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Poetry, music, cocktails at HoCoPoLitSo’s 41st Irish Evening of Music and Poetry

HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its annual Irish Evening on February 8, 2019, is the award-winning poet Vona Groarke, recipient of the 2017 Hennessy Hall of Fame Award for Lifetime Achievement. Groarke’s reading will be followed by a concert of Irish music and championship step dancing. During intermission, complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages will be available. Irish coffee, specialty cocktails, and Guinness will be offered for sale beginning at 7 p.m. and during intermission. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. A special two for one ticket promotion is in effect through January 8, 2019, with two tickets for $40. After January 8th, general admission tickets are $40 each. Tickets are available on-line (starting Nov. 23) https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3905864, by phone or mail. To purchase by phone, call 443-518-4568 or by mail, send a check and self-addressed envelope to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.

Vona Groarke’s most recent collection, Selected Poems, won the 2017 Pigott Prize for the best collection of poetry by an Irish poet. Noted as “brilliant and original” by the Irish Times, Groarke writes haunting and candidly sensual poems. At Irish Arts Center’s annual PoetryFest in New York, organizer and author Nick Laird extolled Groarke’s voice as “always modulated beautifully, assured and daring, often wry, (that) in the end keeps faith with the world.”

Groarke has published ten books, including a 2016 book-length personal essay, Four Sides Full and one translation, Lament of Art O’Leary (from an eighteenth-century Irish classic). A new collection of poems, Double Negative, is due in 2019. Her work has been recognized as one of Irish poetry’s “most consistently satisfying voices” (Agenda magazine) and “among the best Irish poets writing today” (Poetry Ireland Review). She has been the recipient of many prizes and grants, including the Brendan Behan Memorial Prize for her first collection, Shale (1994), the Michael Hartnett Award for Flight (2002), and is currently a Cullman Fellow at New York Public Library.

Groarke joins the long list of illustrious Irish authors HoCoPoLitSo has brought to Howard County audiences, including Frank McCourt, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, and Emma Donoghue. For more than 40 years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has celebrated the substantial impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.

 

Mana’s Musings: Dodge Saw It Coming

BY LAURA YOO

All day Saturday, I was cocooned inside the warmth and protection of poetry at the 17th Biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey. So I didn’t know what was going on out in the world and I didn’t know what would happen the next day.  I didn’t know that another terrible news story was brewing. But maybe the poetry knew.

My friend and I left Columbia at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in Newark by 10:00.  We planned to stay for 6 hours of poetry and head back home that night. We were ambitious.

At the very first session, Jan Beatty, Tina Chang, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Danez Smith blew us away.  Their poetry tore me apart with its heartache, beauty, hope, violence, and revelation. Somehow, I felt like each poem was about me or for me.  How could that be? How could every poem be about fathers or about being a mother? Of course, that’s not really true. Poems are about lots of things. But what I realized is that poems touch you and maybe even hurt you where you are most vulnerable. For me, I am most vulnerable in my identity as a mother to two boys and I am most sensitive about the loss of my father who died eight years ago. Those are the two places that are the softest and yet the toughest because that’s where I hold so much fear, joy, sadness, regrets, and hope.

At a session called “Crossing Boundaries,” I heard tenderness in Joy Ladin‘s reading, defiance in Natalie Scenters-Zapico‘s, and anger in Paul Tran‘s. The discussion that followed made me think about the complexity of boundaries – about how they work both ways. They mark inclusion and exclusion. They protect but also they reject.  Barriers between English and Spanish; between man and woman; between gay and straight.  As if there are these solid lines of boundary that can really contain us and separate us from one another.  On the other hand, the poets reminded us, there are boundaries that we need, like privacy and the inner self.

Joy Ladin, Paul Tran, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Sapphire (left to right)

In “Poetry and the News,” Tina Chang, Aaron Coleman, Safia Elhillo, and J.C. Todd, read their poems about how poems may be an antidote to the news even as they simultaneously speak of the news. Elhillo, who is Sudanese and Muslim, talked about being tired of being the subject of the news and of being asked to speak for “her people.” Her poems, which experiment with the form of the interview, made me think of a kind of subjugation through interrogation. Chang’s poems wove together the personal and the political, our own stories and news stories.

At the last session of the day, I got to hear Hieu Minh Nguyen, Nancy Reddy, sam sax, and J.C. Todd. And as Todd read the last line of the last poem for the session, the room went completely dark and silent – the power had gone out due to manhole covers blowing out in front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center down the street.  It seemed like a totally appropriate response to the powerful readings of these poets.

As Newark was burning below, green and black smoke oozing out from underground, and losing its power – literally but not literarily – my friend and I left and drove three hours back to Columbia.  We talked nonstop during that ride about all that we had seen, heard, and felt. When we got home, we had more to say, so we continued our talk over 막걸리 (rice wine) and 부대찌개 (Korean “army stew”). There was poetry in those Korean soul foods, too.

The next day, I was still reeling from the trip when I saw many posts on Facebook and Instagram supporting the LGBTQ+ people. I thought, “What now? What’s going on?” I googled “transgender in the news” and saw the following headlines:

“Reports That the Trump Administration Plans to ‘Erase’ Transgender Definition Spark Alarm”

“The Trauma of the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Transgender People”

“Trump administration considers elimination of transgender recognition”

Dodge must have seen it coming.  It was like the poets were predicting dire situations with their panels about boundaries, identities, bodies, and the news. With sessions like “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am: Poetry and Identity” and “Whose Body?” Dodge Poetry Festival was preparing us, giving us the energy and the ammunition we would need to engage in the political (and emotional) fight against moves that take away rights, take away protection, and take away personhood.

And I know, too, that all the poetry in the world cannot fix what needs to be fixed if we don’t vote.

Read poetry. Vote. That’s what I will do.

 

Book Challenge: Jason Reynolds

Join forces with author, library and HoCoPoLitSo to offer a book of dreams for everyone

The inside cover of Jason Reynolds’s book For Every One says it all. We’re supposed to pass it on. The book’s dedication reads, “For You. For Me.”

His book is about dreams, and how hard one must work to achieve them. He wrote about trying to focus on his ambitions:

“So I went out and bought all the books on all the ways to make dreams come true, laying out the how-to, somehow spinning life into a fantastic formula for dummies and dream chasers, written by experts and dream catchers who swear that I can one plus one and right foot left foot my way into fulfillment, never taking into consideration all this mess I got strapped to my back and my head and my legs and my heart.”
  Reynolds wants everyone to hear about following dreams. So does HoCoPoLitSo. The Howard County Library and HoCoPoLitSo are joining forces to bring Reynolds to speak to the East Columbia Library Oct. 9. And we’d like to share this gift of a book. The library and HoCoPoLitSo are raising money to give out 100 copies of For Every One to students who attend his reading. Pupils from Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake, and Harper’s Choice middle schools will be bused to the reading, joining lots of Reynolds’ fans at the event. Register here for the event. Every dollar raised is matched one to one by funds from the Kathleen Glascock Challenge, a memorial fund named for an inspiring Clarksville Middle School media specialist who believed that books could change lives. She and Reynolds would have had a lot to talk about. It’s hard not to get goose bumps when Reynolds, who didn’t read a book cover to cover until he was nearly 18, talks about teenagers. “All I want kids to know is that I see them for who they are and not who everyone thinks they are,” he told the Washington Post last year. Reynolds, now a best-selling author with nine books, a Newbery Honor, and National Book Award finalist on his resume, says he wants to tell the stories that he wasn’t seeing on library and bookstore shelves – tales of black and brown teenagers handling tough issues. His goal is “putting that on the page with integrity and balance, to acknowledge the glory and the brokenness. That’s all I want to do. It’s a lot, but so are they.” Librarians around the county can’t keep his books on the shelves, and they’re thrilled that Reynolds is coming to read. Anne Reis, media specialist at Homewood Center, the alternative school in Howard County, was introducing Jason Reynolds to two classes of “very reluctant readers,” as she called them. They were disruptive, she remembers, until she started playing a “The Daily Show” clip of Trevor Noah’s talk with Reynolds, who emphasized the importance of hip-hop to his writing, and how young people are the antidote to hopelessness. “They heard the truth of his message and that he respects them and wants to write for them … . They were completely silent,” Reis said. “A pin could have dropped and you would have heard it. Jason Reynolds has an authenticity in his writing that speaks to the kids at my school. They are psyched to meet him in October!” Donate here: https://hclibrary.org/classes-events/glascock-challenge-seeks-to-inspire-reluctant-readers

Susan Thornton Hobby

Recording secretary, HoCoPoLitSo Board

HoCoPoLitSo’s 45th Season Opens with Poetic Trio.

HoCoPoLitSo opens its literary season October 26 with “Ordinary Wonder: Three Poets on Writing and Reality,” featuring Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi. The 2018 Lucille Clifton Reading Series highlights three Maryland poets with new, acclaimed collections. Collier, Spires and Yezzi will read and discuss their work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the Monteabaro Recital Hall of the Horowitz Center for the Performing and Visual Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. Join us in celebration of HoCoPoLitSo’s forty-five years of literary programming at this year’s Lucille Clifton Reading Series. A book signing and wine and cheese reception will follow. The suggested donation for this event is $5.

LCliftonReadingTrio

Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi

The three poets, in their own ways, hold up the ordinary world to the light of poetry and examine everyday mysteries, both beautiful and horrible.

Michael Collier’s most recent collection is My Bishop and Other Poems (2018). Poet and professor A. Van Jordan wrote, “My Bishop and Other Poems reminds us of the power of the observant in an age when, too often, we move too quickly to notice the world unfolding around us. These poems bring a passion, an empathy, and a way of seeing I had forgotten was possible.” Collier’s other collections include An Individual History, a finalist for the Poet’s Prize, and The Ledge, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.  He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland, a director emeritus of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, and a former Maryland Poet Laureate.

Elizabeth Spires‘ most recent poetry collection, A Memory of The Future (2018), was influenced by Zen and Asian art. The New York Times wrote of the work, “In these lyrical verses, Spires questions the quotidian, elevating the everyday to a meditational art form.” Spires’ other collections include Worldling, Now the Green Blade Rises, and The Wave-Maker. The author of six books for children, Spires lives in Baltimore and is a professor of English at Goucher College.

David Yezzi’s newest collection of poems is Black Sea (2018). Other collections include Birds of the Air, Azores, and The Hidden Model. Reviewing Birds of the Air (2013), Farisa Khalid noted the poem Orts “does something that many poems strive for but don’t quite get at, and that’s conveying with clarity the otherness of our world—the strange beauty of what we experience and the mystery of what we can’t always understand.” Yezzi has contributed poems and criticism to The New York Times Book ReviewThe Times Literary SupplementThe Wall Street JournalThe Paris ReviewThe New RepublicPoetryThe Yale ReviewPoetry Daily, and elsewhere. Yezzi, who lives in Baltimore, is the editor of The Hopkins Review and poetry editor of The New Criterion, and chair of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

 

Ordinary Wonder:
Three Poets On Writing and Reality

Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi

Friday, October 26, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.

Monteabaro Recital Hall at the
Horowitz Center for the Performing Arts
Howard Community College

HoCoPoLitSo, a private, nonprofit literary organization, receives funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the state of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County government; The Columbia Film Society; Community Foundation of Howard County; and individual contributors.

Coffee-Stained Margins: a guest post by Eunice Braimoh

Marilyn Chin reading at the 10th Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival hosted by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society and Howard Community College on April 26, 2018

I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.

During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.

Slam poetry was alive.

A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.

For what?

Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.

While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.


Eunice Braimoh

Eunice Braimoh finds herself in a limbo between cultures: in her room hangs the Nigerian flag, while Maryland’s mosaic fusion has grafted itself into her heart. As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, she wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.

Power of Poetry – a guest post by Hiram Larew

Poetry doesn’t vote.  It can’t rule.  It sits on no juries.  It signs nothing into law.  It neither runs companies or organizes houses of worship.  And, it never ever wins an Academy award or Olympic Gold Medal.  Or, war.  On all of these fronts that matter, poetry is powerless.  And for that very reason, of course, it is incredibly powerful.

Poetry is our grins, our anger, your life, my death.  It’s the birds that stitch air.  It’s the soul of night, the feast of day, and that ever present caution that’s careless.  Poetry doesn’t decide.  It doesn’t provide.  If it answers at all, it does so with questions.  And, to be honest, poetry doesn’t care; it cares as deeply as wells do, yes, but it never brings you water.  It wants nothing from you except wanting – this is probably its most gifting power.

And it soars, when allowed to, over just about anything else we can imagine.  It’s not the clouds above so much, but our need for them.   Said all at once, poetry is powerful for what it cannot be, and for the dreams it wants.

If you should ever encounter a poem that makes you jump, ask yourself why.  Most likely, the answer – if there is one – will be from so far-fully inside you that ancestors will wink.

Finally, poetry is really nowhere and so it’s just about everywhere around us.  It lives in the corner of your eye.  It watches everything from the side.  Poetry is the best glancer of all.   It also aches with whatever is gone.  And, it cheers – even raves – for what may never be.  All to say, thank goodness – and badness – for poetry, and for our never being completely sure how powerfully potent it really is.

 


image used with permission by Hiram Larew

Hiram Larew’s work has appeared most recently in Little Patuxent Review, FORTH, vox poetica, Poetry Super Highway, Poets & Artists, Every Day Poems, Lunaris Review (Nigeria), Amsterdam Quarterly, and The Wild Word.  Author of three collections, he’s been nominated for four national Pushcart prizes, is a member of the Shakespeare Folger Library’s poetry board, and organizes several events in Prince George’s County, Maryland and beyond including Poetry X Hunger and The Poetry Poster Project. He is a global hunger specialist, and lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

This piece first appeared in Echo World, and subsequently in Poets & Artists, Tales from the Forest, Miriam’s Well (blog) and Huffington Post’s Thrive Global.

“Up Close and Personal” at the Recent Blackbird Poetry Festival

During Olympics’ coverage when I was a kid, ABC’s genial Jim McKay used to do interviews with athletes called “Up Close and Personal.” Sure, ice skating and swimming competitions were cool to watch, but “Up Close and Personal” was always my favorite because those talks felt intimate.

HoCoPoLitSo’s own versions of “Up Close and Personal” are the workshops that acclaimed writers offer aspiring writers. During the 2018 Blackbird Poetry Festival, featured poets Marilyn Chin and Joseph Ross read their work during the afternoon and evening. But on the morning of April 26, Ross and Chin offered forty students a close-up version of writing and reading poetry.

Students from Howard Community College’s creative writing and English courses were assigned some of Chin’s poetry to read, and she brought those poems to life, reciting and reading works like “How I Got That Name,” in which she explains how her father repurposed her Chinese name, Mei Ling, to become Marilyn. As a dark brown Chinese child, she wasn’t beautiful and wasn’t honored, Chin explained to the students.

“I’m this little Chinese girl, born dark, underweight, a little weak. How shall I speak? I shall speak loudly,” Chin said. “I shall speak for that little brown girl who was unwanted.”

Chin and the students also talked about “loaded words,” like “slant” and “bitch,” and how Chin wants to repurpose those words and take the power away from the negativity that bigots have used.

“You can take the power back,” Chin promised.

When Joseph Ross claimed the microphone, he turned the tables and asked the students to write. “Every poem is political,” Ross said, because as Langston Hughes wrote, “Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow, must lead a very quiet life.” Whether you choose to write about sunsets or sexual assault, snow or police brutality, those are political choices, he explained.

Then he asked students to write ten to fifteen-line poems including these phrases: line from a song, a phrase someone might hear on public transportation, words someone might speak in a kitchen, and title of a favorite book or poem or movie.

Sofia Barrios, who also read a powerful political poem during the afternoon reading, wrote a poem that logically incorporated the line, “Next stop, Glenmont.”

The next assignment Ross suggested was to write an apology that the author wanted to hear. One student wrote the apology her father should give to her. Another wrote an apology to his inner self that included the sentiment that he was sorry he didn’t believe in himself more.

After the workshop, Chin listened to one student’s story. Chunlian Valchar told Chin that as a baby girl born with a birth defect in China, her birth parents left her by the side of the road near the market. Valchar’s adoptive family wanted her, though, so Valchar said her situation was slightly different from Chin’s, but she still identified strongly with Chin’s work.

Chin enfolded Valchar in a hug, they took a photo and Chin left her with a simple thought: “You’re loved and cherished.”

Afterward, Valchar explained that she’s not really angry at her birth parents, since she doesn’t really know what they were going through. But she liked Chin’s poetry.

“It’s interesting to see a poet on paper, and then to hear the background,” Valchar said. “It’s more impactful to hear the back story.”

Up close and personal indeed.

 

Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo board member

 

 

Boys’ Book Club: How these five third graders roll

A blog post by Laura Yoo

BOYS’ BOOK CLUB (Photo included with parents’ permission)

“My favorite part of the book was when James’s parents died!” my 9-year old son Sammy yelled. And everyone around the table yelled back, “What? Oh my God! Why?” He had a perfectly reasonable response: “Because! That’s what made the whole story possible!”

Five 9-year old boys sat around the kitchen table at the home of Brooke Dalesio on a gorgeous, sunny April afternoon talking about Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.  School had gotten out three hours early, and the five boys were invited to the first installment of the Boys’ Book Club organized by Brooke for her son Nate and four of his friends. Brooke is a reading specialist who currently works with education majors at University of Maryland College Park, supervising their student teaching.  She also works with the reading team as a Title 1 reading tutor at the five boys’ school, Longfellow Elementary in Howard County, Maryland.

Back in February, when Brooke texted me with, “I have a crazy idea that I thought we could do together,” I responded with, “I’m scared.”  She proposed to host a book club for a few of Nate’s friends, including Sammy.  After a few more text messages back and forth about the logistics, I answered the call with “What the hell! Let’s try it!”

At first, Sammy wasn’t so sure.  I guess he just didn’t know what to expect.  He asked, “Is it like school work?  It sounds like school work.” I assured him that it’d be EVEN MORE FUN than school work.  Brooke got the ball rolling by emailing the moms, and Sammy started reading James and the Giant Peach. He loved it right away.  When he was finished, he handed it to me (I had not yet read the book) and moved onto Fantastic Mr. Fox.  He was counting the days til the first book club meeting.  (I cheated by listening to the audio book of James and the Giant Peach, which I highly recommend, by the way.)

For the first book club meeting, Brooke offered fresh peach slices and peach smoothies for snack. They also munched on peach flavored gummy snacks that Sammy and I found at Lotte. While the boys enjoyed their snacks, they started the meeting by sharing general impressions of the book. They kept raising their hands – just like in school – instead of having a conversation. But that was okay – they’d need practice.

They took turns picking discussion questions that Brooke had prepared.  The boys got a kick out of the question asking them to find “juicy words” from the book.  They loved “ghastly,” “mammoth,” “frantically,” “brute,” and “peculiar.” (Later, one of the boys used “peculiar” in his sentence, just casually throwing it in there as if he’d always known that word.) Brooke told them about British English versus American English, and we listened to a short clip of the audio book on my phone so we could hear the accent.  Other questions asked about their favorite characters, how James changes throughout the book, and about the role of magic in this fantasy novel.  My favorite question, though, asked the boys to imagine other ways that James and his friends could have gotten out of some of the sticky situations during their adventures, because it encouraged creative problem solving.

After the discussion, the boys created a storyboard of the novel using a long piece of paper Brooke had prepared.  They had to decide how to break up the story and how they’d represent the important events in the book.  This part got a little hairy and Brooke and I offered some suggestions, but we let them sort it out.  (Brooke, by the way, is much better at letting them be than I am. I’m, shall we say, much more “hands on.”) And of course they did a fantastic job.

Brooke did the facilitating, and I enjoyed my peach smoothie and observed with fascination.  I loved the level of energy in the room. The boys were excited to talk and to share their ideas.  Sure, they all got a bit silly at times.  Occasionally, one of them would get up and walk around the room – or dance.  They talked on top of each other.  Sometimes they got excited and yelled. Still, Brooke kept her cool and steered the group back to the table and back to the book.  Other times, she just let them get their energy out for a minute or two.  I was impressed. This was a serious level up from “playdate.”

The boys agreed on The BFG for their next book club meeting, which will be in June.  After the official book club meeting was adjourned, the little literary scholars dashed outside to play basketball and soccer in the sun while enjoying peach flavored ice pops.

“It was awesome,” Sammy said to me as we left Nate’s house. He cannot wait til June.  I joined my first book club when I was 38 years old, so clearly Sammy is getting a serious head start thanks to Ms. Brooke’s “crazy idea” that turned out to be quite awesome.

Laura Yoo
HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Professor of English at Howard Community College.

Lessons of Passing: Remembering Nella Larsen on her birthday

A guest blog post by Nsikan Akpan

Nsikan Akpan serves on the board of HoCoPoLitSo and is a student at Howard Community College. She is a writer, actress, and future lawyer for black rights. She enjoys reading big books and watching long movies. To read more of Nsikan’s work, visit her blog: onmogul.com/nsikan-akpan.

Characters in stories are hardly given enough credit for their bravery of taking on the task of representing the idiosyncrasies and lifestyles that the public prefers to keep private. Clare and Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing are appropriate examples. Irene’s complexion is light enough to pass for a white woman but makes the choice to side with her true community. On the other hand, Clare, Irene’s friend from childhood, is also light enough to pass for white and finesses this fact to marry Bellew, a white racist. As readers maneuver their way through the lonely, privileged lives of both Irene and Clare, we find that wealth and passing for the sake of wealth may not be worth one’s peace of mind. It can lead to a fatal end.

Passing by Nella Larsen examines themes of hypocrisy, physical (racial) as well as social “passing,” and the sacrifices made for the American dream. Passing is a form of pretending, and sometimes we cross boundaries when playing pretend. What makes Larsen’s work significant is that it displays passing as an example of natural human desire to survive. Judging Clare equates to judging anyone that has been put in a situation where the only way out is to be something they are not. Humankind has done worse for survival. Still, Clare’s life is a lesson: one can make it to the other side and realize there is nothing there for them.

I am reminded of O. J. Simpson’s story. Simpson, a black man, had been a supreme football player, the first to run over 2,000 yards in one season. He was an athletic mogul. He helped paved the way for athletes to not only play the sport of their choice, but to do so while starring in movies, commercials, and gaining fortune from various endorsements. He was treated as an American hero and embraced by white America. If Larsen’s Clare had her pale skin that allowed her to pass as white, Simpson had wealth and his white wife that made up for his chestnut skin color and allowed him to pass in white society. In 1978, Simpson starred in a famous Hertz commercial, running through an airport as people – notably, all white people – cheered him on. “Go Juice, go!” They hailed. Until they stopped. In 1994, Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. When Simpson was accused of murder, he became black again.

Passing is seductive. Joe Bell, a childhood friend, said of Simpson, “He is seduced by white society.” In Larsen’s novel, Clare was seduced enough to want to be a part of that society, so much so that she became a part of it. As examples of passing – physical and social – Clare and Simpson demonstrate that passing does not turn out well in fiction or in real life. In Larsen’s words, Clare “had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next thing she was gone.”

While reading Passing, I realized that there are many types of passing. I have come to recognize my own privilege of intellectual passing. I am an educated and cultured black woman who has sat next to distinguished authors and poets. These stimulating cerebral experiences allow me to go into spaces where my color is not considered because my ability to articulate trumps any stereotype that is connected to me. Or so it seemed. It turns out that intellectual passing connects very much with racial and social passing. We must put an end to associating intelligence with whiteness.

I have made a conscious choice not to give into passing. What Clare showed me is this: One can fool people with skin but not with soul. Throughout high school, despite my dark skin, I made myself “more palatable” for my white counterparts. Every time I had an opinion on something, I tried my best to express it very nicely, or sometimes I’d say nothing at all, knowing people might take it the wrong way. Fortunately, I have grown out of that nonsense. I am who I am. An exit is always available, but for me, passing is never an option. It’s too exhausting. In my own skin, I am at rest.

Expanding and Deepening the Reading List

A blog post by Laura Yoo

Expanding and Deepening the Reading List: How Centennial Lane Elementary School is providing diverse books to its students

“All children and young adults deserve excellent literature which reflects their own experience and encourages them to imagine experiences beyond their own.” – Cooperative Children’s Book Center

One afternoon when my son was 4 years old, he began to jump up and down excitedly while watching TV. He was screaming, “Mommy! She’s talking in Korean!” Indeed, a cat-like animal in a cartoon called Littlest Pet Shop was speaking in Korean while the other animal and human characters tried to understand her. The Korean-speaking animal was a ferret named Jebbie Cho who later meets a recurring Korean character on the show, a human named Youngmee Song.

My son hears Korean all the time at home, spoken by his grandma and by mommy and daddy when they don’t want him to know what they’re saying. But seeing Korean characters and hearing Korean names on TV was special. His family’s cultural identity was being reflected back to him. He saw himself. And what I saw on his little face was a sense of validation and pride. What I witnessed was the power of representation.

At Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, Maryland, parents, staff, and teachers understand this power of representation, particularly as it is reinforced in children’s books. With the support of school staff and teachers, the members of the CLES PTA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee created a book list with 70 titles that represent various nationalities and heritages as well as LGBTQ, dis/abilities, and religions. Many of the books also explore diversity as a general theme.

The CLES DEI BOOK LIST includes titles like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, a GR 4-6 book about an 11-year old girl with a photographic memory and cerebral palsy; Skin Again by bell hooks, a GR K-4 book about skin – about what it is and what it isn’t; and The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, a GR 1-5 book about the history of Native Americans. The CLES’s list demonstrates a wide definition of diversity and aims to be as inclusive as possible.

“[It’s important] the kids see themselves in those books,” says Sabina Taj, the chair of the committee. The project, which is coordinated by Anu Prabhala, has received a donation of $500 from a parent to achieve the goal of purchasing some of these books for the school’s media center. The committee’s work has been supported by CLES Principal, Amanda Wardsworth, and the list of books has been reviewed and approved by the school’s Media Specialist, Marnie Beyer. “This was truly a labor of love,” says Ying Matties, a member of the DEI Committee.

“I’m hoping each school asks the diverse populations of the individual school and teachers to use this process as a model to create their own,” says Ms. Taj. She emphasizes the importance of focusing on community involvement in gathering ideas and feedback from various stakeholders. Then, she says, the various lists compiled by many schools could be combined to create an even more comprehensive and representative sample of books for the students in Howard County.

This vision reflects a national debate and discussion about representation in children’s books. A national non-profit organized called We Need Diverse Books, founded by YA and MG writer Ellen Oh, envisions “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” There is tremendous power in seeing what is possible. As Marian Wright Edelman famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This idea was reiterated when Misty Copeland became the first African American to be named principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre and when Sheridan Ash set up a program for PwC called Women in Tech. When the Time Magazine published its “Firsts” issue about female firsts, they titled it, “Seeing is Believing.”

However, at Centennial Lane Elementary School, it’s not just Muslim children or children with two dads who will benefit from reading these books. As B.J. Epstein, professor of literature who researches and teaches children’s literature, writes in The Conversation, “Research on prejudice shows that coming in contact with people who are different – so-called ‘others’ – helps to reduce stereotypes.” So, the effect is twofold: children will learn about themselves and children will learn about the experiences and lives outside their own. Duncan Tunatiuh, author and illustrator, notes in Language Arts, “we need multicultural books so that different kinds of children can see themselves reflected in the books they read, and so that children can learn about people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.”

The Diverse Books project at Centennial Lane Elementary School is one of the various ways that parents, staff, and teachers are trying to encourage and implement curriculum that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. The DEI Committee is also currently working with the school administration on organizing Community Circles, a venue for diverse parents to provide in-person feedback to the school on how to make it more inclusive to all its constituents.

Note: To learn about setting up a DEI Committee in your school, please contact Sabina Taj <sabinataj@gmail.com>. For more information on the CLES DEI Committee’s work, please contact Anu Prabhala <prabhala.anu@gmail.com>.

CLES DEI BOOK LIST

Laura Yoo HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Professor of English at Howard Community College.

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