The recent killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests in response to police brutality remain uppermost on the minds of a lot of members of the children’s book community, if the overwhelming success of last Thursday evening’s #KidLitRally4BlackLives is any indication. The two-hour event, which aimed to both empower and educate children about race and racism and provide a safe space for conversations about how parents and teachers can speak with young people about current events, was sponsored by The Brown Bookshelf, an online resource promoting awareness of black children’s books and their creators.
The evening was divided into two segments: a rally for children in grades K–12 that lasted for about an hour, followed by an hour targeting parents, teachers, librarians, and other interested adults. While most of the 25 participating authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals shared brief monologues, others recited poetry, and several sang songs.
The videos were interspersed with written statements by publishing professionals, such as Ellen Archer, president of HMH Trade Publishing, and Lin Oliver, executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The evening ended with a list of resources for further information and guidance.
“This is not a meeting; this is not a pleasant get-together or gathering; this is not a conference,” organizer Kwame Alexander said, kicking off the program with an impassioned declaration of intent. “This is a roll of thunder, this is a dreaming brown girl, rhyme schemers, and all-American boys protesting somewhere in the darkness, using their words to protest racism, to protest white supremacy, to protest police brutality, and its devastating impact upon black America, upon America. This is a call of action. Expect us to expect you to say something. Expect us to hope that things will get better.”
The event filled up to capacity on Zoom even before it officially began, with an overflow audience on Facebook Live. According to organizers, the live audience peaked during the first hour when 14,000 people logged on. On Facebook Live there were 6,600 engagements by audience members, meaning comments and/or emojis posted during the event. The event was recorded and is now available on YouTube. By Monday morning, there had been 9,000 views of the recorded version.
Just Us Books co-founders and publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson, who spoke after Alexander’s introduction, set the tone for the evening with a rousing statement that they took turns reciting, proclaiming a call to action that will “embrace and lift up the children.”
“Let us march on. Let us protest on. Let us fight on until victory is won,” Wade said, concluding their remarks.
The next author to speak, Jacqueline Woodson, who with Alexander and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds organized the virtual gathering, declared, “We all have a right to live, and to be safe and to play and to barbecue and to dance. Black lives shouldn’t be taken away. Black lives matter.”
After providing a thumbnail history of civil rights protests in the U.S. as well as some well-known hate crimes against black people, Woodson gave her audience a few rules to live by: be kind; don’t be judgmental; be anti-racist by speaking out against racial injustice, “using your beautiful and brilliant voices.”
Woodson then addressed children who are not black, when she explained that people of color “talk about race all the time because we have to. It impacts our daily lives. We have to talk about race to keep ourselves and our families safe.”
Noting that protests are taking place all over the country with no sign of people giving up, Woodson declared, “This is a historic moment. We are all living it.” And she asked, “What side of history do you want to be on?”
Speakers Empower, Educate, Inspire
Following Woodson, a parade of other well-known children’s and YA authors of all races spoke, beginning with Elizabeth Acevedo, who told the audience that people must support and love one another in the struggle for social and racial justice.
Speaking directly to black children, Acevedo emphasized how brave they are and how much they are loved, adding, “We got you.”
Gene Luen Yang, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1960s, connected racism and discrimination against blacks with the racism and discrimination historically directed against Asians in the U.S. Noting that the Ku Klux Klan was active in the West in the 1920s, persecuting Asians and Mexicans, Yang pointed out that racists who are “anti-black” are actually “anti-everybody” who is in any way different from them. Speaking directly to Asian American viewers, Yang asked that they support African Americans in their struggle against racism.
“Let’s honor the sacrifices others have made on our behalf,” he said. “Let’s say with our words and our actions, and our time and our money, that black lives matter.”
“As a white person,” author Sarah Crossan said after Yang finished his piece, “I am fighting to fix the system. I’ve never been afraid when stopped by the police. I’ve never been followed around when in a store. Although I am an Irish person living in the U.K., I’ve never been asked where I’m really from.”
Addressing the white children in the audience, she suggested they educate themselves by reading diverse books, adding, “White kids, it’s not up to your black friends to make us feel better. Do not ask your black friends or black classmates to help you get rid of your bad feelings. I think the black community has been more than patient with us.”
Crossan suggested that white children speak up against racism wherever and whenever they encounter it. “The lives of your black friends depend upon you standing up against racism,” she insisted.
“You are going to make it, and we are going to be better. You are valued, you are precious, and yes, baby dolls, you matter, you really matter,” Vanessa Brantley-Newton said, before breaking out into song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from the musical South Pacific, which contains the lyrics, “You have to be taught, before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate; you have to be carefully taught; you have to be carefully taught.” Her rendition then transitioned into “Children Will Listen,” from another musical, Into the Woods, which contains the lyrics, “Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn/Children may not obey, but children will listen/Children will look to you for which way to turn.”
Referring to anti-bullying campaigns and how sometimes they might not be effective, despite people’s best efforts, Reynolds imagined a child’s experience of bullying at school, both from the perspective of the child being bullied, as well as the responses by adults in that child’s life. Reynolds finished his soliloquy by urging children to “crawl toward judgment, sprint toward understanding” when it comes to wrongs that adults cannot or will not make right.
Reynolds then drew the connection between bullying and racism by reciting a 1970s-era poem by Calvin Hernton, “The Distant Drum,” which ends with the line, “It is my fist you hear/Beating against your ear.”
“How do we approach racism? With a hammer?” Reynolds asked, urging viewers to respond to bullying, to racism in constructive ways—especially since some viewers are too young to take to the streets in protest.
“Do what you can against racism,” Reynolds urged, suggesting writing or creating art, or pursuing some other interest to deal with frustration concerning injustices.
'Work with Us to Make a Difference'
As the evening morphed into the informational and educational session for adults, Paula Chase, the founder of The Brown Bookshelf, provided a history of the organization, explaining that its mission is to “ensure that black people are humanized by highlighting the entirety of the black experience,” not just black people’s suffering. Children of all races and from all cultures, she added, “need to see black kids centered as their whole selves” in real life, as well as in literature.
Chase then introduced Brooklyn-based educator Cornelius Minor, who described himself as “black joy—but not today. I am furious. In 2020, I am still fighting the same white supremacy my grandparents and my parents fought.” Referring to President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and racist policies, Minor insisted that Trump did not initiate a system that perpetuates the racism that continues to roil this country. “Apples in our American pie have been rotten since Chris Columbus lost his way,” he explained.
“Love alone cannot break this cycle,” he added, calling for parents and educators to implement social change, i.e. “revolution” in homes and in classrooms as well as in the public sphere. “If you want to change the world, you have to start from your corner. It starts by calling for an end to the social order. We make this road by walking it.”
Denene Millner, editorial director of her eponymous S&S imprint that publishes books by African American authors and illustrators, began her presentation by noting that “#KidLit4BlackLives” was trending on Twitter. Millner followed up on Minor’s words about joy and revolution, explaining that black children have to recognize and celebrate their humanity, and that adults have to help them do this. “Joy is resistance. Joy is revolutionary and we need to make sure that our children know that,” she said, before reading an unpublished poem illustrating her point, entitled, “Because of Joy.”
Following Millner, author-illustrator Raúl the Third honored George Floyd’s legacy while at the same time advancing The Brown Bookshelf’s mission in his remarks. Raúl the Third implied that he had watched a memorial service held earlier that same day in Minneapolis, while holding up a pencil drawing he’d made of Floyd’s face.
“George was a father, a protector, and he was a provider,” he said. “His friends called him a ‘gentle giant.’ We need to shout this out: Black lives matter. Everyone needs to say this again and again and again.”
Holding up a drawing of Barack Obama, Raúl the Third concluded by quoting the former president, declaring, “You have the power to make things better.”
Addressing white people, Martha Brockenbrough noted that, as the descendant of Confederate leaders, she owes her very existence to white supremacy. “Whites have to understand their history and work to undo white supremacy,” by listening to what black people are saying about racism, and to “love them up.” Not only that, she said, as she called Trump a white supremacist, people have to work hard to build a more just world for all despite political leaders standing against social justice and racial equality. “Please vote in November, vote as if every child’s life in this nation depends on it,” she said, “Because it does.”
“Black lives matter does not mean that all lives do not matter,” Newbery Medalist Jerry Craft pointed out when it was his turn to speak. “That mentality makes it easy for you not to care. Black lives matter because we cannot afford to chastise other countries for their human rights violations and not care that I am afraid every time one of my sons leaves the house. If you do agree that all lives matter, shouldn’t my life matter as well?”
Eric Velasquez urged parents to be “truthful” when explaining to their children the history or racism in this country, and to provide the proper context for the protests that erupted in the past two weeks. He also urged adults to discourage their children from joking about racist acts. “We are now hurting on a global level,” he said. “It is time to begin the healing.”
Christopher Myers echoed points made earlier, declaring that “this is old, the entire situation is old,” concerning the suffering endured by black people in a racist society and attempts to rectify matters by people committed to racial equality and social justice. “The protests, the need to protest,” he said, “what we’re talking about is old.” The only things that have changed for black people in America, he added, is that “the politicians’ faces change.”
“The danger of thinking it’s new is we don’t get to hold that fear, that tradition,” Myers said, “We try to reinvent the wheel.” He concluded by urging the audience to love each other, and to take care of each other. “Loving us now means doing the work” of dismantling racism, he added. “Take the time now to love us.”
Alexander, who had kicked off the rally more than two hours earlier, ended it by reciting a poem that he called, “America’s Bullet Points,” about all the things black people can and cannot do because of fear of arrest, injury, or death. It ended with the lines, “We can’t breathe./We can’t live, but we will not die.”
Addressing viewers, Alexander urged them to work with children’s authors and others to create a new world where “Black Lives Matter” becomes more than simply a slogan, but a reality. “Each of the people in this rally, we write books to change the world. You read them to imagine what the world can be. Work with us to make a difference.”