When I take the time to reflect on my childhood, I cannot help but appreciate the parts of my upbringing that nurtured a love for who I am and the cultural community that I come from. Growing up in a Black household in a largely Black area, I obtained ample exposure to my culture, especially through literature and the arts. As a young child, the sound of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” or Chaka Khan’s “One for All Time” would be the first thing that I would hear on weekend mornings, invigorating me as I started my day. When I woke up to this music, I instantly knew that someone in my household was downstairs cleaning. Sure enough, I would walk downstairs to find one of my parents scrubbing the counters in the kitchen, one of the many rooms in our home whose walls were covered with the work of Black artists. Whether it be a depiction of a man playing the blues on his saxophone for a live audience or a painting that simply shows a family praying over their meal, it was important to my parents that my siblings and I were constantly surrounded by positive and meaningful visual depictions of people who looked like us.
The commitment that my family embraced to showcasing our culture extended outside the four walls of our home. When driving us to school, my mom often played a CD that my dad made for her with all her favorite songs, which quickly became some of our favorites too. In fact, I often refused to get out of the car until I could finish belting the last note of Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You.” When I eventually did leave my mother’s car, I entered classrooms that similarly incorporated aspects of African-American culture into our education. Throughout my secondary education, it was normal for me to have English curricula that were mostly, if not completely, centered around the works of Black authors and the actions of Black revolutionaries. Whether it was writing papers about the Harlem Renaissance and watching “A Raisin in the Sun” in my seventh grade English class or reading Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” in my AP Literature class, I could always count on being able to see myself and my people in many of my English classes’ curricula. Not only did I feel represented in the curriculum, but also felt seen by those who were teaching it to me. A majority of my teachers during K–12 were Black, and not only did they make it a point to teach us our culture and history, but to affirm our ability to succeed in this world as Black people. I was also able to see Black people in positions of power, with my principals and administrators as leading examples. This benefit also extended to outside the school grounds. I was also fortunate enough in that I lived in a community filled with Black people who had gone far in their respective careers. All of these actions made by my family and school district were done with the intention of cultivating a sense of pride in our racial identity. I can say for myself that it worked.
As beneficial as this environment was for me, I soon realized that it created a blind spot in me. I thought that embedding positive Black representations into a child’s experience was how communities typically operated, because that was how my community operated. I did not know anything beyond my community until I had the opportunity to have conversations with Black peers in different places. It was through these conversations that I realized we didn’t all have a common experience. Many of them told stories of feeling disconnected from our culture and ignorant to our history, a direct consequence of curricula that did not serve them or honor their culture and history. I was saddened to hear about their experiences living in predominantly non-Black spaces without role models who looked like them beyond the walls of their household. Hearing these stories created a feeling of discontentment inside of me. When I think about the pride that I take in where I came from and the passion I have for advocating for my community, it all stems from my culturally-affirming upbringing. I can also say that my love for reading came from being able to read books that I felt represented me. Knowing that others weren’t privy to these benefits didn’t sit right with me. Originally, I thought this was a phenomenon that I would be forced to accept. Fortunately, I was wrong. An opportunity to fuel my discontentment into meaningful change came when I was selected for a fellowship through the Ginsberg Center.
For the 2020-21 school year, I got chosen to be a Community Leadership Fellow through the Edward Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan. Through this opportunity, I was paired with a community organization in the southeastern Michigan area and was paid to act as their intern for the year. Based on the interest form that I filled out, I was paired with Black Men Read. An organization based in Ypsilanti, their mission is to “uplift Black men, all children, and all communities through stories of the African diaspora.” I instantly felt connected to the organization’s initiatives because of how they aligned with the cultural exposure and pride that was interwoven into my childhood experience. Turns out, creating environments similar to the one I was privy to as a child was the inspiration for the organization’s creation.
During my first weekly meeting with my supervisor, Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha, she told me the story of how Black Men came to be. In 2016, her daughter went to school with the son of Yodit Mesfin-Johnson, who would go on to co-create Black Men Read with her. One thing that was undeniable about the school’s atmosphere was the lack of Black male teachers — there were none. The absence of Black male influences in this academic environment became so apparent to one of the school’s teachers that she took the time to ask Mesfin-Johnson if she knew of any Black men who would be willing to come to the school to read to their students. After approaching Tucker-Ibarisha with the proposition, the two decided to invite some of the Black men from their communities to the school to read a story to the children, specifically a story that centers a Black child. This initiative was well received by the students, resulting in these storytimes becoming a somewhat regular occasion at the school. Seeing the success of this initiative and realizing that so few students in the Washtenaw County area get to experience having a Black male teacher, they decided to start inviting Black men to read at Blackstone Bookstore in order to reach a larger audience. Similar to the storytimes they hosted at their children’s school, the events at Blackstone consisted of the kids enjoying a story being read by a Black man. However, since Blackstone acted as a less formal space compared to a classroom, the kids were also able to interact freely with each other. The atmosphere of these events was so relaxed that the storytimes at the bookstore were affectionately referred to as “book parties,” bringing an air of joy and celebration to the idea of reading.
The book parties became just as much of a success as the classroom storytimes, with parents commenting on how these events have cultivated a love of confidence in reading in their children. As a result, the parents requested for more parties to be hosted. Mesfin-Johnson and Tucker-Ibarisha, happily obliged and started making events at Blackstone an occurrence that happened at least once a month. The willingness of these two women to fulfill this need expressed by the community is how Black Men Read was officially created.
Before the start of the pandemic, in-person storytimes and book parties comprised the foundation of the offerings that Black Men Read provided the Washtenaw County community. Unfortunately, as the first few months of 2020 saw the increasing spread and severity of the coronavirus, gathering children in one small space became less and less feasible. The progressing state of COVID-19 and the way it was altering the nation’s social landscape meant that Black Men Read needed an alternative strategy for connecting with children in the community. This is where I came in.
Since my internship started just six months after the virus put a pause on the organization’s in-person events, it was my job to help them replicate the sense of community they had created in public spaces and transfer it to digital platforms. This meant that I spent a lot of my time helping to develop their visual programming, mainly their YouTube channel, which would consist of videos of Black men reading children’s books, asking comprehension questions and answering questions about their lives in order to create a connection with the audience. To be more specific, my role was to pick out the books and create a script for each video, which includes transcribing the words of the book, writing the comprehension questions and coming up with personal questions for the men to answer.
As I started choosing books to be read, I began to realize how much intention goes into crafting a curriculum that centers Black culture while also telling the stories of Black people. Each book that I chose reflected the specific theme that Tucker-Ibarisha, who served as my supervisor, chose for the given season. The theme for fall was confidence, which led to us choosing “I Am Every Good Thing” by Derrick Barnes to be read. With the winter season encompassing Black History Month, the story “Wind Flyers” by Angela Johnson, which tells the story of a Tuskegee Airman, was a perfect choice. Lastly, we chose “Over and Under the Pond” by Kate Messner in order to celebrate the coming of spring and the desire that comes with it. The different themes, along with the very different stories that were told in each one, were nothing short of a result of a calculated strategy. My supervisor and I chose the themes and the resulting books as a way to provide a holistic depiction of Black life. With these three books, we highlighted milestone achievements in the Black community while also showcasing Black people enjoying the everyday wonders of life. We aimed to convey the message that yes, Black people are exceptional, but we don’t have to be doing something monumental in order to be worthy of being seen.
After we chose the books, I shifted gears to creating the script. Not only did the scripts include the words of the book that would be read and the comprehension questions that would be asked, but they also detailed instructions for how words would be presented on the screen. Because Black Men Read aimed to improve literacy through these videos, it was essential that the words were presented in a way that was conducive to kids’ understanding and retention of basic vocabulary and phonetic skills. With the help of Nuola Akinde, Black Men Read’s Director of Culture and Curriculum and the founder of Kekere Freedom School, I developed techniques to ensure that our literacy-improving goal would be met. The main strategy I utilized was highlighting dolch words, which are frequently-used English vocabulary words that are often used to teach kids to read. Dolch words include basic words such as “the” and “for.” For every book that we were recording a reading of, I wrote down the words of the book and highlighted all the Dolch words in them, as a way to signal to the design team that those words needed to be emphasized on the screen. Once the Dolch words were highlighted, I moved onto the comprehension questions. In creating the questions, I was tasked with ensuring the questions required the children to practice their critical thinking skills in a way that challenged them without being too difficult which was tedious. Yet, from performing these two tasks, I gained an appreciation for both the organization I was working for and the teachers in my childhood that worked hard to provide the same benefits to me and my peers.
Whenever I finished creating a script for the YouTube videos based on a given book, it was then time for me to correspond with the volunteers who committed to being the ones to actually star in the video. While instructing me on how to communicate with the readers, my supervisor casually mentioned that their decision to center the organization around Black men was about more than just filling the void of Black male figures in secondary education. The creation of Black Men Read also stemmed from a desire to dispel the stereotype that Black men are not involved in their communities, a stereotype that Tucker-Ibarisha says — and I can confirm — is very untrue. Because the organization was serving as a form of corrective representation for Black men, she told me that she was intentional about choosing men who she knew were active in their communities and who were passionate about leaving a lasting impact on the lives of children.
After spending time emailing instructions back-and-forth between myself and the readers, I finally obtained the video footage that would be used to create the YouTube videos. When I pressed play, I was met with the enthusiastic tone of a man reading the book “I Am Every Good Thing” in a way that made the story come to life. Once he finished reading the book and asking the comprehension question, he went on to talk about his life. Here, he included a description of his career and expressed how much he enjoyed being a husband and father. Reviewing this video made it clear why he — and all the other men who would read — were chosen to represent the mission of Black Men Read. The passion that these men had for connecting with children and improving their literacy reminded me of the dedication exhibited by the men in my own community, who were always very hands-on. The ideas that these videos, and the men, would contribute to Black children being able to see themselves in educational spaces warmed my heart.
While providing uplifting representations to Black kids is an integral part of the organization’s purpose, their mission statement explicitly states that their overall goal is to empower “all children.” My supervisor would sometimes reiterate this during our Monday afternoon meetings. One day, I asked her if there was any intention behind aiming to serve all children instead of tailoring the program to Black children. Her answer surprised me. She told me that, oftentimes, when a police officer shoots an unarmed Black man, they defend themselves by saying they felt threatened. Her view was that, in some cases, the officer is telling the truth when they say that line, because whether the subject is actually presenting a threat or not, the social narrative of Black men is that they are to be feared. Because of this, she wanted to make the Black Men Read’s initiative available to all children in order to prevent and combat the development and progression of these irrational fears of Black men.
This was in no way said as a justification for police brutality — in fact, it’s the exact opposite. She explained that there not being enough positive representations of Black people in the media and in academic settings causes people to develop damaging biases against Black people that continuously go unchallenged. These individuals then step into positions of power and influence, and these prejudices are exercised in the way that they execute their jobs. In the case of police officers, these prejudices, along with working in a field that enables unnecessary violence, result in systematic instances of police brutality. Black Men Read believes their services can uplift Black children presently as well as protect them from the narratives that too often threaten their livelihood. Overall, she explained to me that the services they offer, and the sense of community that is often created through them, are necessary for everyone to experience. The organization also aimed to create an intercultural community that was centered around the enjoyment of Black stories for the purpose of normalizing the presence of Black children and Black men within a given space, which can lead to bonds between children of different backgrounds that wouldn’t have otherwise been formed.
As my year with Black Men Read continued, I saw how the organization’s biggest obstacle — switching to an online format amid the COVID-19 pandemic — became one of their most valuable assets. With my help, the organization launched its YouTube channel, which became our way of providing families 24/7 access to the stories we chose and the men who read them. Additionally, the book parties that used to take place at Blackstone were now happening virtually via Zoom and Facebook Live. The men who would normally be reading to a crowd of two dozen students at Blackstone were now reading on a platform that would rack in hundreds of listens. Not only did making the book parties virtual increase the number of families who were able to listen to the storytimes, but it also expanded how many Black men were able to act as storytellers. People who were once excluded by the physical limitations of in-person programming were now able to be a part of the community. By the time my position with Black Men Read came to a close, I couldn’t help but revel in amazement at the way in which the organization was able to cultivate a genuine and impactful virtual community in such a short amount of time.
I see my internship with Black Men Read as a time in which I got to be on the other side of the experiences I had growing up. Instead of being the kid who reaped the benefits of being immersed in an environment that embedded cultural pride into the spaces I occupied, I was now one of the adults responsible for making that environment come to life. Being in that position made me realize how much planning, learning, and organization is needed to guide a child in learning and loving all parts of themselves. Seeing this made me all the more proud of the organization that I worked for, and that much more grateful for the community that raised me.
MiC Columnist Kayla Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.