, and Europeans. Went from their goose to niggers,
from [inaudible] to cotton-pickers. Still God lives through. It takes a lot to kill us. When you talk about this
country we the builders, and that there is an actual fact. But I don’t hyphenate the name. Hold my head with no shame. I ain’t African American. I’m black. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter when you
go, there you are. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter where you go. I wear it like a suit of armor. My [inaudible] to bring
me good karma. So my seed worth a plow
like a good farmer. It’s out of every Trayvon or Obama. Lots of potential to
be great or die trying. The odds are stacked. Ain’t no point of me
being a shy liar. I walk with a certain pride and move
by a code that go for what we know. More like what we’re owed o make up
for the lies that the media tells, like being black is hell. Death, crime, and jail are the
only outcomes with few exceptions. We’re here to change
course in a new direction. Use talent to provide balance. Advance through the corporate to
make them forfeit or give a fatigue in the Ivy League and watch them
all fall short on the ball court. Never forget who you are,
what we’ve been through. How what we did don’t compare
to what we’re meant to. And the best is yet to come so
what’s essential that we wake up before we get that wake-up call. We don’t all have to agree, but we
all have to be committed to a degree to do for you the same
as I would do for me. If we could do that we’ll finally
get to see what we’ve been fighting for this whole time to get free. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter where you go. Often imitated. Never duplicated. Always underestimated. Cash money generated. Fear, love hated. Especially the highly-educated
or the ones from the bottom they thought
never would have made it. Which we never tolerated being
so degraded, lands invaded. Soon as oil and gold mines raided,
incarcerated, socially castrated, separated at birth from
the very root they gave it. Still feel the pain. We self-medicated. Stay faded from the projects
to communities is gated. I won’t overcomplicate it. I simply state it. Look, the world is in trouble. We going to be the
ones that save it. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter when you
go, there you are. No matter where you
go, there you are. No matter where you go. [ Applause and Cheering ] >> Eve Ferguson: I know
it’s hard to ask a question after that [laughter],
but let’s open it up. Any questions? Yes. >> You talk about travelling through
Bangladesh and doing this work and taking my message to
other parts of the world. Do you envision that
continuing, and how do you take that message to parts of Europe? My grandchildren are in
Finland where Fins have one of the highest educated populations
in the world from the [inaudible] — >> Gabriel Benn: Correct. >> They all have a high
percentage of suicides. So, tell me how this can apply
in other parts of the world. My son has an interest in
children and hip-hop and — >> Gabriel Benn: Well, I
mean I’ve been to Finland. I’ve travelled to — I’ve been
to 24 countries doing this work. But what I’ve always found is
that hip-hop specifically is kind of that voice for people who feel
voiceless, for people who don’t feel like they’re being
heard loud enough. They take to that culture and
that music because it’s kind of the underdog culture,
underdog kind of music. But I use it as a platform
for youth to tell their story. So, for example, in Bangladesh we’re
working with youth whose parents, whose families are telling them
this is a fruitless endeavor. Don’t do it. I want you to go to school. This is — culturally
it won’t help us. They have all of these pressures
around them telling them not to engage in, to hip-hop. What they’re trying to say
is, this is saving my life. I wouldn’t be here if
it weren’t for this. I wouldn’t have the opportunities. I wouldn’t have the support system. I wouldn’t have the worldview that I currently have
if it weren’t for this. If I lose this I will have
nothing is what they were trying to tell their parents, because they
didn’t feel empowered to do that. Our job — well, I took it upon
myself just for the ones who were with me, was to give them
that platform to write and to tell their story, and
to say it to their parent or elder who’s around them. Ironically enough, at the end of the workshops we
did a culminating show in the National Theater. It was standing room only. All of their families came out, and a lot of the families
afterward were coming up to — I would observe them
speaking to their youths. Some of them came up to me
or some of the other people who were facilitators, and
they were like, “Thank you. I needed to — it gave
me a different way of looking at my child.” To be honest, I kind
of sympathize with it because my father didn’t support
me making music for a long time. It wasn’t until my dad was in
Japan and I called him and I said, “I’m doing a show in
Japan next week.” My father saw me perform for the
first time in another country. But it was the first time
he had ever seen me perform. I think, for him, it was like,
“Wow, well this is different than I thought it was [laughter].” You know what I mean? But it was how you do it. I’ve been trying to
tell you forever. So here it is. Other kids say that. It was empowerful. It was as impactful. I’m not from Bangladesh, but we
could still relate on that thing. In Finland, whether it’s in
Senegal, South Africa, wherever, we all have a common story, and
that common story is what we share through the culture. Whether you’re Finnish or
Dutch or what have you, there are certain things that we
all have in common, and the key is to find where do we intersect? Where’s that thing
that we both can share, that we can talk about,
and relate to? >> Bahiyyah Muhammad: For me,
I think we always have to know that everything black people create
as a healing process, whether — what you have to be very concerned
is about the Africans in America who did not debate their freedom, did not give anybody the
jurisdiction, including [inaudible], because everybody says
your master was nice but I ain’t a slaves is
the discussion there. So, to me, there were Africans who would never accept
the very idea of slaves. Even now, [inaudible]
would say slave. Slave means genetically slave. But enslavement is the grammar most
progressive Afrocentric people put out to correct this idea of my
slave father doesn’t even sit right. So black people have to know
in America it is unfortunate. I don’t want to be — they have
to be as greedy as white people when it comes to producing, archiving their intellectual
property, because in those days, the imagination of a people. The kind of world they want to see. So, for me, whatever you label it, it could get lost in
the American shuffle. For me, don’t ever forget Menendez. Study Fort Mose, John Horst. They’re black people. I’m going to go to Mexico to
interview their descendents from Florida within
the whole black African and Native American,
Seminole, [inaudible]. Those people never needed the
sanctioning of American historians. They continued for 100 years. They continued to commemorate
their historical journey. What is very important
is whether it’s — underground railroad is
very, very important. But you have to know that
there is another movement that did not include white
people, and all gutsy people, white or black, have
to endorse those people for their qualitative
contribution to change America. They were very violent,
as violent slavery was. It’s hard to sometimes to choose
for people who are trying to say, look at the past and instead
as a uniter but as a divider, it’s very hard for them to look. I am very impressed for me and
my African friends when I go to a panel discussion in
Africa, in South Africa. I tell them, yeah, [inaudible]
in the United States of America. This was from Virginia all the way
to Florida, Mississippi, Alabama. Their history is critical because
— a little kid says, if he says, “Abraham Lincoln liberated
me,” that is not liberation. That is mortgaging, eternal
enslavement, because you’re saying to me, “Somebody had
a lock to my freedom.” In that whole drawing,
the very drawing — that image, visually,
that “Free me.” It is a burden to blacks;
it’s a burden to white kids, to reallocate the idea of
freedom to another human being. That debate has to die in America. That debate of saying,
“I freed you,” for every ignorant white person to
go around accusing black people, well, you don’t seem
to be responsible to enjoy the freedom I gave you.” That’s every violence
against blacks. Free black people says that. So I’m saying change the narrative. Everything good black people
invent could also be poisonous. My brother’s amazing. But I’ll tell you, some of the
[inaudible] that is enriching Sony and et cetera and et
cetera is not trickling down to black economic
transformation. Black people now cannot economically
produce their own anything. That’s the [inaudible]
we’re inheriting now. >> Hafiz Shabazz: True. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad:
It’s very difficult. Book publishing —
Haci, [inaudible] Press, Black Classics, three black people. Even then, they don’t
even have the money to really show you how many
black people are writing. In this kind of situation you
can’t be flimsy at the expense of black people, especially to me. I’m a foreigner. I’m here as a guest to black
people as far as I’m concerned because they embraced me when
racism tried to mess with my mind. They embraced me. They called me brother when I didn’t
even know the meaning of brother. Therefore, I can’t
compromise black people. I will not make a movie if I
have to compromise black people, and every deal that would come to
me is to compromise black people by saying, “Do another
Driving Miss Daisy . >> Haile Gerima: Miss Daisy. >> Bahiyyah Muhammad: Do
another Barbershop 22 . Do them. No. I will not buy that. To me, every black person who
does, it’s their business. But I will not be in that position. So, for me, this is
fantastic and positive first. But where do you take it? Do not lose, do not
take everything black — don’t go take it and take the tooth
out just because it’s a piece of — or it creates a career for people. As far as I’m concerned no living
black person, including black people in America, have no right to compromise the history
of black people. >> Gabriel Benn: Thank you. [ Applause ] I think it is a big
issue doing that. But the — I have hit
robots myself as a teacher. When you have black history and
Black History Month comes around and you have students who say off
the top, “I don’t want to talk about Martin Luther
King and Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver
and the peanut issue.” They say that. I hear that every year. I hear students —
somebody complains, somebody says that — and it is. It’s on us to show a broader aspect. What I tend to do is not — I mean,
I can’t — you can’t skip the past. You have to talk about the past. But what I tend to do is try
to show it in the context. Context is everything. So even like what the brother
was saying about hip-hop artists. I take the same position
he does where I don’t work to compromise the integrity
of my people in my heart, so I don’t do that. Now, will that make me pay? Probably not. I can’t sustain a living off of it but that doesn’t mean
don’t make the art. So I still do that,
but I guess the — to answer your question more
directly, it has to be put in a context of present and future. It can’t just be past. It’s the past, and how do we take
the past when it’s happening, and what does that mean in
the context of white male? Then how do we take the
past and what does that mean in the context of what could be? But not — what we tend
to do is we just focus on the past and say, “Never forget.” But the application in the
synthesis of what we learn from about the past is what is going
to give the students the context for why we are asking
them to learn this and why we deem it important
even if they don’t initially. Because once you put
it into context, then they can see why
it’s so important. So like for example, this whole —
this started happening with Trayvon and Mike Brown, all of these
youth that are getting killed. I’m talking about it in a elementary
school on the South Side of Chicago. It’s right around the corner from a street called
Emmett Till Road, right? So we’re talking about Mike Brown
and Trayvon on Emmett Till Road. When I ask, “Do you know who
Emmett Till is,” some of them knew, some heard about the name. They didn’t really know
the story and why — in context that is so pertinent to
right now, and so you have to — like I say, if you’re
going to do it — first of all, it can’t
just be in February. That’s number one. Number two, you have to put it in a
context where you can see what’s — how it relates to right now,
how it’s going to happen. I mean how it relates to the
future, and then also using the film and all the other arts because that’s what builds
these images in our psyche. If you’re going to
change our psyche, you have to use the
media that’s created to do that, and we don’t use it. It’s being made, but we’re not using
it strategically to change that. So that’s a lot of the work that
I’m looking forward to doing in the future and partnering with
people who do, because the media of literacy is a big part of
this literacy conversation. How do we contextualize this
media and use it to our benefit? That’s a longer story, but, yeah. >> Beverly East: I am not in
the education system, per se. I would not have the
patience to teach. My personality does not allow it. Somebody would be dead and
it wouldn’t be me [laughter]. I think a lot of our
history has to come from our home, from the parents. I know everybody’s busy, but I
think it comes from the home. Your self image comes from
your home or somebody. It doesn’t necessarily
have to be your mother. It can be your grandmother. It can be somebody. Then black history’s every day. Every day something is created. I was just asked am I going
to write about my father. My father is in this book. My father’s story is
in the other book. His people died and the
Jamaican government — at the time we were not
an independent island. We were under village rules so
it was all hushed up and covered. So when I went to Jamaica
to write that story, everybody thought I was some kind
of spy or what has she come to do? What she really come to do? So I think especially — [ Inaudible Speaker ] >> Eve Ferguson: Press
the button on the bottom. >> Beverly East: Just press this? >> Eve Ferguson: The
button on the bottom. >> Beverly East: On the bottom. Okay. >> Eve Ferguson: It’s on the side. >> Beverly East: On the side. I just think individually we have
to make it our duty to speak, speak up when we see something. I have a son who’s 23, and when he
was a teenager I used to watch — I can’t remember the name of it now. Nine-o-two something. >> Nine-o-two-one-o . >> Beverly East: Yeah. Thank you. I used to watch that 10/15 minutes a
day so I knew what he was listening to and what he was
— what he enjoyed. So one day I’m in the car and I
said to him about Little Wayne, and he says, “Mom,
mom, stop, stop, stop.” But at least I knew
who Little Wayne was. But he was — but I felt the
only way I could reach him when he was 12 was through
rap music, and so my mother, who is 80-something years old,
she started to listen to Jay Z and everybody, so when
her grandson came to London she knew what
he was listening to. So I think it’s an
individual road for all of us. When I see young black men on
the street I speak to them. If they’ve got earphones on,
what are you listening to? They look at me like well, huh, huh? I tell them to pull their pants up. Pull your pants up. Pull up your self-esteem. It helps. It helps. >> Gabriel Benn: Especially
from a woman. >> Beverly East: Yeah. My son would always say, “Mom,
don’t, don’t, don’t do — don’t tell me what I can’t do.” So — >> Hafiz Shabazz: I just want to
dovetail what Beverly is saying, is that all of us, when
you speak about history, we should journal our daily
lives, everything we do every day. We should write it in a journal. I don’t need that. Write it in a journal, day by day. Then you actually record
a living history. So when your children and other
people want to know what’s going on in the lives of
today, you have a journal. Actually write it down. That’s what I tell my students. Each day write it in
your — a journal. Then it’s going to turn into
a book where you can sell it, but that’s not important
because no one is going to actually tell our lives. >> Beverly East: I [inaudible]. >> Hafiz Shabazz: No
one is going to do that. So you have to do it yourself. >> Eve Ferguson: Okay, we’re going to let Dr. Madhubuti
have the last word. We started with him,
so we’ll end with him, and that means we’ve
come 360 degrees. >> Haki Madhubuti: Haile Gerima
and I are of the same generation. So we come at this really in
a liberated way, all right, that we’re not asking
permission for doing that stuff. That what he does in his film
and what I do in my books — the way he does this thing
[inaudible] create an institutional structure in D.C., and what we do
is try to fill [inaudible] school. We need to liberate a zone. We need these zones so we can come
and talk and share and not hold back and tell the truth because
we do have traitors among us, and then we have to be
very clear about that. So we have been stopped by people
who going into secret meetings after they leave us, and,
therefore, we cannot move. What I think that we need to
really begin to understand that we do not have in our community
that we need — we need wealth. We need wealth. I mean, even this meeting required
some money to get [inaudible]. Where did it come from? It came from us, [inaudible]. We need wealth ourselves. Well, we can’t even get past it in
this kind of economy because most of us do not [inaudible]. Thanks so much. But like this young
man is [inaudible]. >> I’m not blood. >> You’re not? >> Haki Madhubuti: He
ain’t but [inaudible]. >> Gabriel Benn: That’s my brother. >> Haki Madhubuti: That’s his. >> Gabriel Benn: That’s my mayor. >> Haki Madhubuti: That’s a
national program right there. That’s an international program. I’m so glad you [inaudible]. We are international people. >> Gabriel Benn: Yes. >> Haki Madhubuti: All right? We’re not just right
here in Washington, D.C. or the South Side of Chicago. We travel all around the world. But the point is this
is our home base, right? He’s not a foreigner. He’s my brother. >> Gabriel Benn: That’s right. >> Haki Madhubuti: You
don’t ask permission. You hear that? So the key point now — always when we leave here today is
what will we do tomorrow? How do we, each of
us, involve ourselves in creating these liberated
[inaudible]? All right? So we can’t move in [inaudible]. And, finally, this
is very important. We’re going to pay for it. We have to pay for it. If you think you’re going to
create anything that’s going to represent us with a grant for MacArthur [laughter],
we [inaudible]. All right? That means that you come out of
your pocket, you pay dues just like you pay that 10%
at your church. Then this is a liberated
zone church, right? When [inaudible] says give me
$200 so I can get a new jet, I said I’ll give you $200 for
a new jet if you just get away from here, leave, don’t — [ Laughter and Applause ] >> First of all, I want to
thank you all for coming here, and I know that you’ve come from
many different areas of the country, so thank you for being here and
for being here the whole day. I want to thank our speakers. They were marvelous. I know that we’re all here because
of them, because they’ve added so much to our knowledge,
to our enthusiasm, to our division here,
and to the Library. I want particularly to
thank Dr. Maria Fenton. She has been the initiator. She has been the flame
that started this, and I want to recognize
the work that she has done. So, thank you, Maria. [ Applause and Cheering ] I want to thank our own
Dr. Sibyl Moses [applause]. She has been extraordinary
working and organizing and putting together this program. Our own Eve Ferguson who
has just been fabulous and has [applause] also
worked very, very hard. Our Marita Harper who has
been there [applause] night and day, working on this program. Behind the scenes we’ve had the
people who’ve put together the sound system, the film people who have
been standing here the whole day [applause] filming us. So thank you. Thank you for being there,
and they’re always there. They’re always doing
the work together. I want to thank the
Library, and by the way, we were not involved in money. Believe it or not, there was no
money that put this together. It was just the goodwill of everyone
working very hard and wanting to have this event [applause]. So, thank you, Dr. Madhubuti. Thank you all for being here. >> This has been as presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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