When Jesmyn Ward took the stage with Ayana Mathis, each novelist glanced around the warm, lush Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland and toward the hundreds of faces turned in their direction.
“Here we are,” said Mathis, “two black women on a stage, two writers able to talk with each other; it’s really a beautiful thing.”
Bathed in applause, Mathis acknowledged that this wasn’t their first public duet. When contacted about staging a conversation, Ward, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, requested Mathis, whose debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” garnered an Oprah Book Club selection in 2012.
Seated comfortably, each in boots and black trousers, the pair gave an intimate master class in the craft of fiction, part of the Skirball Writer’s Center Stage series produced by the Cuyahoga County Public Library.
“It deepens my understanding of how invested slave owners and white plantation owners were in the institution of slavery,” she said.
“It was foundational history,” said Mathis, who grew up in Philadelphia.
“Foundational, exactly,” Ward replied. “It allowed them to build what they saw as an idealized version of society for themselves. I feel that, that past, and it allowed me to make my characters richer.”
Mathis, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., observed that Americans have a contentious relationship with poor people. Ward responded, “I grew up poor, my family has been poor, both sides. All those generations in southern Mississippi have lived in poverty.”
“I’m reacting in some ways to the negative, preconceived notions people have about poor people: they are spoken about but never spoken to,” Ward said. “One reason I am so attracted to writing first-person point-of-view is because then the characters speak for themselves.”
“Hmm, hmm, hmm,” affirmed Mathis, whose own fiction focuses on characters who otherwise might go unremarked. She brought up William Faulkner, who, like Ward, created a fictional rural Mississippi county populated with poor folk.
Ward said that she revisits “As I Lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom!,” soaking up Faulkner’s lyricism.
“But I don’t think he serves his black characters well,” she said. “They are not given the rich interior lives, and I am very aware of that. He doesn’t allow them the same humanity and complicated quality that Faulkner’s white characters possess. I am always thinking about my characters — I feel them, feel for them, and I feel conscious of the ways black characters are short-changed in his work. I don’t know if readers who aren’t writers notice this.”
Both women spoke about their aversion to outlining fiction; how they find the characters they create surprising them, chuckling about its almost mystical coloring. “The process of writing the rough draft is very intuitive,” Ward said. “It’s as if the character is next to me telling me things. . . I feel real sympathy for children made to bear adult burdens. I tell stories about them because I am very interested in how they survive, how they are marked.”
Ward has said once she discovered how to enter “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” with Pop and JoJo slaughtering the goat for the boy’s 13th birthday, the writing flowed. Her next novel is set in New Orleans – her first venturing outside Mississippi – in the late 1830s, early 1840s during the domestic slave trade. She said she has its beginning in hand.
Both Mathis and Ward tell stories of family and young people, for whom sympathy is easily extended. Ward said she had to pause in writing “Sing” one-third of the way in because of her hostility to Leonie’s failings as a mother. Ward realized that she needed to pause to better understand the wellspring of Leonie’s pain, and made it concrete in the death of Leonie’s brother.
“There were times when I still disliked her,” Ward admitted, “but I love her. Leonie’s great character flaw is she can’t sit with her loss, can’t sit with her grief. So she lashes out, uses substances.”
Mathis observed dryly that readers judge mothers harshly; “fathers are allowed to go out more.” She then asked Ward if she saw her writing in the Southern Gothic tradition.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” started as a road story, Ward said, but once she began researching Parchman Farms, the Mississippi state penitentiary, she realized she needed to make the boy inmate Richie a ghost. “He had to have some of the power he’d been denied in life,” she said of this character’s agency, “so ok then, we’re going to have to make a ghost story work.”
As far as genre, Ward said, “There is so much suffering. Part of what Southern writers are struggling against is the past, our obsession over the past. History has its weight on what we see. Southern Gothic might be writers trying to wrestle with the veneer of gentility, over the crime of slavery,” she said, “what made southern life possible started with the genocide of indigenous people, the crime that enabled that civilization to flourish.”
Each book, Ward said, teaches her how to write it: “Writing ‘Sing’ made me feel like I had taken a seat at the table and now I am loathe to let it go.”
The new novel from Laird Hunt, “In the House in the Dark of the Woods,” has the feel of a hymnal. It is palm sized and red, and it contains a story nestled in the Puritan Colonial era.
Hunt, 50, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013 for “Kind One,” a haunting Civil War novel inspired by a short passage in Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece “The Known World.” Hunt is drawn to fable and journeys and psychological complexity. The new novel wastes no time entering the woods.
The first two sentences, in the voice of the narrator, are “I told my man I was off to pick berries and that he should watch our son for I would be gone some good while. So away I went with a basket.”
The woman goes missing, and Hunt excavates the ancient fears of women who abandon their families and women who are kidnapped and women who wander away without explanation. The epigram for the new work comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”:
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there
This eighth novel from Hunt, now a professor at Brown University, continues his assured, lyrical and disruptive storytelling. Readers who enter his fiction already know that these woods will be strange and harrowing indeed.
Poet Toi Derricotte, whose 1998 prose publication “The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey” remains a pillar of American literature, has not been idle. The University of Pittsburgh Press will bring out a new book of her poetry, “I,” in March of next year.
Derricotte, 77, an emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh, co-founded Cave Canem in 1996, a revolutionary space for black writers. Nikky Finney calls it to this day “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry.”
“The Black Notebooks,” comprised of Derricotte’s journal entries from more than 20 years, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction in 1998. Two years ago, Derricotte introduced her friend, poet Rita Dove, in Cleveland for a celebration of 30 years of Dove’s work. Sociologist Orlando Patterson called that night one on the great gatherings of his life.
Listen to Derricotte read her new poem, “The blessed angels,” here:
How much like
angels are these tall
gladiolas in a vase on my coffee
table, as if in a bunch
whispering. How slender
and artless, how scandalously
alive, each with its own
humors and pulse. Each weight-
bearing stem is the stem
of a thought through which
aspires the blood-metal of stars. Each heart
is a gift for the king. When
I was a child, my mother and aunts
would sit in the kitchen
gossiping. One would tip
her head toward me, “Little Ears,”
she’d warn, and the whole room
went silent. Now, before sunrise,
what secrets I am told!—being
quieter than blossoms and near invisible.
N. Scott Momaday began with horses and ended with bears. He spoke of the sacredness of both.
At 84, the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards lifetime achievement prize was both merry and measured on the dais of the City Club of Cleveland. He began with a tale about a hunting horse “black and fast and afraid of nothing.”
Its owner was a coward, though, and when the man diverted the horse from battle, it died of shame. The elder who recounted this story to Momaday cried when he told it. The writer includes it in his book “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”
“I have a distant relative who on one occasion gave away 250 horses from his private herd,” he said. His people, the Kiowa, “were rich in horses.”
The centrality of the horse braids through Momaday’s own life. On his 12th birthday, his parents gave him one. “I got to live the way some of my ancestors did,” he said, “on horseback. It was a great, great growing up thing for me. I spent several years on the back of a horse and I still dream of Pecos, my horse.”
City Club Executive Director Dan Moulthrop asked the writer if he indeed believed he was a bear, as he mentioned at the awards ceremony. Momaday answered with a foundational Kiowa story of seven girls and a boy, the boy’s transformation into a bear and the girls into the stars of the Big Dipper.
“To take your question seriously, I do believe that I am a bear, that I have bear blood in me, that I have something of a bear’s mind and intuition, intelligence and imagination,” he said. “I believe that firmly.”
His poetry, he said, incorporates both English-language and Native oral traditions, a melding of spells, songs, incantations and chants with the poetic structures he studied at Stanford University.
Looking relaxed in a windbreaker and trim white goatee, Momaday told his listeners that “the Indians has a great capacity for survival and that’s a good thing.”
Readers may watch the entirety of his remarks here and join our mailing list to be among the first to hear the lineup for Cleveland Book Week 2019.
Margo Hudson, a Clevelander who won the National Learner Award in Dallas two years ago, reflected recently on how “literacy turned chaos into opportunity.”
Her remarks kicked off the 2018 edition of Cleveland Book Week and attracted an early morning crowd to the East Cleveland Public Library under the banner of Creative Mornings – Cleveland.
After 11 years spent sitting for six tests, Hudson earned her GED – a fortitude reflected in her erect posture, elegant up-do and patience with audience questions. She said Seeds of Literacy provided the format — one-on-one tutoring — that allowed her to learn best.
“Literacy has made my life limitless,” said Hudson, who now tutors in math. “I am a different person, with a different life now. I am always learning. I am always looking for what’s next. I know I have more to offer now, and I am looking for the chance to do that.”
Jo Steigerwald, Seeds development director, said her literacy nonprofit serves about 1,000 adult learners each year. Eighty-four percent live in poverty, which is unsurprising, she said, because literacy is tightly linked to economic outcomes. She called low-literacy a quiet crisis that impedes two-thirds of city residents.
Here is Margo Hudson’s full speech:
Good morning! My name is Margo Hudson.
I am a graduate of Seeds of Literacy, a basic education and High School Equivalency prep program for adults in Cleveland, Ohio.
Today, I am honored to share my story of how literacy turned chaos into opportunity.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I had a hard childhood, with abuse in the home. I left home when I was 16. I didn’t finish the 9th grade, or high school. I went right to work.
I had a lot of jobs, but none of them paid very well. I worked in nursing homes, fast food restaurants, as a home health aide and a housecleaner.
By the time I was in my 40s, I was working at the airport, cleaning airplanes. It was hard work. You were out in the elements and had to work fast, cleaning planes between flights.
I wanted something else, but I didn’t think I had anything to offer anyone. I didn’t have my GED. I didn’t have much self-confidence. I cleaned airplanes, and didn’t think I had anything in common with people who were flying on those planes. I never stood out.
I didn’t feel good about myself and was going through depression. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to do something with my life.”
I wanted to get my GED and check that off my list. I had tried programs before, but I didn’t finish. I came to Seeds of Literacy because it had one to one tutoring. I was determined that this time would be different.
I worked on my GED for 11 years at Seeds. I studied every chance I got: on my lunch break, 15-minute break, while waiting on my ride. On the bus, in the doctor’s office. I didn’t give up. During the time I was working on my GED at Seeds, I got a better job working in the President’s Club at the airport.
I took the GED 6 times before I passed. I will never forget the phone call from Chris at Seeds, telling me that I passed.
And my life changed at that moment. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life would never be the same. I thought I would be proud to finish the GED and get it off my plate. I would have never imagined what would happen next.
I started to read more. I started to think I had something to offer others. I had more self-confidence. I started volunteering at Seeds. I thought I could help with filing, but they asked me to tutor! So for the past 6 years, I’ve been tutoring students twice a week, on my days off. My specialty is fractions.
I had always wanted to play music, so I started taking keyboard lessons and practicing every day. I learned to make candy, knit ruffly scarves, and duct tape crafts. I kept learning new things.
I started talking to my customers at the Club. I felt that I had something to share. We talked about books we read, and our families, and I shared my story with them. Many of my customers are in business and government, and I would have never thought I had things in common with them. But I do.
In 2016, I won the National Learner of the Year Award. I attended a conference in Dallas to accept the award and participate in workshops. Governor Kasich gave me the Courage Award, and I was invited to lead the pledge of allegiance at a session of the Republican National Convention here in Cleveland.
I was named one of Cleveland’s Most Interesting People in 2017 by Cleveland Magazine. The Cleveland Foundation chose me as one of Cleveland’s Place Makers this year, and I am so honored to be a part of Creative Mornings today!
Best of all, I am now a literacy ambassador. Over the past two and a half years, I have shared the story about how education changed my life with people at homeless shelters, recovery programs, health fairs, back to school events, library programs, Senators and Congresspeople. I want to give back to the community, and I can do that by sharing my passion about literacy and how the GED changed my life. I am blessed to be out talking to people.
I would never have imagined doing these things before I got my GED. I see opportunities now that I didn’t before. When we feel shy or afraid, we miss opportunities, and the chance to share ourselves.
As Mel Robbins says in The Five Second Rule, “At any age, and with any goal, we have the power to own ourselves. Look inside, take a step and try something to change your life.”
Literacy has made my life limitless. I am a different person, with a different life now. I am always learning. I am always looking for what’s next. I know I have more to offer now, and I am looking for the chance to do that.
You know, whatever happened in our lives, we cannot go back. We are here now, and this is what we have to work with. It’s hard sometimes. You have to want it, and work at it. We need to continuously work on ourselves. We should be a different person than we were last month, or last week, or even yesterday.
I learned these lessons through improving my literacy skills. We can all learn. We can all change. My advice for dreamers is to go for it. Surround yourself with quality people to see what’s possible. It can be hard work and you need to be disciplined and persistent.
You might not get perfect, but you will get better!
“John Woman,” the newest novel from prolific and philosophical Walter Mosley, arrives today telling the story of a fugitive genius.
It begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVII – “Who will believe my verse in time to come” – and ends 36 chapters later with a mystery, its central character missing. Detectives find blood of more than one type on a New York City park bench.
In between is the story of a character born Cornelius Jones, the son of an Italian-American sensualist and an older, self-taught black intellectual. The novel opens as Lucia Napoli is describing her youthful wanton desires to her 12-year-old son, whom she calls CC. The boy mostly lives with his father Herman, a silent film projectionist in New York’s East Village. As Herman’s health fails, Cornelius takes over the job.
Five years later, father near death and mother in the wind, Cornelius becomes entangled in a murder and reinvents himself as John Woman. Brilliant in the classroom, he launches an intellectual movement – centered in Herman’s ideas — that grapples with the slipperiness of history. John Woman prospers, holding forth and breaking rules at a fictional southwestern American university.
Mosley, who studied political theory, is drawn to the difficulty of knowing history. “When I decided to write about this phenomenon I did so by constructing the novel of ideas – ‘John Woman’ (Grove Atlantic, 377 pp, $26),” he says.
“Understanding that this was to be a novel and not a treatise I gave my character a history in which he committed a crime that had to be hidden. There is no mystery about who committed the murder. There is no detective that solves a crime. Indeed, the reader might feel that no crime has been committed. ‘John Woman’ is a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
Mosley spent nearly 20 years thinking about this novel. He described his own father, Leroy, who was a supervisory custodian in the Los Angeles Public Schools, as a “Black Socrates.” His mother, Ella Slatkin Mosley, was a Jewish clerk whose ancestors emigrated from Russia. In 1951, the state of California refused to issue the couple a marriage certificate. Their only child was born the next year.
Young Walter grew up in Los Angeles and wrote dozens of critically acclaimed novels, translated into some 25 languages. He is celebrated for his Easy Rawlins stories, and won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” detective fiction also set in tough South Central Los Angeles.
“Though I am known as a mystery writer that genre has never been the only expression of my writing career,” Mosley says in the publicity materials for his new novel. “I have published over 55 books since 1990. Less than half of these have been mysteries.
“I write books to fit the story and the subject I’m interested in. And so when I wanted to tell a tale about the blues and the bluesman Robert Johnson I wrote the literary novel ‘RL’s Dream’ in which Mr. Johnson served as the negative space. When I felt pressed to write about the impact and the internal struggle of dementia I wrote ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.’”
Mosley, 66, has lived in New York City since 1981. “John Woman” begins and ends in that town, full of moral complexity even as its 377 propulsive pages fly along. Its author describes it as a political novel.
In 1970, Harvey Milk, a boisterous, restless New Yorker, turned 40 without a sense of having accomplished much. But in the handful of years that remained to him, Milk moved to San Francisco and remade American politics and identity.
Posthumously, his grin landed on a postage stamp, and the U.S. Navy, in which he served, is scheduled in 2021 to christen a logistics ship after him. Even before these two honors, Barack Obama in 2009 awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, with a smile, “His name was Harvey Milk, and he was here to recruit us – all of us – to join a movement and change a nation.”
Obama was slyly riffing on Milk’s political catch-phrase – “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!” – itself a clever subversion of the long-standing hysteria that gays sought to recruit straights into their beds.
But beneath these accumulating accolades was a complex man, writes historian Lillian Faderman in her elegant and informative new biography, Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death.
In her opening sentence, Faderman calls him “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” who was “one of the first openly gay men to be elected to any political office anywhere.” A year before his 1978 assassination, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative council.
Faderman, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2016 for The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, is well-positioned to contextualize Milk’s life, or, as she sees it, his many lives: a macho high-school jock, a Navy deep-sea diver, a high school math teacher, a Wall Street securities analyst who leafletted for Barry Goldwater, an actor, a hippie, an associate producer, a gofer for a Broadway celebrity, a businessman and in mid-life, a progressive politician.
“For Harvey, being in politics was much like being in the theater,” Faderman writes. “His old Broadway pal Tom O’Horgan understood that: ‘Harvey spent all his life looking for a stage,’ Tom would later say, “and when he moved to San Francisco, he found it.”
This biography, a crisp 283 pages, is the latest entry in the much-honored Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. Faderman knits Milk’s Jewish identity – his grandfather was a Yiddish-speaking peddler who emigrated from Lithuania – with his politics on behalf of the oppressed, from championing rent control to San Francisco’s disinvestment from apartheid South Africa.
And like his contemporary Philip Roth, who grew up in a suburban section of Jewish Newark, Milk’s childhood in his mother’s kosher house on Long Island was marinated in American Jewish identity.
The same photo used on the postage stamp graces the cover of Faderman’s book. It shows Milk in 1977 standing outside his Castro Street camera store. His tie is flipping over in the breeze, a campaign button nestles on his tweed lapel, his eyes hooded, his smile jaunty and – viewed from this century – slightly beatific.
With her signature meticulous research, Faderman reconstructs Milk’s life through interviews, unpublished documents, letters and archives. In clean, declarative sentences, she paints a fascinating portrait of a man who had real enemies, real sadness and an irreverent joie de vivre.
When Milk and his partner Scott Smith signed a lease in 1973 on the spot for their camera store, they hung a placard in their Castro St. window: “We are VERY open.” In their apartment, Milk placed in the window a lavender-leafed Wandering Jew, a symbol that he and Smith had found a home.
Such details animate Faderman’s book. During Milk’s first quixotic run for the Board of Supervisors, “the San Francisco Examiner featured a picture of him that made him look like a weird cross between a hippie and a Hasid, with long sideburns that could be mistaken for peyas.”
Milk actually printed the word “soap” on a wooden box and held forth from atop it in a little plaza on Castro Street. Legendary newspaper columnist Herb Caen quipped that Milk “was running for Supervisor on the homo ticket, and I don’t mean homogenized.”
From these unpromising beginnings, Milk doggedly moved from the fringes to the center of municipal power. “His energy had no limit.”
As with “The Gay Revolution,” Faderman has provided the general reader a marvelous, new, definitive text, the first biography of Milk with footnotes. In a political era when the democratic institutions of the United States are stressed, it is illuminating to read a careful account of one complicated, flawed and exceptionally brave man who used them to advance justice.
A few months before fellow-Supervisor Dan White stalked and shot Milk dead, Harvey Milk made a tape recording. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
A Shout in the Ruins has a ring to it – both as a book and as a title that a poet would craft.
Novelist Kevin Powers spent six years writing his lyrical and violent story set in “the ruins” of Richmond, Virginia, the place where he was born and raised. The author anchors one narrative strand in the ruins of the Civil War; the second unspools 90 years later, during the ruins of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike construction that knocked apart the old Jackson Ward neighborhood of the city.
Readers can glimpse a thematic through-line from Powers’ fierce and luminous first book, The Yellow Birds, an elegiac story centered on a U.S. soldier named John Bartle returning from the Iraq war. It won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, as well as the PEN/Hemingway award.
“I will probably always be interested in the way that violence affects communities, how people respond to those sort of situations and how people put a life together when not all the pieces are intact,” Powers said in 2013 in Cleveland. As a teenager, he served as U.S. army gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq.
A Shout in the Ruins has a deep feel for blood-soaked Virginia. It becomes a multi-generational look at racism and intimacy in the context of war and ruin, American edition.
The story follows two couples: Rawls and Nurse, young people enslaved and in love, and their owners, Emily Reid Levallois and Antony Levallois, bound in marriage and unhappiness and treachery. Levallois is the region’s major landowner – his plantation is called Beauvais – and he sows menace in every direction.
As the book opens, Beauvais is burned, Emily either a ghost or an escapee from that place. The narrative scrolls backward to her midsummer birth, with Rawls as a little boy in the yard watching his mother rock the newborn, a “strange girl who would so influence the rest of his life.”
A few pages later, Rawls begins his nighttime courtship of Nurse, who asks him, “Why do you have a gait like a hobbled dog?” He shows her his feet, both big toes “docked,” or sliced off in childhood after he tried to escape. As the couple sits with this, “the common noises of the night returned. The nightjar’s solemn whistle. A fox scream in the distance. The world painted in shades of gray and lit solely by reflection.”
A mere 15 pages into the novel Powers has nestled beauty and horror together.
The second chapter pivots to George Seldom, an elderly black man losing his house to the 1956 turnpike construction. George takes his displacement as the cue to travel – with a copy of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book – toward a memory of the North Carolina cabin of the woman who raised him from a foundling.
At mid-book, the reader learns how George’s history links to Rawls, Nurse and the Levalloises; George never does. Powers alternates the two narrative threads in a way that complicates all their stories.
When Rawls, still enslaved, is brought home by a group of four white men enraged by him, only Antony Levallois is clear about punishment. The other three “had lived a long time under the assumption that the threat of retribution was enough of a deterrent to keep the course of their lives moving in a predictable direction. And further, their hesitance to use violence to enforce their mastery over those they owned was a sign of a deep well of kindness and loyalty that characterized the tangled knot of the relationships of all involved. Among the five men gathered beneath the colorless buds of the sycamore tree, only two were free of this illusion.”
Those two are Levallois and Rawls, “who had decided long before that a kind master was a terrible master to have.”
Powers bring a psychological acuity to A Shout in the Ruins. These insights and their consequences spill through all his characters, reaching George Seldom a century later, reaching Powers’ readers now.
Another son of Richmond, Tom Wolfe, put The Yellow Birds on par with All Quiet on the Western Front. Wolfe died last month at age 88. Let’s hope that Little, Brown & Co., which published both men’s work, delivered an early manuscript to the elder literary lion in time for him to read it.
James Brown. John Brown’s raid. Michael Brown. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
These subjects braid through Kevin Young’s new book, Brown, as he creates poems about black culture and boyhood, dividing his collection into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings.” It publishes this week.
“It’s a book that’s been brewing for a while,” Young told David Canfield of Entertainment Weekly. “The title poem is one I’ve been trying to write for some time, about growing up in Topeka, Kansas, and going to the church that Rev. Brown of Brown v. Board [pastored]. His daughter Linda played piano and organ in the church, and so to that connection to history always struck me as something worthy of a poem.”
Young dedicates this title poem to his mother and it closes out the section of home recordings. He begins it: The scrolling brown arms/of the church pews curve/like a bone – their backs/bend us upright . . .
In Brown, 31 poems thread from boyhood and back, with a Triptych for Trayvon Martin subdivided into Not Guilty [A Frieze for Sandra Bland]; Limbo [A Fresco for Tamir Rice] and Nightstick [A Mural for Michael Brown].
The book is illustrated with beautiful endpapers of a child’s drawing of a collection of superheroes and nine black-and-white photographs by Melanie Dunea. In January 2015, she traveled to the Mississippi Delta with Young, as he writes, “to capture the spirit of that place with a poetry that enhances my own.”
Their pilgrimage took them to Greenwood, Miss, where the term “black power” was popularized at a Stokely Carmichael rally in 1966, and nearby Money, Miss., where Emmett Till was murdered. These poems call on the reader “to remember but also revisit and revise what we think of the past.” Young mentions in his notes that the white woman who accused Emmett confessed last year that he never whistled or called her baby. He didn’t do a thing.
“The site of Till’s lynching,” Young reports, “feels both holy and haunted.”
The 19 final lines of the book comprise a poem called “Hive.” It also concerns a boy:
The honey bees’ exile
is almost complete.
You can carry
them from hive
to hive, the child thought
& that is what
he tried, walking
with them thronging
between his pressed palms.
Let him be right.
Let the gods look away
as always. Let this boy
who carries the entire
world in his calm
barely walking, bear
us all there
At 87, Toni Morrison is a direct woman. The Nobel laureate in literature has long contemplated her legacy, and the larger meaning of art, society and belonging.
The documentary captures the magisterial Morrison mulling the limits of language in 2006 as she curated an exhibit at the Louvre she also called The Foreigner’s Home. Its centerpiece is Theodore Gericault’s massive 1819 oil painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” created just three years after an actual shipwreck off the coast of Senegal that doomed dozens of 19th-century passengers from the lower classes.
“My faith in the world of art is not irrational and it’s not naïve,” Morrison told a Parisian audience. “Art invites us to take a journey from date to information to knowledge to wisdom. Artists make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty and to comprehend . . . this conversation is vital to our understanding of what it means to be human.”
The writer explained that the title has two meanings – the foreigner at home, and the foreigner is home, flinging wide the questions of displacement and belonging. She noted that each individual finds oneself “being, fearing or accommodating the stranger.” She put these notions and the Gericault painting before street poets, playwrights, dancers, musicians, choreographers and novelists whom Morrison invited to the Louvre from around the corner, and around the globe.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian writer living in New York, lent her insights, and roughly ten years later, traveled to Morrison’s home in the Hudson River valley, to update and enlarge the conversation for the film. (Both women are recipients of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.)
In 2006, architect Ford Morrison traveled to France with his mother and filmed parts of the Paris gathering, then tucked the footage away. Morrison mentioned her desire to have something done with the materials to Jonathan Demme, her neighbor and friend who had directed the cinematic version of her novel “Beloved.”
‘She said, ‘Jonathan, I don’t want to deal with this, but do you know some nice, quiet folk who might want to deal with it?’” recalled Rian Brown-Orso, a co-director of the documentary and professor at Oberlin College.
Demme did. All three of his children attended Oberlin, where he met cinema professors Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree. Demme helped the duo in their 2009 initiative to restore the Apollo Theatre in Oberlin.
The director agreed to executive produce the Morrison film project. “He thought at the time he’d either use HBO or he’d try us,” Pingree said. Brown-Orso created the hand-painted animation for The Foreigner’s Home and Pingree wrote the script.
But the task was complex and wound up taking five years. “Geoff and I spent two years logging and transcribing,” she said. “Some material was unusable; some had bad sound quality.”
The pair concluded they must ask Morrison to sit for the camera, violating one of her original conditions. Pingree wrote a passionate two-page letter in November 2014, making a case for a new interview. In their letter, the directors asked to build 20 minutes of archival materials into a film commensurate with the ideas Morrison explored. In the intervening years, questions around migration had become more urgent.
Demme and then Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, who had helped raise $350,000 for the project, predicted Morrison would decline. Instead, she agreed.
“We set the film up, and the first thing you hear is water,” Pingree said. “Then we hear [Morrison’s] voice. Then we see an animated boat with hand-drawn figures. They suggest anyone at sea, literally or figuratively offshore. So we begin asking, ‘Where will they land? Who’ll take them in? Where will they find anchor?’”
When The Foreigner’s Home debuted in North America with a screening in Miami in March, Pingree said a viewer approached him. “This 67-year-old white guy came up to say he was riveted. He said, ‘If I could have gotten my 20-year-old self to watch it, it would have changed my entire life.’ “
The man shook Pingree’s hand and melted back into the crowd.
For Brown-Orso, such a response indicates Morrison is sounding a warning, that her voice is prophetic: “Our task was to make a visual space to uphold the power of Ms. Morrison’s words.”
The film is dedicated to Demme, who died last year.
“The mission of art is the destruction of barriers and walls,” Morrison says, “the things that prevent people from connecting with their home or each other.”
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for The Jazz Palace returns to Jewish history, this time spinning a family story across centuries. She puts it in motion in 1492, the year Spain expelled its Muslim and Jewish citizens and Christopher Columbus journeyed to the New World.
In Gateway to the Moon, Morris places on that voyage an interpreter she calls Luis de Torres, a Jew who has disguised himself as a Christian in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition. His descendants travel too, some settling in a little town called Entrada de la Luna in what will eventually be New Mexico. The legacy of Crypto-Judaism, secret adherence to Judaism amid an outward appearance of religious conformity, settles in too.
In her acknowledgments, Morris writes that the new work is “a story I began thinking about more than twenty-five years ago when we lived in Santa Fe and had a babysitter who believed he was a crypto-Jew. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his face and the myriad of questions he asked about Jews and Jewish rituals.” Prodded by her agent, Ellen Levine, Morris dug out her old journals from Santa Fe, which helped germinate the new novel. She dedicates it to Levine, and to her Doubleday editor, Nan A. Talese.
She also dedicates Gateway to the Moon to her husband, Larry O’Connor. Their meeting, charmingly recounted in Morris’ 2015 column for the New York Times Modern Love feature, is as soulful as the cover of her new book.
Morris, a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, quotes the French novelist Andre Malraux in her epigraph: “The great mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”
McPhee, who has sharpened the reading lives of generations and taught hundreds of journalists at Princeton University, was gracious and brief in accepting the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement at the New School in Manhattan. He paid homage to former New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, whose careful edit of McPhee’s first piece in 1963 was marked by Shawn’s deliberate words: “It takes as long as it takes.”
“A lifetime of writing. How did that happen?” asked McPhee, 87, as he accepted the prize. National Public Radio host Stacey Vanek Smith praised her mentor’s prose as “writing in the absence of intruding artifice.” She said she had thought at least 1,000 times of certain passages in “Coming into the Country,” McPhee’s classic work about the Alaskan backcountry.
Layli Long Soldier won in poetry for “Whereas,” mesmerizing the audience at the New School in Manhattan with a reading of a poem in which a grown daughter mistakes her father’s cry for a sneeze – having never heard him cry. She is a member of the Oglala Lakota nation and lives in Santa Fe.
Another first-time author, Carina Chocano, won in criticism for her 21 essays called “You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks and Other Mixed Messages.”
The funny, incisive Los Angeles writer said she formed the idea for this book in 2008 when, as a movie critic, she was imbibing a steady diet of pop images of women in film. “Still, I was afraid to write this book, a woman speaking against the official line.”
NBCC board member Walton Muyumba observed, “We seem to tell ourselves movie and TV stories, Chocano suggests, in order to perpetuate old lies about gender, generally, and women, specifically. In fact, we seem to find deep pleasure in their continuous repetition. . . Chocano doesn’t send the readers down the rabbit hole (we’re living in Wonderland already) so much as she uses these pieces like smelling salts to awaken us to our collective gas-lighting.”
Biography honored another kind of cultural exemplar: Laura Ingalls Wilder, captured in the marvelous book “Prairie Fires” by Caroline Fraser. Wilder transformed her family’s struggle with poverty, disappointment and loss into fiction that has never gone out of print, has been translated into 45 languages, and sold more than 60 million books, Fraser said. The “Little House” titles cemented American pioneer mythology with a darkly libertarian streak.
“Laura Ingalls Wilder endures,” notes NBCC board member Elizabeth Taylor, ”and now future generations can read Fraser’s marvelous biography and understand her vision of how Ingalls dreams of the frontier. Caroline Fraser has brilliantly recast our understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilders’ life and times, and affirmed her influence in shaping the myth of the iconic West.”
A dissemination of a different set of ideas is characterized in Frances FitzGerald’s “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.” It won in nonfiction. FitzGerald quoted Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s admonition as a potent form of prosperity theology: “If you pray for a camper, tell Him what color; you don’t make God do your shopping.”
Taylor writes, “In convincing detail, FitzGerald charts the evolution of evangelism from a religious to a political movement.” The author thanked Jerry Falwell and his church in Lynchburg, Va., for their welcome and patience with her journalism.
In autobiography, the London-based filmmaker Xiaolu Gau won for “Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.” Critic Marion Winik describes it as “a thrilling, fist-pumping kind of story” about the author’s escape from cruelty and poverty in Communist China, salted with “a funny and entertaining disquisition” on why it is so hard for Chinese people to learn the English language.
Joan Silber won the fiction prize for “Improvement,” her seventh novel. It follows a single mother in New York, her four-year-old son, her free-spirited aunt and a boyfriend with plans to smuggle cigarettes across state lines. “There is not a wasted word in the novel’s 227 pages, which nevertheless contain multitudes,” writes NBCC board member Tom Beer.
“I’m always happy when someone describes my fiction as generous,” Silber said as she accepted the prize. “If nothing else, fiction reminds us that others have interior lives.”
For the first time in NBCC history, the winners across all six book categories were women.
Can the United States transition “from being an occupier to being a neighbor”?
The documentary follows four key participants in a truth and reconciliation commission entered into five years ago by the Wabanaki people and the state of Maine. It centers on the consequences of decades of government policy that ripped Native children from their families and placed them in foster homes.
The commission, which ran for 27 months, reported that between 2002 and 2013, Native children in Maine were five times more likely to be forced from their homes than non-Native children.
“Our film,” says Bruce Duthu, a Dartmouth professor of Native studies, “reveals a practice of state power that is ongoing, state action directed at the heart of the family and depriving individuals of something that I think most of us take for granted: the idea not only that we can have children but raise them the way that we want to.”
Duthu looks into the camera to say, “When state power deprives people of that right, we should all be concerned.”
The documentary will screen at Tower City Cinemas on three dates: 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 13; 1:20 p.m. Saturday, April 14 with a film forum and 9:20 a.m. Sunday, April 15. You will receive a $2 discount per ticket using the Anisfield-Wolf code: ANW0. Tickets go on sale March 23.
“It is hard to fathom for many in Maine that genocide occurred here,” the commission report states, “much less that it continues to occur in a cultural form.”
Jill Lepore is restless.
The Harvard historian prefers to walk while she thinks, and stand when she talks. And so she stood before perhaps 800 guests gathered in Cleveland to hear her ponder whether a divided nation can own a shared past.
“A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, will fight forever over the meaning of its history,” she writes in These Truths: A History of the United States, a 1,000-page civics lesson that W.W. Norton will publish in September.
Sweeping American histories were once common, particularly in the 1930s, Lepore said. They mustered an argument for American democracy, a rebuttal in the teeth of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and their ilk. Now the nation is divided down the middle, she observed, with the hero of one half – Barack Obama or Donald Trump – serving as the villain of the other.
Asked about economic inequality, Lepore acknowledged its rise since 1968. But it is race, not class, in her estimation, that undergirds our systems: “Race is the foundation of our politics in a way that is mainly horrifying,” she said. “I put race squarely at the center of the history of the United States – it really is the driver of our political change.”
With her third history, New York Burning, Lepore won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006. It explores 18th-century, pre-Revolutionary War Manhattan, specifically the winter of 1741, when ten fires beset the seaport village. With each blaze, panicked whites saw more evidence of a slave uprising. In the end, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 hanged, and more than 100 black women and men were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall.
In her Cleveland presentation, Lepore, 51, started earlier still, noting that the very decision of where to begin a history is political. She flashed up an image on the multiple screens of the Maltz Performing Arts Center. Called the T-O Map (left), it dates to Medieval Spain and is considered the first conceptual map Westerners made of the world.
Next came the 1507 Waldseemuller map, made by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. Its enormous popularity helped cement the name “America” for the new lands. “Like much of history, the naming was a crapshoot,” Lepore said.
She flashed up a painted portrait with a globe meant to cement Queen Elizabeth’s dominance over the new world (1588) as well as Powhatan’s Mantle (1607), meant to illustrate something similar about the regency of a Chesapeake chief.
The physical Constitution itself, widely printed and distributed in 1787, is a kind of map that argues “the people are sovereign by virtue of reading, a wholly new idea that sticks,” Lepore said. “The debate over the Constitution was really a strong one with Alexander Hamilton asking if people can rule themselves by coming up with a set of laws that govern by reason and choice instead of accident and force.”
One of the scholar’s favorite images portrays Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and feminist, knitting the nation – made in 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. The outline of the United States lies in yarn on her lap.
Eight years earlier came a depiction that embraces the “technological sublime,” the idea that a technological fix could bind up the nation. In 1856 that was the transcontinental railroad. In 2000, it was an issue of Wired Magazine arguing that the internet would heal the nation’s political divisions in ten years.
As for the present, “historians make terrible prophets,” Lepore declared.
She noted that guns and abortion were apolitical topics a half-century ago. Now they serve as mirrored partisan gold-standards: Conservatives see guns as freedom and abortion as murder and liberals see guns as murder and abortion as freedom.
Lepore preferred, in writing the nation’s history, to dwell on a conversation between Henry Longfellow and his close friend Charles Sumner, during the perilous year 1848. The poet shared his new work, “The Building of the Ship of State,” in which the country is wrecked and sinks. Sumner implored Longfellow to give it a more optimistic cast. And when the poet did, it contained the famous lines: “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union, strong and great!”
Abraham Lincoln read these lines and wept. Sumner’s argument for optimism spoke deeply to Lepore. She deplores the fashionable radical pessimism – right or left – that characterizes our day, calling it “a kind of political cowardice.”
She cited a survey indicating that in the last year, only one in four Americans has had a political conversation with someone with whom they disagree – a perilous fact in itself.
Ever the historian, she suggested that citizens “wrestle with the facts, presume good will, use debate, examine the materials and make some arguments about the evidence.”
In January – after a student-led outcry – copies were back in the high schools of Katy, Texas, albeit paired with a parental consent form. The consternation began when a middle-school parent complained about profanity and drug use at a party depicted in the book’s opening scene.
Angie Thomas, who wrote that scene, had a few observations about her breakout book, which spent 38 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. It was arguably the young adult sensation of 2017.
‘There are 89 f-words in ‘The Hate U Give;’ I know because I counted them,” Thomas told an overflow crowd at the Cleveland Public Library. “And last year, more than 900 people were killed by police. People should care more about that number than the number of f-words.”
The novel, characterized by YA king John Green as a “classic for our times,” centers on Starr Carter, a 16-year-old growing up in a gritty neighborhood and navigating a preppy private high school.
“I went to a mostly white, upper-class Christian school in conservative Mississippi,” Thomas said of Belhaven University. “They love Jesus but they don’t want people to have rights. I had to be two Angies.”
Thomas, now 30, was warm and frank and proud, declaring her love for the Cleveland Cavaliers and describing a complex Mississippi heritage: saying y’all and having a mother who heard the shots that killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Yet Thomas said she grew up without anyone calling her the n-word.
In the second chapter of “The Hate U Give,” Starr is riding in a Chevy Impala alongside her childhood friend Khalil when he is pulled over and shot to death by a police officer.
The novel germinated in Thomas’ anger over the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old shot in the back on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform. It began as a short story, her senior project as a creative writing major at Belhaven.
By the time Thomas finished writing “The Hate U Give” three years ago, it had ignited a bidding war among 13 publishing houses. And Amandla Stenberg had been cast as Starr in the Fox 2000 film, a decision that inflamed some readers who pictured a darker-skinned girl as they read the book. Thomas responded on Twitter that she was not involved in casting, but that she “supports Stenberg 1000%.”
“So much of her story is Starr’s story,” Thomas said. “But that’s Amandla’s story to tell. I know colorism is an issue, but I watched her on the set in Atlanta and she understood so much. She made me cry. I hope people will give Amandla a chance.”
In an aside, Thomas praised “Black Panther,” which dominated the weekend box office. “If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you doing with your life?” she enthused. “It’s going to change the film industry. It’s already changed mine (movie). I can’t say how, but it is.”
As she does in most of her ports-of-call, Thomas explained the title. The first letter of each word spells thug, a reference to the tattoo across Tupac Shakur’s abdomen. He explained it as “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fxxxs Everyone” or T.H.U.G L.I.F.E.
Teenaged Angie idolized the music of Tupac, and saw hip-hop as art-as-activism. She had a short-lived stint as a teen rapper, calling herself Young Short-A. And she encouraged her audience – packed with youth from throughout Cleveland – to see themselves as roses in concrete, a reference to Tupac sampling Nikki Giovanni.
About 500 Clevelanders turned out to hear and cheer Thomas, whose next novel, “On the Come Up,” is due out in June. She returned the crowd’s affection: “You drive trends. You change language. Hip-hop was started by teenagers, 15-, 16-year-olds in the Bronx in a basement with a turntable and a mic.”
Without embellishment, she declared her intent: “I am here to beg you to change the world.”
“You would never hear me use the word ‘diversity’ except to criticize it,” she declared to a large Cleveland audience at Case Western Reserve University’s Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. “Diversity is a word that makes white liberals feel good.”
The 41-year-old MacArthur “genius” recipient and New York Times journalist is “a fundamental voice reshaping the national education agenda,” as CWRU President Barbara Snyder puts it. Hannah-Jones specializes in investigative reporting on school re-segregation and its consequences.
“Nothing says more about us than our choice about where we send our children to school,” she said. “I’m not talking about Trump voters. I’m talking about progressives who don’t live their professed values.”
Perhaps her most-discussed reporting last year published as a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story entitled “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” In it, the author explores how she and her husband decided to enroll their child in their Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood elementary school, where most of the children are poor, black and Latino.
“I decided we would not use our privilege to escape the children in our neighborhood,” Hannah-Jones told her audience, which included students from five Cleveland-area schools, three of which fit the same demographic profile. “As an upper-middle class, highly-educated person, I can make up for whatever that school isn’t giving her.”
Some of the response to the story was withering. Reader upon reader asked, “How dare you sacrifice your child?” The author’s retort: “Whose children should we sacrifice?”
She spent the bulk of her Cleveland presentation making vivid what becomes of children mired in re-segregated U.S. schools. Those citizens grow up to experience more poverty, more illness, more segregation and shorter lives. And Hannah-Jones came packing information specific to her audience: the history of busing in Cleveland and the rapid re-segregation once the court order came off. Ohio public schools rank fourth in extreme racial segregation– only New York, New Jersey and California are worse.
This matters, Hannah-Jones said, because the only instrument proven to shrink the racial achievement gap is integration. In the 17 short years during which the country moved toward integration, which peaked in 1988, the racial achievement gap was slashed by more than half. As a schoolgirl in Waterloo, Iowa, young Nikole herself was bussed, more than two hours each day.
She stressed that white children didn’t make her, or any other students, better but the resources that accrue to whites do: more experienced teachers, more classroom resources, more advanced-placement curriculum and more rigorous instruction. Hannah-Jones calls this “the milk and honey” that too rarely touches the black and brown children, now composing half of the American public school enrollment.
“And then we blame those children for not achieving what white children do who receive all the milk and honey,” she observed.
“If we truly care about our children, why wouldn’t we do the one thing we know helps every child? This is the denial of full citizenship and equality in the place we expect the most equality: school.”
The writer has little truck with magnet and charter solutions. “One thing about the choice movement is it market-izes what should be public. If you play the Hunger Games with public schools, those on the bottom will continue to die.”
Hannah-Jones won a Peabody award for an absorbing 2015 piece called The Problem We All Live With, which will also be the title of her forthcoming book.
That radio journalism is a portrait of the Normandy Public Schools, the worst performing district in Missouri. Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, led Hannah-Jones to this topic, because McSpadden – in the hour of her grief – spoke out about her teenage son managing to graduate just months before Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot him dead. This caught Hannah-Jones’ attention. McSpadden declined to be interviewed, but other African-American mothers stepped forward to delineate their struggles against the abysmal Normandy schools ensnaring their children.
Hannah-Jones described her pessimism that African-American children will achieve full equality, even as she spoke of her own family’s generational gain, naming the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son” as her favorite. A student bluntly asked why — given her assertion that the future is bleak — she had brought her own daughter into the world.
The journalist laughed, allowing that her pregnancy was unplanned, but then turned serious. “One of the biggest acts of resistance is to say, ‘I will exist.’ Our existence is our resistance.”
Jesmyn Ward, whose fiction is drawing comparisons to William Faulkner’s, received a new honor this week: her 2017 novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” will kick off a new book discussion led by the New York Times and the PBS NewsHour. Called Now Read This, the organizers hope to become a go-to resource for reading groups across the country.
Ward, the only woman to win a National Book Award twice for fiction, continues to live in rural Mississippi, the source of her family life and much of her inspiration. Born in 1977, Ward attended Stanford University and had decided in 2008 to turn away from the writing life and, at her mother’s urging, enroll in nursing school when Agate Publishing picked up her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds.” It tells of two brothers on divergent paths and is set on the Gulf Coast. Ward followed this work with “Salvage the Bones,” arguably the best fiction to arise out of Hurricane Katrina. In 2014, Ward came to speak at the Cleveland Public Library, where she described her reading and writing and her strong identification with communities on the margins.
Last year, Ward received a no-strings $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. “I don’t shy away from tough topics,” she says on the foundation’s video, praising the Gulf, the bayous and the regional habits of storytelling.
Marilyn Chin is a frank and feminist poet who continues to enlarge the Anisfield-Wolf canon.
Like Peter Ho Davies, she is a master of the hyphenated identity, writing, “ I am a Chinese American poet – born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. My poetry both laments and celebrates the ‘hyphenated’ identity.”
Chin, a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University, has a new poem reaching the 350,000 subscribers to the American Academy of Poet’s digitally delivered Poem-A-Day. Her new work is called “Love Story,” a perennial focus of Chin’s work. Her Anisfield-Wolf winning collection is called “Hard Love Province.”
Of her new poem, the 62-year-old Chin says, “The immigrant couple’s entire life history is told in just five triplet stanzas . . . This might be a typical American story: an immigrant couple gets married, the husband gets a good job (an iron rice bowl), they conceive children, grow old, die peacefully in their new nation. However, their story does not quite end in harmonious resolution. A love story is a never-ending drama.”
by Marilyn Chin
The aerogram says come the photos show bliss
Another felicitous union a fresh beginning
He’s so handsome fat she’s so new world slim
The envelopes are red the writing vermeil
He’ll get a good job an iron rice bowl won’t break
She’s caught a princely man a silent one like her father
Sister dyes pink eggs Auntie boils cider knuckles
The Great Patriarch is happy a bouncy grandson
A bundle of joy from a test tube in heaven
Thank you for your blessings for your lucky lycee
A young nurse cares for her now in a small hospice near the sea
He’s alone on Silicon Hill that’s where he’s happy
Emails turn silent Instagrams remiss
Thank you for the white gardenias they’ll sweeten her soul
The joss paper boats will net fish for her in the next world
It makes sense that his 14-line poem, “Blind Tom Plays for Confederate Troops, 1863” inspired the new Anisfield-Wolf InterIUrban mural from the artist Mike Perry.
The new work braids along the right angle of two walls at Ford Drive and Hessler Road in Cleveland, Perry’s first project in this city. He created the 2015 wraparound mural at the Facebook offices in New York City and is probably best known for his colorful animation on “Broad City,” the Comedy Central series.
While navigating a week of Midwestern October weather, Perry dropped in on the Cleveland School of the Arts, where he spoke to a morning class on street art. Wearing a bright blue sweatshirt with his motto “Don’t Give Up,” Perry brought a relaxed, coffee-sipping presence. He is partial to creating flowers with a surrealistic bent.
“I kind of call B.S. on this notion that you have to choose to be an artist,” the 36-year-old said. “Some people can’t help but be weirdo creatives.” He encouraged students to sketch while he chatted about his own path from Kansas to Minnesota to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., the same borough that, incidentally, is home to Tyehimba Jess.
Kelly likened his complicated art to meditation: “I can’t not do this.”
Jon Sedor, a second-year teacher at the School of the Arts, observed that “street art is a way to reach a lot of people without being too in-your-face.”
Kelly, his jeans splotched with paint, delivered this advice: “Make the work, put it out there, let people see it. Murals are a public forum for people to accidentally discover what you do – like the internet.”
The artist/animator read a brief from LAND Studio about Jess and soaked in several poems. “I felt inspired and tried a couple of drawings,” he said. “I don’t know what this mural is about yet; I haven’t finished it.”
Now it commands one of the most heavily-trafficked pedestrian corners of Cleveland. One source, “Blind Tom,” was the nickname for Thomas Wiggins. He was a musical prodigy, a slave, and one of the best known touring pianists of the 19th century. Kelly’s mural features a snaking keyboard.
Here is “Blind Tom Plays for The Confederate Troops, 1863”:
The slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying
across ivory, feet stomping toward
a crescendo that fills the forest pine,
reminding the Rebs what they’re fighting for –
black, captive labor. Tom, slick with sweat, shows
a new trick: Back turned to his piano,
he leans like a runner about to throw
himself to freedom through forest bramble –
until he spreads his hands behind him. He
hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie
slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth
like a worksong dragged across cotton fields,
like a plow, weighted and dirty, ringing
with a slaver’s song at master’s bidding.
The Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank is a juggernaut.
Less than 20 months after its founding in March 2016, it had distributed 848,583 free books to underserved children in Cuyahoga County.
And as hard as it is to visualize that number – even standing in a warehouse staffed by 3,000 volunteers – the number of titles is shifting upward, faster than the weekly update on its website can track.
“Early exposure to reading is critical to brain development, literacy skills, school readiness and adult success,” said John R. Corlett, president of the Center. “Unfortunately, for many children, having a book is a luxury.”
Fitting snugly in the Anisfield-Wolf tradition, the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank exists to foster literacy and a love of reading. But it exists only because two women — Judi Kovach and Judy Payne — put themselves in a position to have a moment of creative brilliance, then act upon it.
Book Bank Board Member Deena Epstein puts it this way: “If you want to find a book that represents the two Judys, I might suggest ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ If all the characters were rolled into two figures, you’d have Judi and Judy possessing heart, courage, brains and humility. Their road is paved not with yellow bricks, but with books, and it leads not to Oz but to Cleveland where all its children share a love of reading.”
Payne and Kovach met through the Little Free Library movement, which places birdhouse-like structures along city streets so that passersby can donate a book or take one home. In Cleveland, the women saw demand outstripping supply.
They learned of a Toledo, Ohio distributor that had been pulping hundreds of thousands of books, and – unlike anyone else in grassroots literacy – dared to imagine all those titles being diverted to Cleveland.
Where there once was a dead-end in a landfill, there is now a brimming warehouse where volunteers sort and box books to more than 600 partners – schools and nonprofit agencies, which put the books in the hands of children and their households.
But what does it mean to distribute more than 60,000 high-quality, gently-used books to Cleveland children each month?
You’ve heard of the 30 million word gap? That is chasm a child faces by age four who grows up in a language-impoverished home. And two-thirds of low-income households own zero children’s books.
The research is conclusive that reading to a child strengthens the bonds between child and caregiver, increases school readiness and improves brain development. There is powerful science showing that rich, interactive household language is the key architect to early brain growth – a phase that cannot be duplicated once the child is an adult.
In accepting their award, Payne credited her board and the battalion of volunteers, donors and bibliophiles who came together to make the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank a thriving startup.
But Margaret Bernstein, the director of advocacy and community initiatives for WKYC, sees it differently. She introduced Kovach and Payne several years ago as she passed to them the leadership of some 60 local Little Free Libraries. And she likened the women to two sticks of dynamite.
“What happens when you put two sticks together?” Bernstein asked more than 300 guests gathered for the annual celebration of human services. “Let’s all say it: they go boom!”
The audience echoed the word, even as Payne took one step forward and improvised: “Books!” she shouted.