Author Jacqueline Woodson Encourages Young People to Take Pride in Diversity
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Author Jacqueline Woodson spoke in the BHS auditorium on the evening of Thursday, Jan. 19 at an event sponsored by The Beachwood City School District in collaboration with Laurel, Hawken and Facing History and Ourselves.
Superintendent Dr. Robert Hardis welcomed a crowd of people from all three schools.
“Literature can open up conversations and bring together communities,” he said.
Hardis introduced Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School, who thanked everyone who had made the night possible.
Next, Ann Klotz, Head of Laurel School, introduced Jacqueline Woodson, giving a brief biography and highlighting her six literary awards and some of her most prominent work, including Brown Girl Dreaming, a book of poems about her childhood that won the National Book Award, and the 2016 novel Another Brooklyn, which tells the story of a child growing up in 1970s Brooklyn.
Klotz then welcomed Woodson out onto the stage, where she was greeted with much applause.
Woodson began her talk by referencing America’s brutal history of racism.
“People of color were brought here enslaved to work until they died and to produce others who’d work until they died… but we didn’t die,” she said.
Woodson sees her literary work as a way of helping young people to take pride in their identities.
“It matters to me in terms of the safety of the people that come behind us,” she said.
She distinguished between books that give insight into the lives of others–books she described as windows–and books that reflect and affirm the thoughts and feelings of the reader, which she described as mirrors.
“It is important to have books that are both windows and mirrors, because growing up I had a lot of books that were windows, but not many that were mirrors,” she said.
Most of the books she read told stories that were distant from her life and the lives of the people she knew.
Woodson told a story from one of her children’s books, Each Kindness, in which a character named Maya comes to a new school where she is perceived as different. She wears old worn-out clothes, which causes other kids to view her in negative ways.
The author connected this to an encounter she witnessed in her daughter’s second grade class.
“I saw a girl with pants that I thought were fabulous,” she said. “They were red, white and blue and were flared out at the bottom; they reminded me of the seventies.”
But one of the other girls was judgmental.
“I can’t believe you wore those to school today,” she said.
Woodson noticed that for the rest of the day, the girl with the stylish seventies pants tied a jacket around her waist and remained seated in order to hide the pants.
The message of the book Each Kindness, Woodson explained, is that it doesn’t take much effort for each of us to go through life being kind to others.
She hoped the book would provide a mirror for her readers instead of a window.
“Instead of making Maya seem like a pathetic and different girl, I tried to show her finding strength through being different,” she said.
In the book, Maya brings a jump rope to school, but none of the other girls would play with her, so she took the jump rope and jumped around the entire school by herself, smiling all the way.
Woodson had close family members who were Jehovah’s Witness and Muslim, and she followed parts of both the Bible and the Qur’an in her home, which allowed her to understand
diverse religious perspectives.
She questioned why we need to emphasize differences rather than commonalities.
“Why did we ever feel the need to distance transgenders, gays, Palestinians and Jews and have them on the outside?” she asked.
She acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to discuss sensitive subjects such as race, gender and economic inequality.
“I know there is fear,” she said. “I think that’s what keeps us from having the conversations… It comes back down to transparency.”
At the end of the talk, Woodson opened it up to questions. Everyone in attendance had note cards on which they could write down questions to hand to the Facing History and Ourselves staff who were in the aisles with microphones.
People could write down their names or remain anonymous.
“There isn’t a question you can ask me that I’ll feel uncomfortable answering,” Woodson said.
One anonymous questioner asked what educators can do when they see African American students succeeding in school only to be teased by other African American students who accuse them of attempting to be white.
Woodson said she couldn’t believe this is still an issue.
“You have to ask [if they believe that] only whites are educated, and then give the multiple examples of the many educated figures of different races,” she said.
Woodson explained that black children and other children of color must be given a mirror in which to see that it is acceptable for them to be educated, and that there were many before them who were the same.
Finally, Woodson discussed how she felt lucky to have had teachers who saw she was a good writer and encouraged her. She got into college and eventually found a publisher. She was lucky because other people don’t always receive that chance, so she wanted to do as much as she could with it.
Pamela Donaldson, senior program associate at Facing History and Ourselves, explained that the goal of the event was to use literature to open up conversations about identity. She hopes that people coming away from the event will help lead these conversations.
At the end of the evening, a Barnes & Noble sales representative sold copies of Jacqueline Woodson’s books. Woodson sat at her own table signing books while audience members enjoyed cookies and drinks that had been set up outside of the auditorium.