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Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

It’s Thanksgiving weekend up in Canada, which usually makes me crave Stove Top stuffing and pumpkin pie. This year I actually haven’t thought of holiday food, in part because I have some Canadian friends in town and instead we’ve been catching up on politics. I realize that one way to minimize job stress is to spend a couple of days NOT grading, NOT developing lesson plans, and NOT attending work-related events. The latter is especially hard to do—on Saturday I went to the Brooklyn Museum with friends to see the Mickalene Thomas exhibit, which is phenomenal. I saw one of my students, which I expected, since I offered extra credit to my Black Women in the Americas class. I walked out of the gallery feeling an overwhelming sense of pride—Thomas is brilliant and I’m sure my students will be blown away by her glittering portraits of black women.

I haven’t managed to do any writing this month, which is disappointing. But I was heartened to learn that Teaching for Change has a fantastic post on Banned Books Week and the OTHER barriers to equal expression:

Government censorship, of course, is just one element that determines what we can and cannot read. People often overlook another cultural phenomenon that can have a similar effect: publishing industry censorship. Each year there is a scarcity of excellent children’s picture books published. Missing are titles that reflect the realities of students’ lives and communities while encouraging children to think beyond the headlines.

The data bears out our suspicion: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center find the number of books by and about people of color fluctuating and decreasing slightly, at the same time that children in the United States increasingly come from families of color. This doesn’t mean that those books aren’t being written—rather publishers refuse to seek them out or reject them, fearing they lack universal appeal, or as one frustrated former editor laments, fail to speak to “the lowest common denominator.” Zetta Elliott, author of the award-winning children’s book Bird, writes on her blog that she is fighting to find publishers for her many children’s book manuscripts. Some are “slice of life stories.” Others, like Bird, speak sensitively to childhood trauma.

The post concludes with a list of wonderful books that have since gone out of print. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and parents seeking books that truly reflect the diversity of our society.

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This past summer I had the chance to share my beloved Brooklyn with the amazing educator/blogger/author Ed Spicer. Filming in Prospect Park was a bit of a challenge (we’re in the flight path of 2 major airports) but Ed still managed to make a great short film—take a look!

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I thought I might need a day to settle in but the more I travel, the easier it is to move between worlds. Dreamt about Brown Hill last night; Mrs. Daniel took me on a tour of the village the night before I left Nevis, and so I have a somewhat shadowy sense of the place. I remember steep hills and fenced yards, and tree frogs (called “crapauds” by the locals) sitting in or hopping across the road, land crabs frozen in the car’s headlights, and packs of donkeys ambling by while passing cars slammed on the brakes. Brown Hill is also home to Brown Hill Communications, a call center for Bell Canada. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to move between my various “homes”—they’re all connected. At the airport this time I *did* pick up a SKN key chain. Back in June I decided I wasn’t enough of a patriot to flash the flag, but now…I don’t know. On my way to the airport on Wednesday I met with three members of the Slave Route Project curriculum committee and it looks like I may have a chance to take an active role in helping to develop lesson plans and train teachers. Which would be awesome, except for one thing: I have a full-time job here in NYC. Still, I’m going forward with my citizenship application; I applied for my long-form birth certificate this morning, which should list my father’s name, and picked up my letter of good conduct from One Police Plaza this afternoon. Looking at these great photos from Monday morning’s workshop makes me wonder how effective I’d be in a Caribbean classroom. Kids are kids but there are cultural differences to consider along with my own lack of teacher certification. Loving to teach doesn’t necessarily make me qualified to develop and/or deliver a brand new curriculum, even though I’m passionate about the subject of slavery. When I led my postcard workshop on Monday, I couldn’t get the kids to share their work…usually there are more hands in the air than I can call on, but this group was more reserved—maybe because they didn’t know me or each other. Instead they just worked quietly and diligently, raising their hand or softly calling “Teacher!” when they had a question. And when you’re summoned, you have to respond. Teachers teach. I’m just not sure I can manage to teach all these subjects and all these students at the same time. But I guess I can try…

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I woke up this morning with my introduction written out in my mind. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to turn to black feminist writer June Jordan, and thinking about my favorite poem of hers reminded me of the James Baldwin quote I used for the title of my dissertation: “the terror of trees and streets.”

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
alone
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up

like this

Which bodies belong in which spaces? Our age, race, gender, and sexual orientation too often determine where we’re able to find sanctuary. I’ve read almost half of Ruth Chew’s books and won’t have any trouble comparing hers to mine, but need to begin with a consideration of the way African Americans relate to nature. In Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, editor/poet Camille Dungy reflects on the trauma of enslavement (and lynching) and its impact on the way blacks engage with the natural world:

    African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working this land into the country we know today. Viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or an asset in a banker’s ledger, African Americans developed a complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation in American culture. (xxii)

Given the active history of betrayal and danger in the outdoors, it is no wonder that many African Americans link their fears directly to the land that witnessed or abetted centuries of subjugation. (xxvi)

Even during the most difficult periods of African American history, the natural world held potential to be a source of refuge, sustenance, and uncompromised beauty. (xxv)

I’ve got a few more articles to read on the development and design of urban parks, and the memorialization of the dead…writing an essay is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Not exactly fun, but challenging and—if it coheres—satisfying. Scheduling a midday break at the museum…

 

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I will never again book 20 school visits for one month! but I’m grateful for each and every opportunity to meet students and educators across the city. Yesterday I spent the morning at a school in Park Slope and after my presentation on Ship of Souls, I was treated to a feast—the parents put out *quite* a spread, and I was seated in a virtual throne with the kids ringed around me. Overhead dangled the names of their ancestors and loved ones who had passed on—the kids *and* their teacher were so serious about the concept of life after death. We shared ghosts stories and no one was freaked out; they fully accepted that the realm of spirits and the realm of the living sometimes merge…amazing! That particular class was remarkable in another way: every month their teacher walks them over to Barnes & Noble and they BUY a book to read as a class! You know I have issues with books being given away for free to low-income kids; I think it’s important to develop book-buying habits, and this teacher has found the way! When I asked if she encountered any resistance from the mainly black and Latino parents, she laughed. “One child was sent with $100!” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

Speaking of ancestors, another luminary from the kidlit community has sadly passed on. Leo Dillon, illustrator extraordinaire and partner to fellow illustrator Diane Dillon, made his transition a few days ago. I got to meet the Dillons at the 2010 A Is for Anansi conference at NYU. His legacy will live on in all the breathtakingly beautiful images he created with his wife over his lifetime. Rest in peace…

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I’m not a big fan of musical theater and I’ve never actually seen West Side Story, but I caught a glimpse of the film version last month on PBS. And that song just came to mind because today when I was signing books at the BPL, a young woman wearing the hijab came up to me and said, “I really loved this book because everything that Hakeem feels is just what I feel, too! Because he’s Muslim and so am I.” I told her how much that meant to me, but I’m not sure I was able to fully convey my meaning and there was a long line of kids behind her waiting to have their books signed. I won’t start gushing about the Brooklyn Public Library, but this is yet another program that serves the kids in my community—50 kids got a copy of Ship of Souls, and then they came in to hear my author talk and have their books signed. And they were SO ready to talk about the book! I started off with Bird and they kept finding connections to Ship of Souls. There were dozens of hands up in the air by the time I finished my talk, but we only had time for three or four questions. The teachers told me that the entire sixth grade had read the book, and I’ll be going to their school next month to meet everyone else. There’s nothing like seeing kids excited about reading! And, of course, one girl raised her hand and asked, “Will you write a book about us?” I told her that I wrote about Brooklyn and my own neighborhood so that kids like her would see themselves on the page. And half a dozen boys asked when the book will be made into a film. I told them that I had sent the book to Spike Lee (no response so far) and assured them that Nyla’s book was underway…

 

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I’m listening to NPR right now and they’re talking about Comic-Con—the “safe space” it creates for comic book lovers who, as children and teens, were ostracized as nerds and geeks. Last week a Facebook friend posted this graphic, which addressed the same issue, and then there was a photo of President Obama with Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) making the Star Trek sign giving the Vulcan salute (sorry, Trekkies). I’m thinking about getting one of those t-shirts that reads: Black Geek. It might be important for me to wear a shirt like that when I do my author visits. School principals always want to stress that I have a PhD but I didn’t start out wanting to be a professor—I started out dreaming of gnomes and castles and magic beans. So when I sat down to develop an abstract for this book chapter, I reached back into the past for a book that left a lasting impression on my imagination: The Hidden Cave by Ruth Chew. I thought it was about a pair of kids who found Merlin encased in a tree in Central Park, but it turns out the book is set in Brooklyn! So now my paper is

 

on the significance of urban parks as sites of discovery and recovery in speculative fiction for kids. Chew actually wrote (and illustrated) 29 novels, and almost all of them feature some kind of magic and are set in Brooklyn (where she lived). So as a child in Canada, I read a book about Merlin (because I’m an Arthurian geek, hence my current irrational devotion to Game of Thrones) and as an adult now living in Brooklyn, I’m producing scholarship on that same book (and its relationship to my own novels, which are also set in NYC parks—the African Burial Ground, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park). Which is why I’m a proud black geek!

 

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Ever since Downton Abbey wrapped up in February, I’ve been missing the Sunday night teas I hosted at my apartment. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one experiencing “Brit flick” withdrawal, and so last night “the girls” reconvened at my place to watch the conclusion of Great Expectations on PBS. I missed Game of Thrones, but found that two of the characters in GE were in Season 1 of GOT. And at the end of the day—when our post film discussion wrapped up at midnight—I realized that our gatherings aren’t really about whatever’s on TV. The three of us are writers and professors; we’re all trying to finish our respective books, and we all find ourselves—as women of color—having to stop what we’re doing to educate others about race. At one point, one of my guests said, “Sometimes I just think people SUCK!” And I laughed because I’d had the exact same thought earlier in the day. I declined an invitation to attend my friend’s church and instead went to the park to enjoy the sunshine and blue sky and excited chattering of birds building nests high up in the trees. On my way to the park a seagull swooped down from above and I smiled to myself because the night before I purchased my ticket to Nevis. In mid-June I’ll spend one week researching my family roots and plotting out my first adult novel since One Eye Open (tentatively titled The Hummingbird’s Tongue). Seeing seagulls in Brooklyn always reminds me that we’re on the sea—that despite all the concrete, I live on an island, too, so perhaps my return to Nevis won’t be quite so jarring. I circled the park, immersed in my own daydreams, trying to block out the animated conversations of other Brooklynites. “So many people,” I thought to myself, “I wish they’d go away.” But you can’t avoid people on the weekends. So I headed home and then my heart sank as I spotted a pair of wings on the ground. I didn’t let myself stop because it was clear that someone had ripped the wings off a toffee-colored pigeon—the wings themselves were lovely, but then I saw the tufts of flesh clinging to the exposed bones and made myself walk on. Who does that? And why? I went home and stayed sullen for most of the afternoon. Made myself start work on the latest academic paper (“No novel-writing for you, missy”), and then baked cookies for my guests. Drizzled honey over some strawberries and washed the teapot, cups, and saucers. I took something to ward off a gathering headache and then my friends arrived and we dove into a recap of our respective weeks. At 11pm I changed the channel to HBO but found our conversation too compelling and so hit mute after the theme music for GOT had played. Somehow we started talking about being confrontational and I reminded my friends that I’m conflict averse. They laughed. “You’re always telling people off!” I wasn’t indignant, but I was genuinely surprised. I *hate* conflict. I don’t even like people all that much, and I certainly don’t want to spend my limited social time bickering with idiots. I believe in “strategic silence” but I know that if you always back down, the people who tear wings off helpless birds will run things. And that’s not the world I want to live in.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out this Atlantic article on “The Greatest Girl Characters in Young Adult Literature.” As many of the commenters pointed out, half the books are technically middle grade novels, but my main concern is that not ONE of the characters listed is a girl of color. Yasmin and Erica interviewed me last summer about whitewashing in YA lit, and their fantastic article has been published in the latest issue of Teen Voices. You can subscribe, or check it out at your local library. I sent the link to the author of the Atlantic article. Why not send her your comments and suggestions, too?

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Join Us for a Post-National Black
Writers Conference (NBWC) Event
featuring
NBWC Past Participants
TAVIS SMILEY
and CORNEL WEST

Meet Tavis Smiley and Cornel West
at a Fundraiser for the
Center for Black Literature

Friday, April 20, 2012
6:30pm
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
695 Park Avenue (at E. 68th Street)
(between Park & Lexington Avenues)
New York, NY 10065


POVERTY THREATENS OUR DEMOCRACY
Smiley and West take on the “P” word—poverty. During this compelling lecture and book-signing they challenge all Americans to re-examine their assumptions about poverty in America-what it really is and how to eradicate it.

Join Tavis Smiley and Cornel West

on Friday, April 20, 2012

at a lecture & book signing for

The Rich and the Rest of Us

a Fundraiser for the Center for Black Literature

Get Your Tickets In Advance & Buy Now!
$35 (includes book)
$25 (without book)
Go to www.CLSJ.org and click “Donate”
[Online ticketing administered by the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College (CLSJ)].

We thank you for your continued support of
the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College!
For more information, call 718.270.4811
or visit www.centerforblackliterature.org

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On March 29th I had the chance to share Ship of Souls with students from the Jackie Robinson School in Crown Heights; they were invited to attend the youth program of the National Black Writers Conference held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson (authors and publishers of Just Us Books) were wonderful hosts and emcees, and the kids were great, too! Unfortunately, I had to dash back to work and so I missed Jerry Craft‘s presentation, but I’m sure he wowed the crowd.

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