Literacy and black power

The fifth annual Black Book Fair raises awareness of the need for black authors

Faye Wilson Kennedy, Black Book Fair organizer

Faye Wilson Kennedy, Black Book Fair organizer

Photo courtesy of Faye Wilson Kennedy

Joey Garcia writes the Ask Joey column for SN&R. She is also founder and director of the Belize Writers’ Conference. Find her at

In publishing circles, it’s frequently noted that the word “author” shares the same root as “authority.” National movements like We Need Diverse Books and People of Color in Publishing assert that without diverse representation, literature remains enslaved by a single narrative.

Still, white men write most published books, and it’s why the Black Book Fair is so crucial. It’s opening night panel and mixer will host a discussion of the role of black authors in creating a strong black literary legacy, said Faye Wilson Kennedy, one of the fair’s organizers.

“Only we can tell our story accurately,” she said. “People of African descent are multidimensional. If other people tell our story, they only see one dimension, they only see issues important to them and their particular community.”

The fair, centered in the heart of Oak Park (35th Street and Broadway), will host its fifth year on June 1-2 and feature more than 50 authors, including nationally recognized, traditionally published authors such as Halifu Osumare, Sikivu Hutchinson and Maisha T. Winn.

In preparation for her 2007 book, Writing in Rhythm: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Classroom, Winn interviewed poets and spoken word artists across the country. Their stories surprised her.

“Many of the poets and writers I interviewed didn’t come to love reading and writing in school, not in an English class,” Winn said. “They came to love reading and writing outside of school because they didn’t have a sense of belonging in school. As a former English teacher, I find that mind blowing and unacceptable. Think of the missed talent sitting in classrooms right now.”

Winn, a UC Davis professor and co-director of Transformative Justice in Education, traces a direct line from the right to be literate to the rise of civil rights icons like Malcolm X.

“There is a clear relationship between literacy and black arts and the black power movement,” she said. “Malcolm X could debate because he was a reader. He learned to read and write in prison. After that, he read widely and not just what he agreed with. It was very inspiring for that time.”

Many black children lose interest in reading and writing long before high school, and for good reason: they’re nearly invisible in children’s books, said author and playwright Sikivu Hutchinson.

And there may not be enough published works to fill the void. Black, Latinx, and Native authors wrote 6 percent of the new children’s books published in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“African-American children are not getting that rich, sustainable immersion into literature,” she said. “We’re not seeing ourselves represented.”

Kennedy said the fair gave away 150 children’s books by black authors last year, and a bigger giveaway is planned for Saturday’s Kid’s Zone, but the institutional hole remains.

“We need more black authors and publishers,” she said.

Change requires understanding slavery’s insidious reach, Winn said. She described a recent history, where only 150 years ago, black people were seen as chattle and silenced in the U.S.

And where today, the community is still finding its collective voice in spite of the country’s oppressive habits. In her 2018 book, Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education through Restorative Justice, she investigates why black children are reprimanded, suspended, and expelled from school at higher rates than white children.

“We’re all haunted by the same history,” she said. “It all manifests in the classroom. Educators need to do some of their own processing about history, justice, race and language.” Attending the book fair would help, she added. After all, The fair celebrates black authors like Winn and Hutchinson, who reveal the depth and breath of the African diaspora.

“These stories are our literary legacy,” Kennedy said.