By Allison Campbell-Jensen
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Larry McKenzie, award-winning coach, speaker, and author, during the Nov. 18 Friends of the Libraries event Amplifying Black Narratives: The Creation of Black Narratives. Among the important resources for creating Black narratives are people who serve as “mirrors” that reflect possibilities yet may be scarce in the community.
When Sheletta Brundidge published her first children’s book, “Cameron Goes to School,” her uncle Tim was especially moved by it. He revealed that 40 years ago, he had written a book for his daughter, but he put it away because he was told no one would buy it because its main character was Black. Had his work been received differently, “we could have had two or three authors in my family,” says Brundidge, who has also published “Daniel Finds His Voice” and hosts a podcasting platform.
Black American Muslim poet, arts educator, and performance artist Sagirah Shahid is a writer-in-residence in a program for Minnesota State Colleges called Write Like Us to mentor students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. It’s a way to overcome invisibility.
Each of these participants has overcome the destructive idea from the past, described by moderator Dara Beevas as “our stories as Black storytellers are not as important.” During the conversation, they shared ways for creators of Black narratives to battle doubt, celebrate excellence, and share stories throughout the year.
Beevas, as the co-founder of Wise Ink publishing, has found that many Black and brown people do not feel worthy of being published. The doubt can be instilled early. When she asked her middle school teacher in a journal how to become a writer, her question was dismissed; the reply was to only write about things that were important.
To fight doubt in one’s abilities, Shahid said writers must find their community, whether in family, peer group, or even one other person who will support you. McKenzie, author of “Basketball: Much More Than a Game,” went further: “You have to learn to be your biggest cheerleader.”
Advising creators of Black narratives to “shake it off,” Brundidge added that “we have to remember what we’ve overcome. … If you believe in yourself, there’s nothing that can stop you.”
Beevas noted that McKenzie has said: “If our kids really knew our ancestors were kings and queens, it would lead to radical change.” There’s an absence of books that tell the story of Black ancestors in Africa, Beevas said, a gap that needs to be filled.
Celebrating excellence means telling stories of Black people like baseball’s Jackie Robinson and basketball’s Bill Russell, McKenzie said, who were successful yet couldn’t stay in the same hotels as their teammates. They may not have started as excellent, but they achieved it. In his work, he strives to build young people into champions in every arena.
While some might criticize her for bragging, Brundidge noted that she does not want to dumb down her achievements. The outstanding NASA scientist Katherine Johnson didn’t speak up and did not have her story told for 50 years, until “Hidden Figures” came out. Brundidge is not apologetic: “I come into a room with my own spotlight.”
“We are the ancestors for the next generation,” Shahid said. Requiring Black people to be excellent in order to be appreciated for their value, humanity, and creativity, even to enjoy basic dignity, is a result of our inequitable society. Pushing back against these circumstances in a joking way, she said being our awkward ordinary selves should be celebrated, too. (Her upcoming children’s activity book is “Get Involved in a Book Club.”) Creators of Black narratives can convey the truth of being excellent in their own ways, she said.
“Ordinary people did extraordinary things over time,” Beevas said; that’s the Black story. From the spirituals that transcended despair to create joy to the creativity shown in dressing up for church, she said, “Black narratives are so powerful because we make everything dope.”
Yet, they still can be caught up short, as when Brundidge and her daughter were doing a school exercise that called for filling in blanks in a story with emojis representing family members. But there were no Black emojis on the school computer they were using; they couldn’t cut and paste a Black grandfather emoji. Unable to complete the story, they decided to pass on doing that exercise. Everyone should notice when representation is overwhelmingly white.
To be better supporters of Black writers, non-Black people need to move from being allies to being co-conspirators, inviting Black leaders to their homes and libraries to talk, for instance, McKenzie said. And, Beevas added, the Black leaders need to be paid to be part of the un-learning of those who are not Black.
Shahid asked co-conspirators to consider what they would risk to place Black emojis on school computers or to gain representation of people of color in other places where they have been erased. Appropriate recognition is important. Brundidge said when asked to speak at a Black History Month event, she would expect to be paid and not do it just for the offer of “exposure.” She said: “Those days are done.”
Moreover, Black writers and leaders should be recognized every month of the year — and beyond. Inviting, investing in, and celebrating creators of Black narratives every day of the year — that is what will make a difference in amplifying Black narratives and writers.