by Chris Stevens

As a proud product of a Historically Black University (Delaware State, Class of 2007), I’ve watched with nervous eyes in recent months as 125-year-old St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., prepares to close June 30 after years of struggling to stay afloat financially. Howard University, according a board of trustee member, is in danger of the same fate.

The impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is undeniable. A recent study in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported:

  • One in five African-American college graduates earned their degrees at HBCUS.
  • Black colleges graduated nearly all black students (90 percent) who earned bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields between 2006 and 2010.
  • Black colleges produce half of all black public school teachers, half of all future lawyers, and eight in 10 black judges.

HBCUs have long had a history of making do. But the politics surrounding the disparity in funding and resources between HBCUs and traditional colleges and universities must be addressed. 

Most HBCUs exist because of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 that pushed for colleges focused on agricultural and mechanical education, especially in Southern states. Those colleges eventually became universities with larger academic concentrations serving a predominately Black population.

Even with assistance from the federal government, most HBCUs haven’t been able sustain themselves financially or raise a national profile. (Notable notable exceptions include Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, and Florida A&M.) On the whole, many HBCUs have more in common with schools like Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, which struggled to raise $500,000 to keep from closing in 2011.

One reason HBCUs struggle is the difficulty of fundraising toward endowment and the day-to-day costs of running a university. At HBCUs, almuni giving hovers under 10 percent; the national average for all schools is 14%. Another component is the frequent failure of municipal and state governments to allocate the same funds and resources to HBCUs that are afforded to traditional schools.

During my previous job as a sports writer for the Dover Post, the government reporter got in from a budget meeting for the state of Delaware with the official numbers for the fiscal year available. I asked him how much the state was giving the University of Delaware, and he responded with $113 million. Then I asked for the Delaware State University allocation, which was a grand total of $32 million. That disparity is the norm for HBCUs, especially in Southern states like Mississippi and Georgia, where officials haves either tried to consolidate or close Black colleges in recent years.

The mission of HBCUs (educating Blacks in order to help them succeed in a world in which we are still the minority) is as relevant today as it was in the Jim Crow era. We as HBCU alumni have to do a better job of giving, which will help city, state, and federal officials see our schools are viable and deserve equal funding and resources to compete with traditional colleges. 

As Morehouse president John Silvanus Williams, Jr said in an NPR interview this year, “There is no question that we need HBCUs. We just need them to do what they do better.”

Chris Stevens is a writer, podcaster, and social media consultant based in Wilmington, Delaware. He is a 2007 graduate of Delaware State University.

One of my close friends, Shanelle Smith, shoved a thick book in my hands as we met for lunch. “You have to read this.”

It was upside down; I flipped it over. U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor beamed from the cover. “It’s very good,” Shanelle said, tapping the cover of My Beloved World  for emphasis. “It’s my Lean In.”

Back in March, Shanelle and I had talked at length about Sheryl Sandberg’s “call to action” for working women as part of our informal book club. The child of two auto factory workers, my friend was turned off by Sandberg’s “middle class to riches” story, peeved that Sandberg had never met some of the barriers that low-income working mothers encounter. (Sandberg’s “working mom confession ” that her child had lice while on a private jet evoked zero sympathy.) Most women reading Lean In would never see the boardrooms Sandberg frequents, but I found enough truth nuggets to make it worthwhile.

Unlike Sandberg, Sotomayor isn’t dispensing career advice. The first Hispanic and only the third woman on the U.S. Supreme Court makes it clear that her story is personal.

Readers looking for a view into the inner workings of the Supreme Court will be disappointed. Sotomayor ends the book after her appointment to the U.S. District Court in 1992, calling it “inappropriate” to reflect on a journey still taking shape. That judiciousness has gotten her far in life.

Even without contemporary elements, her story is strong. Growing up with an alcoholic father who stayed sober just long enough to prepare dinner every night and a mother who worked long hours to avoid arguments, Sotomayor became self-reliant at an early age. Diagnosed with diabetes at 7 years old, she learned how to give herself daily insulin injections. 

Her diabetes also spurred her career ambitions; on a visit to the doctor she received a pamphlet on careers she could aspire to as a diabetic. She noticed that a detective — an occupation the 10-year-old Nancy Drew wannabe considered her path to becoming a judge — was not on the list. She was undeterred. The pamphlet incident is now her go-to anecdote whenever she speaks to the juvenile diabetes crowd.

Sotomayor reminds readers repeatedly that she has reached the height of her career precisely because of her background, not in spite of it. She believes her devotion to her community guided the “small, steady steps” that led to the Supreme Court. She writes about her years at parochial schools in the Bronx, where she first learned the joy of passionate debate, and her study at Princeton and Yale Law School, where she learned to advocate for diversity and move in the world on a grander scale.

“Until I arrived at Princeton, I had no idea how circumscribed my life had been,” she writes, “confined to a community that was essentially a village in the shadow of a great metropolis with so much to offer, of which I’d tasted almost nothing. I honestly felt no envy or resentment, only astonishment at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew.”

As she ascended in her career, first as an assistant district attorney and then as a private practice lawyer, her drive had ramifications for her personal life. She writes about the collapse of her marriage, noting that it was an amicable split and she remains friends with her former husband to this day. As for having children, Sotomayor took pleasure in being the “fun aunt” instead of having children herself: “The idea of another life utterly dependent on me, the way a child needs his mother, didn’t seem compatible with the professional necessity of living at this punishing pace.”

Reading this book in 2013, it’s good to remember that women of Sotomayor’s generation broke barriers as the first minorities to attend and graduate from institutions that had only recently started affirmative action practices. She detailed several instances of “casual” racism/sexism: the school nurse questioning her acceptance to Princeton; a law firm recruiter pushing her to admit that affirmative action is destructive; judges calling her “honey” in the courtroom. In spite of these slights, Sotomayor remained focused; her grit thrilled me.

Each chapter is a love letter to the values of hard work and dedication. As Sotomayor told committee members before her appointment to the federal bench: “I’m not intimidated by challenges. My whole life has been one.”

For readers who want to know what it was like to be nominated for the Supreme Court, here’s an excerpt from her interview with Oprah earlier this year:

On July 2, Atria Books will publish eight versions of a new autobiography, “Unbreakable: My Story, My Way,” by Jenni Rivera, the Mexican American star who sold more than 15 million albums in a career cut short in a fatal plane crash last December.

“Unbreakable” will come out in English and Mexican Spanish—which Rivera sang and spoke fluently—and in hardcover, paperback and digital formats. The publisher will also print two special editions with extra photographs—an idea from Walmart, which committed to accepting 17,000 copies to sell, said Judith Curr, Atria’s publisher and founder.

Curr told an audience in Manhattan at Book Expo America that Atria is “one of many rooms where a different community can be heard.”

Founded 11 years ago, her upstart imprint enjoyed a critical breakthrough with “The Distance Between Us,” a coming-of-age memoir by Reyna Grande about growing up in Mexico while her parents worked “on the other side.” This moving book—also published simultaneously in English and Spanish—was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle in autobiography this year.

Such occasions are rarer in American publishing than outsiders would guess, even as some 50 million people in the United States speak Spanish.

“We’re looking to bring the work of more Mexican writers into North America,” Curr said, “but discovery is difficult. Distribution is a problem, especially with Borders gone. We are experimenting with ebooks on Amazon in Spanish and English. The results are not great, but better than not having ebooks at all.”

David Unger, a Guatemalan novelist, said that when he arrived in New York City in 1974, there were seven Spanish-language book stores. “Today, we have a boutique book store in Spanish Harlem,” he said. “That’s all.”

Both Curr and Unger spoke on a Book Expo panel called “Mexico’s Cultural Ambitions: On Books, Reading, Translation and a Broader Exchange in the U.S. Market.” Julio Trujillo, editorial director of Conaculta, a Mexican government office that promotes Mexican books, joined them.

“Many people speak Spanish here (in the U.S.), but there is not a book market,” Trujillo said. “First- and second-generation Spanish speakers here, they want to speak English. They want to move in English, work in English and Spanish has been left for the house, the tradition…Books in Spanish that are here have come mainly from Spain, and that is a trend we are trying to buck.”

Unger said that Spain’s stumbling economy, with 27-28 percent unemployment, has created an opening for more Mexican Spanish books, one that he sees prospering under the Guadalajara Book Fair, which started in 1987 and now attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. “Some 700 book professionals from the United States attend each year,” he said.

Diego Rabasa, co-founder of the Mexican publishing house Sexto Piso (“Sixth Floor”), argued that literature meant more than developing markets for books. “We live in a country going through a very deep, complex, long-lasting conflict,” he said. “How do we shape a new social consciousness? Each book should contribute to that.”

A 2009 National Endowment for the Arts study found that only 8 percent of adults read any poetry in the previous year.  Children do better. The Poetry Foundation discovered that the main reasons adults take a pass is loss of interest, lack of time, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.

U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, recently appointed to her second term, is working to welcome more adults to the party.

“We can’t know what poem is going to be the poem that brings someone to poetry, comforts them in times of grief, tragedy, and loss, or celebrates with them in times of joy and triumph,” she told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. “But it is our job — as poets, as teachers, as the poet laureate — to try to bring people to a wide variety of poems so they might find that one among the many.”

During her first year as poet laureate, Trethewey relocated from Emory University in Atlanta to Washington D.C., where she held weekly office hours at the Library of Congress, an nontraditional move for the role. This year, she will film a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, during which she will travel the country to examine how poetry plays out in the lives of everyday Americans.

Trethewey is also writing a memoir, currently untitled, recounting her experiences as a biracial child in the 1970s. It will be released in 2014. Readers who are impatient can pick up a copy of “Thrall,” or her Pulitzer-winning 2007 collection, “Native Guard.”

As an African-American woman, I’ve had strangers grab and rake their fingers through my hair (without my permission) on more than one occasion. They seem amazed at my soft curls and ask me questions about my hair care regime. Once, when I was flying, my Afro puff on top of my head seemed to require a very thorough pat-down by TSA agents. The woman who checked my hair for weapons remarked, “It’s so full! Wow.”

These encounters illustrate the reality for many black women—what grows out of your scalp (and how) is always more than “just” hair, as exemplified in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, “Americanah.”

On the Huffington Post, Antonia Opiah, founder of the site Un-Ruly.com, shared her thoughts on strangers’ requests to touch her hair, sharing one noteworthy incident that occurred as she was visiting Paris: 

A young, blonde, inebriated mademoiselle stopped us somewhere in the 10th district and rattled off something very quickly and passionately in French. My friend Maxence translated: “She wants to touch your hair.” My response to such a solicitation usually depends on my mood. On this night I was tickled by being asked the question in French, so I obliged. She stroked me. She actually really got in there, so I had to curtly make her stop. I wonder if she got any satisfaction from it and if so, what kind? Did my hair feel good on her hands? Was some sort of curiosity finally satisfied? Or was I simply just a Saturday night amusement?

After this incident and similar stories from women, Opiah created “You Can Touch My Hair,” an interactive public art exhibit that took place June 6 and 8 in New York City’s Union Square Park. Three African-American women with varying hairstyles and textures stood in the square with signs reading, “You Can Touch My Hair.” Onlookers were encouraged to interact with them and, of course, touch their hair. 

Of course, the idea is not without controversy. Some online commenters have been vocal about their opposition. One such commenter said, “I find this incredibly gross. This objectification of people of African descent has been ingrained in Europeans and non-Blacks for over a millennium, and this event seems to celebrate that dehumanization.” This commenter identified himself as a white male. Other commenters compared it to a petting zoo and made references to Sarah Baartman, the 19th century black woman put on exhibit at “freak shows” for her voluptuous frame.

“It’s an uncomfortable discussion for a lot of people, but sometimes we have to get comfortable in being uncomfortable to really break ground,” Opiah told the Huffington Post. More than 100 people stopped by the event on June 6, with the “touchers” ranging in age and ethnicity. 

When someone asks me if they can run their fingers through my curls, I usually ask, “Why?” They often can’t give me a reason other than the fact that it’s different. Maybe Opiah has a point: maybe we do need to talk about it. 

Watch the video of Day 1. Let’s discuss: Has anyone ever touched your hair without permission? Have you ever touched someone else’s hair?

 

“Some of you may be asking: ‘Hey, John Lewis, why are you trying to write a comic book?’” said the legendary civil rights leader, smiling at the incongruity of this development for an audience at Book Expo America, the annual publishing trade show in Manhattan.

John Lewis was 17 when he met Rosa Parks; 18 when he joined forces with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Five years later, he was one of the “big six,” an architect of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington in August 1963.  Standing at the Lincoln memorial, Lewis spoke sixth and King spoke tenth, stamping the day with his immortal “I Have a Dream.”  Of all those who addressed the throng a half century ago, Lewis is the only one left.

Now, at 73, he has become the first member of the U.S. Congress to craft a comic book.  Called “March,” it will publish August 13, the first in a trilogy written with Lewis staff member Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell, the award-winning cartoonist.

The idea isn’t as whimsical as it sounds.  Aydin, a comic book enthusiast from Atlanta, knew that in 1957, a 15-cent comic entitled “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” inspired the Greensboro Four.  At least one read the comic and the four students from North Carolina A&T State University decided to sit down in protest at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

Lewis himself led a group trying to integrate a Woolworth’s counter Feb. 27, 1960.  They prayed and drew on the principles of non-violence.  “People came up to us and spit on us and put cigarettes out in our hair,” he told listeners at the Book Expo. “I was so afraid, I felt liberated.” The episode led to jail, the first of Lewis’s more than 40 civil rights arrests.

He grew up on 110 acres in rural Alabama, the third child of sharecroppers who managed to buy the land for $300 in 1940.  Young John liked to wear a tie and give sermons to the chickens.  Local kids called him “preacher.” As a boy, he was instructed “not to get in the way” of whites, but he still applied for a library card in tiny Troy, Ala, where the librarian scolded him that they were only for whites.

On July 5, 1998, Lewis returned to Troy, for a book signing of his memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award that year.  “At the end of the program, they gave me a library card,” he said. “It says something about how far we’ve come.”

Lewis said he initially resisted Aydin’s notion that he tell his story in a graphic format.  The two were hammering up yard signs in southwest Atlanta during Lewis’ campaign for Georgia’s 5th District seat five years ago and chatting about how to teach the Civil Rights movement to 21st century youth.

“Finally, he turned around with that wonderful half-smile he can do and said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” said Aydin. “‘Let’s do it, but only if you do it with me.’ ” Aydin called this a threshold event in his life.

Watch a short interview with John Lewis and Aydin at the 2013 Book Expo America

“When you grow up without a father you spend a long part of your adolescence looking for one,” said Aydin, who is now 29.  He and artist Powell said “Walking with the Wind” became their Bible as they brought Lewis’ story into the present. The trio frame the trilogy around the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.

“We took the accuracy very, very seriously,” Aydin said.  Powell, who grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and now lives in Bloomington, Ind., is drawing the second book now.  He said he emails with Aydin almost daily, and when they are unclear, they consult Lewis.

“I feel the most important thing is to capture what is not explicit in the script,” Powell, 34, said. “I am looking for the emotional resonance – the doubt, fear, unity and togetherness that characterize the Civil Rights movement but don’t come with captions.”

He said he works hard researching the clothes, food, insects and plants that give his art verisimilitude. “It is very easy to get caught up in the drama of events,” Powell said, “but there is a lot of beauty in the South, in the red soil and the bricks, the kind of walking and talking people in the South do.”

Already, Powell has told one Civil Rights story in graphic form, “The Silence of Our Friends,” set in Houston in 1967 and written by Mark Long.  It explores the tested friendship of two men across race.

The Congressman dedicates “March” to “the past and future children of the movement.”  He told the publishing crowd in New York that another installment is overdue.

“I believe it is time to do a little more marching,” Lewis said. “I believe it is time for us to move our feet… I hope that this book will inspire another generation of people to get in the way, find a way to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Films on Princess Diana, Steve Jobs, and Jimi Hendrix should make 2013 a rich year for biopics. An intriguing new one just has been announced: a movie on the life of Lorriane Hansberry, playwright, author, and activist.

The big question is who will play Lorraine? According to Shadow and ActTaye Hansberry, Lorraine’s grand niece, has been cast. She will also help write the screenplay. Jaleel White (from Family Matters) will play James Baldwin, one of Lorraine’s close friends. Production begins in the fall.

Lorraine’s most-known work, A Raisin in the Sun, was inspired by her family’s attempts to integrate a Chicago neighborhood. Unmarred by violent attacks against them and a court order to move, her family stood its ground. Their case, Hansberry v. Lee, eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which in 1940 set aside the restriction that African American families could not purchase or lease land in that Chicago neighborhood.

Hansberry began her professional life at the black newspaper, Freedom, under the tutelage of actor and activist Paul Robeson in New York City. She wrote her play concurrently, and A Raisin in the Sun premiered in 1959. It was the first Broadway theater produced by an African-American woman. Hansberry became the youngest person ever to win the New York Critics Circle award.

Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, opened in 1964 to harsh reviews. However much this hurt, Hansberry stepped up into a prominent role in the civil rights movement, speaking out against racism and homophobia.

The playwright was just 34 when she died of pancreatic cancer. After her death, her former husband, Robert Neimiroff, adapted her collection of essays into a play titled, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Her close friend, Nina Simone, was inspired by the work and came out with a song of the same name in honor of Lorraine. Listen to it below: