By Victoria Gill-Gomez
Members of the Chestertown community gathered in the intimate reading space of Sumner Hall on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 18 for the National African American Read-In.
The Read-In was a collaboration between Washington College’s Department of Education and Black Studies Program, and the Kent County Public Library to celebrate black authors, literacy, reading and diversity in literature, according to their advertisement.
“There were several goals,” Cheryl Hoopes, a member of the Sumner Hall Children’s Education Program Committee, said. “That the event itself would be a source of pride for our local African American community, as a whole, and as individual readers on a stage in front of an audience. That people would learn new things — about how rich and exciting the field of African American literature is.”
No standing room was left as participants stepped up to the mic to read two to three minute selections from texts ranging from children’s literature to young adult and adult literature. This filled the evening with laughter, silence, and rapt attention.
Erin Counihan, coordinator of secondary education and lecturer in education, started the read-in back in 2012, cosponsoring with the Black Studies Program. 2019 was the first year this event was brought to the larger community.
According to Hoopes, the Sumner Hall Children’s Education Program Committee meets several times each year with three WC professors and two KCPL librarians in the committee, easily facilitating collaborative efforts.
For this event, Counihan said that the committee met three times about the logistics of food, space, and advertisements.
Tapping into all of their expertise, the library knew how to bring an organized crowd of chaos around a piece of literature.
The National African American Read-In was established in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers in English to promote literacy and African American authors. When the College began taking part in the initiative in 2012, they modeled the standard event style.
However, seeing the 2019 event at Sumner Hall succeed, the committee repeated the new format this year.
Counihan incorporated student participation by having her students from both her Children & Young Adults Literature course and her Content Field course attend the reading.
“Whenever we learn a new genre, they are required to bring a book that represents that genre and speak about that book to the class, and that was an extension to that. So last night they were to be there and have a book written by an African American author. In past years, when we used to do it in-house, they were required to do a reading, but because of the community aspect, we do not want to monopolize. We do not want to require that, so they were asked to be there, bring a book, and participate if they felt the time was right,” Counihan said.
Some students did read but many were there in support.
Readings included: “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o, “Pet Show!” by Ezra Jack Keats, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” by Kadir Nelson, “Wangari’s Trees of Peace” by Jeanetee Winter, “New Shoes” by Susan Lynn Meyers, “Mae Among the Stars” by Roda Ahmed, “Black Girl Unlimited” by Echo Brown, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah, and “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson.
Many of these readings contained messages surrounding beauty, gentrification, accessibility, and the power of dreaming.
Counihan was excited for the community to see what books can do.
“A lot of us grew up in our own little bubbles and kind of read books that our parents knew about, so this expands their breadth,” she said.
While there were people of a variety of ages who read, many of the attendees were impressed by the young children who went up for their reading ability and courage.
“I loved the readings by the children,” Hoopes said. “Although I could not hear a word of the poem that the first little girl read, I did not need to. I could see her stance and her demeanor; she was thrilled to be up there. When the second child read, I could hear her, and I could certainly see her shining face with a giant smile stretched across it each time she showed the pictures. Neither child was an expert reader, but that was not the point. They were stars for the day, excited about literacy, with each receiving positive accolades for their emphasis and interest in reading — sure marks of future success.”
Counihan’s closed the evening with a section from “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.
“I wanted to have that in my back pocket because obviously [Morrison] is such a strong African American voice and a strong voice in literature in our country. I just wanted to make sure that her voice was heard,” Counihan said. “When I read that book in high school…there were so many things in that book that shifted my perspective…It was a book that gave me a kickstart to think about my role in the country, especially in education.”
Black Studies Program director, Dr. Elena Deanda-Camacho also hopes that future English students and more English speakers will bring the works of lesser known authors from the African continent and diaspora, such as Martinican and Senegalese writers.
While the event is growing in numbers and outreach, the main problem currently is a large enough space. According to Hoopes, there was also a request for another read-in later in the year.
Overall, there is a desire to get more children and young people in the room, and to get more books into people’s hands.
Sumner Hall has approximately 300 volumes of books, divided into thematic groupings. It is not a typical lending library, but rather, it is available as a resource for educators in local schools. While Hoopes hopes that individuals and families will see Sumner Hall as a place of learning, opportunity, and heritage, she also hopes “the event would nurture renewed hope for all those in attendance.”