Saturday, February 27, 2010

Multi-Racial Read #4

Unlike the other multi-racial books which I have reviewed, Angela Nissel’s autobiography, Mixed: My Life in Black and White, is a contemporary look at what it means to grow up as a light-skinned African American woman. The daughter of a black woman and a white man, Nissel was born and raised in Philadelphia in the last part of the 20th century.

With microscopic scrutiny, Nissel describes various events in her life as she struggled with her identity. One of her early memories is wanting to fit in with the white girls at her Catholic elementary school. When the nun asks the class to draw a self-portrait, she offers the black children a crayon marked, “Burnt Umber” Angela plans to ask her mother when she gets home, “….why I wasn’t gray like an ostrich, because don’t black and white combine to make gray?” When the nun offers the other African American children darker crayons to “make your faces darker too.” The children refuse and Anglea thinks, “Didn’t Sister Mary get it? We just wanted to fit in.” (p. 16).

As she grows up, Nissel flip-flops from the white to the black community. Her search to discover where she belongs leads to inevitable conflicts with her mother who informs her, “I don’t know who told you that you were better than anyone else because you have a white dad, but let me tell you, you’re just as black as me…One drop of black blood makes you black, young lady.” Angela, with unarguable logic wonders to herself, “How come one drop of white blood doesn’t make you white?” (p. 79-80.)

Each chapter of the book begins with a quote which addresses the issue of the multi-racial experience. In one Ursula Brown writes, “In a culture that idealizes whiteness and devalues blackness, black children frequently identify with the white dominant race. With the interracial person being half white and therefore closer to a white Euro-American frame of reference and privileges than uniracial blacks, becoming black is even more of a challenge.” This theme of “Euro-American frame of reference” has been repeated in the multi-racial books I’ve read. I wonder how many Caucasians comprehend the experience of living in a society where your skin color is less than ideal.

In Nissel’s quest to find her place in either the white or black community, she reiterates another theme which repeated itself in my research: “It’s not about the color of your skin-- it’s about the culture you’re identified with.” Nissel’s longing to belong to a community met with frustration at a white prep school; acceptance among fellow psychiatric patients; and challenge at a strip joint. Shopping for her stripper costume she was confronted with the frequently asked question, “What are you?” That question has followed, Elliott Lewis, author of Fade his entire life. His book is the next multi-racial book I’ll review.
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Monday, February 22, 2010

Family Connections

Knowing my interest in connections between African Americans and whites, Joyce Hostetter shared a link to an interesting article. Bound by the Past tells the story of how a black imam and a white administrator from a Christian Seminary met at a church and discovered a startling connection: her great-grandfather owned his ancestors.

IndyStar columnist, Robert King, notes: "The McWilliams family -- its white and black iterations, its parts rooted in slavery and slave ownership -- had completed a long journey that Sunday almost one year ago. It was a trip that covered nearly 150 years, four to five generations and almost 400 miles."

The story didn't surprise me. As I research my work-in-progress I am constantly aware of the interrelationships between people and generations.

The past is not as far from us as we think.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Connections: Mare's War and Twice Towards Justice

This entry started out as a blog about Mare's War, a recent King Author Honor book. As I was writing, I realized my comments were connected to Claudette Colvin, the young African American woman who refused to give up her bus seat, nine months before Rosa Parks' dramatic statement. Since Claudette's story has recently received several honors, you will get two books wrapped into one blog.

Mare's War will appeal to several audiences: teenage girls who will identify with Octavia and Tali who are dragged on a road trip with their 80-year-old grandmother, Mare; African Americans who will appreciate the example of a strong female character in the Army during WWII; and teachers in 6th-9th grade who can use this book as a supplement to African American studies.

I liked it because of how the author, Tanita Davis, wove history and character education lessons into Mare’s interaction with her granddaughters, simultaneously teaching that young people can learn a lot from their grandparents' histories. In this excerpt she has just explained to Octavia that Claudette Colvin was her same age (15) when she refused to give up her seat on the bus:

"The people who dragged her kicking and screaming off of that bus certainly were what you could call white supremacists," Mare continues. "She had to have known that something was going to happen if she kept sitting where she wasn't wanted. But she stayed seated," Mare goes on, flicking a glance over her left shoulder and smoothly changing lanes. "Sometimes you just have to to act on the strength of your convictions, no matter what someone else might think." (p.88)

Mare's War flip-flops from the threesome's present day adventures as they drive from California to Alabama, their destination for an alleged family reunion. Although the girls begin the trip bored and complaining, they (and the reader) are quickly engrossed in their grandmother's stories. The girls learn of Mare's struggles with her loyalty to protect her younger sister, her desire to leave her small town existence and create a life of her own, and her longing to win her mother's approval--at the same time that she handles prejudices directed against blacks.

Fast forward about ten years, and you'll come to Claudette Colvin's story, recounted in Twice Toward Justice the recent winner of the National Book award and a Newbery Honor award. Click here for a great review of the book (click on the February 2010 issue). My fellow Talking Story author, Joyce Hostetter, has posted several blogs about the book including a video of the National Book Awards ceremony. Here is a very cool trailer of the book:

Two great books for adults and students alike.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Your School Needs this Book!

Pictured here is Kathleen Skotcher, owner of Studium Educational Resources and my favorite book vendor. She and her husband Paul faithfully lug educational books to conferences all around North Carolina trying to meet the needs of many different teachers.

This week Kathleen sold Teaching the Story, along with other titles from Maupin House at the NCAGT conference where I presented. When I visited her home the evening before the conference, she told me about the pallets of books stored in her garage. A NC school district wanted 2300 copies of My Fun Picture Dictionary to give to every Kindergarten student. The schools gave the books to their parents and show them how to encourage their student to read. Eager to support this effort, Kathleen approached the publisher, Macmillan, who informed her that the book was out of print and that she would have to order the books from a printer of China. When she contacted the printer she was told the minimum order was 4,000.

Thus the reason for the boxes and boxes of books in the Skotcher garage.

To help her decrease her inventory and regain their garage, I told her that I'd blog about her dilemma. The book normally sells for $14.95 but Kathleen will give your school a 15% discount (bringing the price to $12.70) for an order of 1-19 books. If you order more than 20, she will discount the book 30% bringing the price to $10.50 per book. Contact Kathleen with your order at or call her at 1-866-399-0066. Make sure you tell her you saw this offer on my blog.

In addition, if you want to win a FREE copy of this beautiful book, leave a comment on my blog with your name, email address, and school's name and address. (Parents--you can leave your child's school information.) Include in your post why your school needs this book. On February 19 Kathleen will pull the names from a hat and I'll send you a copy of the book.

Have fun and....order this book!

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Black History Month Resources

Locally (Charlotte, NC):

Levine Museum of the New South presents, "Blood Done Sign My Name", performed by Mike Wiley. The play is based on Tim Tyson’s best book about a true story in eastern NC involving the murder of a black Vietnam veteran. Click here for ticket information.


The 2010 National African American Read-In is sponsored by the black caucus of NCTE.

"Schools, churches, libraries, bookstores, community and professional organizations, and interested citizens are urged to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month by hosting and coordinating Read-Ins in their communities. Hosting a Read-In can be as simple as bringing together friends to share a book, or as elaborate as arranging public readings and media presentations that feature professional African American writers.

To be counted as participants, simply select books authored by African Americans; and report your results by submitting the 2010 African American Read-In Report Card. The Read-In has been endorsed by the International Reading Association. Over a million readers of all ethnic groups from 49 states, the West Indies, and African countries have participated. The goal is to make the celebration of African American literacy a traditional part of Black History Month activities."

You can download a packet here.

Other resources:
"African American Read-In Day 2010": Watch this video about introducing students to first editions of classic works by African American authors and having "characters" from the books on hand to read and act out excerpts of the documents.

"Wallace School Honors Black Writers": See the photos from the event. Vineland Daily Journal, February 2, 2010

"Black History Month Used As Teaching Tool": View the photos of "57 Great Faces in Black History": Cherry Hills Courier-Post, February 1, 2010

New City School Class Features Black Literature. The Pittsburgh public schools are offering a black literature course as one choice for senior English; other choices are the standard 12th grade AP or English. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 2010
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Saturday, February 6, 2010

History Happened Here

In honor of Black History Month the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library is hosting a series of documentaries highlighting local African American history. The four films were produced by WBTV reporter Steve Crump; click here to see the schedule (scroll down to films).

Today I saw the first movie, Lessons from the Lunch Counter, which recounts the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in fifty years ago. The non-violent protests began with four African American students from A&T College and were followed by similar sit-ins at several lunch counters in Charlotte. From there, the movement spread to other southern cities.

This photograph was taken of several Johnson C. Smith students demanding service at a Woolworth's lunch counter. In Charlotte, store owners responded to the situation by closing the lunch counters all together. With falling sales, five months later the sore managers re-opened the counters and served the black community. Although it might have been a decision forced by economics, it proved to be instrumental in leading to the desegregation of other public facilities and the eventual end of Jim Crow laws.

The documentary interviewed protesters as well as area historians. A professor commented that one of the reasons the lunch counter desegregation was so significant was that it was taboo for people of different races to eat together. Sharing a meal implied equality and common respect. People I have interviewed for my novel have confirmed this truth. They have recounted how the black help ate with separate utensils, plates, and glassware; sometimes outside the house itself.

As Crump said when he introduced this film, if you live in Charlotte, N.C., this is part of the story in our own backyard.

Not too far down the interstate, this photograph was taken in Durham, NC in 1940. Notice the signs for "White" and "Colored."

Fifty years ago, dedicated college students impacted history in ways they could never have foreseen.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Voice Questioning Writing Standards

Since I bemoan the lack of attention given to developing imaginations in our students, an article in Education Week, "The Core Standards for Writing: Another Failure of Imagination?" by Edgar H. Schuster, caught my interest. His thesis is stated early on in the article. "Imagination, defined by one dictionary as 'the ability to confront and deal with reality by using the creative power of the mind,' is a critical faculty in our world. And where better for it to be nurtured and to flower forth than in the writing classroom?" He follows this with a comprehensive understanding of the national writing standards, and then provides several examples of great literature that would not meet these standards.

Unfortunately, national standards (and the state-mandated testing that have developed as a result) are squeezing students' imaginations right out of the classroom. When I speak to teachers at educational conferences about my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8, they sigh and say, "I wish I could teach my students how to write a short story. I know they'd love it and would learn a lot about writing. But I'm so busy getting them ready for the writing test, I don't have time for anything else."

What's wrong with this picture?

As Schuster writes, "Who would quarrel with students’ need to establish a topic, sustain focus, represent data accurately, revise their own writing ‘when necessary,’ or use technology as a tool?"

Like Schuster, I agree that standards are necessary. But the education system's slavish adherence to testing may end up shooting itself in the foot. We may end up producing a nation of writers who perform well on tests but can't think beyond answering a writing prompt.

After quoting the NCTE's call for "writing that matters" to be part of the National Day on Writing, Schuster concludes:

Writing that matters most to you—that’s the spirit that animates all good
writing, from William Manchester’s essay, to kids’ kindergarten attempts. I urge the core-standards-makers to reconsider the excessively narrow and unrealistic standards they have proposed. Were those standards to be implemented K through 12, they would kill that spirit and diminish the role of imagination, which the poet Wallace Stevens once aptly described as “one of the forces of nature” in the world of words.

Amen. I am sure that I couldn't have written this better myself.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Let the Limericks Begin!

Are you a closet limerick writer? Then the Charlotte Observer has a contest for you. Starting today until March 17, you can send your political or public policy related limerick to either or to Mary Newsom, Charlotte Observer, PO Box 30308 Charlotte, NC 28230-0308. Weekly winners are posted online on Friday and a Grand Prize Winner is announced in March. Not leaning towards limerick writing myself, I understand it can be addictive. Here is an entry from last year written by Joel Zauss:

It's limerick time-nothing sweeter.
But at Exon or in Harris Teeter
Or at work or at home
Or wherever I roam
All the thoughts that I think are in meter.

If you win or are chosen as an honorable mention one week, please let me know. I'd love to post some winning limericks on this blog!

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THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

  By now you should have received an email from my new website about my review of THE NIGHT WAR by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (It'll com...