Now that it is the middle of February, people everywhere are finding new and unique ways to honor and remember Black History Month. Whether it be talking about a historical figure or simply putting a hashtag related to the celebration on social media, honoring the culture of Black History Month comes in a variety of forms.
On Thursday, February 11, the Longwood University English department held an African American Read-In via Zoom. At this event, students and faculty read from and shared opinions about their favorite pieces written by African American authors.
While African American Read-Ins like this have been done before through the National Council of Teachers of English, this was the first time the NCTE specifically aligned with Longwood for this event.
Dr. Jennifer McConnel, Associate Professor of English Education, was the hostess of the read-in; this is her first year teaching at Longwood.
Despite hosting the event, McConnel emphasized the open-mic structure among the people in attendance, encouraging people to chime in whenever they wanted.
When asked what sort of role that literature plays in relation to Black History Month, McConnel stated, “I think because literature is so deeply tied to our identity, we represent ourselves in the pages. We see the experiences of others in the pages, and the stories we tell define us as people, so to use black literature to celebrate Black History Month, I think, opens up just the range of potential that we have in stories. There is no one story; there is no one narrative.”
McConnel opened the virtual read-in by reading a poem entitled “Instructions on Listening to The Trees” by Mahogany L. Browne.
Several of the professors and students in attendance read their chosen pieces out loud as the event went on.
Next, Sasha Johnson, Title IX Coordinator for the Office of Student Conduct and Integrity, read “Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” by Maya Angelou, which is a poem that revolves around the complexities of what being a woman entails.
This piece led to some discussion about the complexities of racial and gender identity as well as how Angelou’s writing affects her image as a writer.
In addition, Maya Angelou’s work and her impact as a writer was brought up multiple times throughout the read-in. Towards the end, a student named Ashley Connelly read “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou, a well-known piece that focuses attention on female power.
Apart from this, almost every person in attendance shared their personal favorites from African American authors, which involved a variety of poetic subject matter.
For instance, Dr. Magill, chair of the English and Modern Languages department, read a poem containing both futuristic and historical images called “Sci-Fi” by Tracy K. Smith.
At one point when one student’s internet connection was not working at its best, McConnel shared a reading of “Depression Is” by Joseph Solomon, which was shown through a YouTube video.
This spoken word poem had imagery that mixed modern pop culture references to people like Lebron James to intricate details about the struggle of being depressed.
In terms of the future of black literature, McConnel mentioned, “I would say there is more representation, but we need to do more...Every book is just one book. As a teacher, I very much want to instill that recognition that every book is just one book... We will never have all the stories, and in terms of diversity in literature, there are large strides that have been made...but we’re not done yet.”
When thinking of future read-ins, McConnel hopes this could become a student-lead event and has considered the possibility of centering the African American Read-In around one specific text.
No matter what, celebrating Black History Month helps African American voices bring people together as a community and learn more about the culture.