By Gelenda Norman, Library Assistant III, Birmingham Public Library
In the midst of the firestorm of injustice around the U.S., local advocates along with Birmingham Public Library put together an event, Read-In for Justice, to resonate the voices of local storytellers and authors to share books by people of color. The event was originally scheduled for June at a public park, but due to the efforts to maintain safety precautions from COVID-19, the program was held virtually via Facebook Live.
Going virtual opened the door to not only storytellers and authors lending their voices, but activists, media personalities and community advocates who were eager to participate. It looks like we are on to something! Read-In for Justice has now become a monthly event.
The community needed to hear the voices of our children tell the story.
As part of our library’s Summer Learning Program, a virtual poetry three-day workshop for teens was held in July. The theme of the program was the Children’s March of 1963. The objectives of the Flourish Alabama Virtual Poetry Camp were to create artistic projects that displayed historical research and creative writing, while also enabling teens to build their self-confidence. The outcome of this camp was astounding! It inspired Birmingham Public Library to take Read-In for Justice to another level.
The Children’s March of 1963 became the backdrop for the third Read-In for Justice: Let the Children Speak event. The children’s book Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson is a fictional depiction of a little girl’s participation in the march along with the dangers she faced. We were fortunate to have the author on board to tell us why she decided to write this book. She shared her awakening to the reality of terror that took place in May 1963. She shared with the viewers how she was led to believe that the police escorted the children, basically diminishing the horrifying events that took place. After researching the truth, she penned Let the Children March.
Let the Children March was brought to life during the event with the presence of Janice Wesley Kelsey, an actual participant in the Children’s March of 1963. Janice shared her firsthand experience of leaving school to march and getting arrested on that dreadful Sunday in September. She described the call her family received because one of the four little girls who was killed shared Ms. Wesley’s last name and some people assumed it was Janice.
Katelyn Miller (a Poetry Camp teen), Aaliyah Taylor (a library technician) and Janice Wesley Kelsey read the book in a manner that reflected three generations.
During the Read-In for Justice: Let the Children Speak event, three Virtual Poetry Camp teens — Antonio Johnson, Katelyn Miller and Saidah Roya — shared POWERFUL poems inspired by the documentary Mighty Times: The Children March. Antonio, using his voice as his paintbrush, painted the picture of John Herbert Phillips High School (currently Phillips Academy), which was once an all-white high school that eventually became an all-black high school. Katelyn served as the voice of 16th Street Baptist Church to tell the story of its service to the city of Birmingham as well as the nation. 16th Street Baptist Church not only served as a place of worship for hundreds of citizens throughout Birmingham, but it also served as the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Saidah walked us along the streets, using the asphalt of Birmingham to depict the pain and struggle of desegregation.
Read-In for Justice was created to tell the STORY — EVERYONE’S STORY! This program has really charged me to engage the community to use their voice and tell their stories. The goal is to reach out to the diverse literature community and have persons become storytellers. I love the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Unfortunately, in 2020 we are judging many books within and outside of our communities by their covers and the result is prejudice, hatred and injustice. We must learn to open the book and read the story! Read-In for Justice is going to be that pen to write a new story — the paintbrush to create a picture — the voice that will be the griot.
September is National Hispanic Heritage Month. There are many books that are being judged by their cover. We want to hear the stories. We want to see the pictures. We want to tell the story. I am excited for next month’s Read-In for Justice program, which will be Through Our Eyes: A Trave’s de Nuestros Ojos. Storytellers will tell their stories of life here in the United States, whether it is their personal experience or that of a family member.
Library Assistant III, Birmingham Public Library
Gelenda Norman is a library assistant in the youth department at the Birmingham Public Library – Central Branch. She hosts art and empowerment programming for afterschool middle school students.