Toni Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is her legacy. USA TODAY
Throughout history, published literature has been a resource for knowledge, entertainment and historical understanding.
As protests against racial inequality continue to shake the country, some have broadened their literary horizons by picking up published works by authors of color.
These texts have become a source of understanding. They’ve also become a catalyst for important conversations surrounding race, equality and justice.
One local organization of book lovers is seeking to expand those conversations.
The Chambersburg Holiday Book Drive began collecting published pieces by “unheard voices” – authors of color – soon after protests gained traction closer to home.
“Our book drive mission is that we’re trying to continue to inform people,” Co-director Kelton Chastulik said. “We see that access to information is such a catalyst for social change and so I think that we see this as, ‘people that are demonstrating have the best intentions and are doing such great work, let’s continue that work by informing people, asking them to read, asking them to consider their positions.'”
The group started collecting books three years ago around the holiday season, a nonprofit effort to promote literacy across the Chambersburg area. Last year alone, collections totaled over 10,000 books that the group was able to donate for distribution through other organizations across Adams and Franklin Counties.
On Blackout Tuesday, when social media channels ‘went dark’ in an effort to amplify black voices, Co-director Kyle Chastulik was inspired.
“Just those three words ‘amplify black voices’ was quite inspiring to me because in Chambersburg there’s not necessarily a lot of (diverse) political leadership or black-owned businesses,” he said. “A lot of these books that we’re gathering are not books that are taught, or given or assigned in school.”
Kyle, Kelton and co-director Madison Mellinger said that schools across the area need to expose children to more diverse literature throughout their education.
“When I reflect on my high school experience, I think many students aren’t being coalesced to read books by authors of color, by authors that are, as we are kind of portraying them, as lost voices,” Kelton said. “I think I would challenge faculty to think about how do we portray these voices in a really impactful way.”
“Something that I thought about when working on this project is the lack of teachers of color that I had throughout high school,” Mellinger added. “While the school district really needs to work to fill that gap, books can fill that gap in the meantime.”
Additionally, through this project, the co-founders hope to engage readers after they’ve had the chance to read the books that they’ve received.
“We definitely want to encourage that social aspect of reading and discussing the content of these books,” Kyle said. “We’d encourage people who obtain any of the books that we’re donating to send us a quick set of takeaways from it, like a three-sentence book review as to how it impacted their life, how it changed their outlook. I think having that sort of social aspect, and using social media to promote that, would be quite helpful.”
“There is something really powerful and community building about sharing books because you’re not just sharing the story itself, you’re sharing your interaction with the story,” Mellinger added. “As more and more people do that, you really do build a community just by sharing a physical book.”
Sparking a conversation
Reading diverse texts is just the first step of community engagement. The conversations that can stem from it can be equally engaging.
York author and local historian Jim McClure said that through a little digging, stories of the black experience are plentiful across the region. Sharing historical texts can be a great way to engage in conversation about tough issues the black community is still facing today.
“Try to find stories in their community that have been told that you can just give to them,” McClure said. “For example, a newspaper article from the past, a book on black history, and just get that material before them and let them digest it at their own pace. I think that what is happening there in Chambersburg, where people are bringing together that material, is a good place to go get that. Don’t force it, share it and make it available.”
McClure also suggested providing different formats, such as podcasts, websites or even Facebook Groups to meet people where they are to engage in conversations about the material.
“You can invite someone to a productive Facebook group where they talk about issues like this and share resources,” he said. “Invite them in and let them learn at their
Amanda Beard-White, executive director of Hanover Diversity Alliance, said that being a good listener is an essential part of productive dialogue, no matter who you are talking to, friends from minority communities or even loved ones that may be stuck in their ways.
“The first thing you need to do is be a listener; you need to be able to keep your mouth closed and your ears open,” she said. “Listen to what they need. Listen to what they suggest, and want to know – they will tell you, but you have to be willing to listen. Their stories are what make the difference in so many cases, especially when it comes to changing those who are really hard-hearted and stuck.”
A different perspective
Micheal Baskerville, a York author, has been witnessing the turmoil stemming from deaths within the black community like those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
“Knowing that America is in an uproar, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “I don’t see how anybody can find anything wrong with what’s been going on. I mean, come on, Breonna was in her own house. It’s just sickening and time and time again, it just keeps on happening.
As an African American author, Baskerville said he has faced challenges in overcoming stereotypes.
“I’m all about creating a legacy, but when it comes to minorities, it just sucks because of what we are looked at as; we’re looked at as thugs, we’re looked at as animals that are uneducated, but we’re super educated, we’re super bright,” he said. “We just have to be given a chance to really show what we can do because we’re one of the most valuable – if not the most valuable – resource that America has.”
Baskerville has previously published two books of poetry and, recently, his first novel. He’s been taking a break from writing over the past few weeks, but he said he plans to write more about racism and the Black experience in the future.
“When you’re constantly undermining a minority life, that’s a problem,” he said. “As far as my writing, since I’ve taken a break the last month and a half, I definitely have some ideas up my sleeve of potential stories that I want to dive into relating to police brutality and just racism period because I think it’s needed.”
As more stories are shared across racial divides, hope remains for a better future.
“You learn from stories that we’re basically all the same,” Beard-White said. We all want the same thing – we all want to raise families in a good environment, have our kids grow up and be successful.”
“There’s something about just owning a book and being able to interact with a story and being able to even write on the pages if that’s something that you’re into that I think is really powerful,” Mellinger said. “Growing up my mom always said the things that impact you the most are the books you read and the people you meet. I think having that book and being able to directly physically interact with it, and own it, it’s really important.”
Interested in donating books from authors of color? Reach out to the Chambersburg Holiday Book Drive on Facebook.
Check out these reading recommendations:
- Toni Morrison
- Maya Angelou
- August Wilson
- James Baldwin
- Amiri Baraka
- W.E.B. Du Bois
- Ralph Ellison
- Langston Hughes
- “How to be Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi
- “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” by Wes Moore
- “The Privileged Poor” by Anthony Abraham Jack
- “When Affirmative Action Was White” by Ira Katznelson
- “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
- “Race After Technology” by Ruha Benjamin
- “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz
- “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
- “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith
- “Dear White People” by Justin Simien
- “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi
- “Trapped in Love with a Narcissist” by Micheal Baskerville
Carley Bonk is a Watchdog Reporter for the USA Today Network – Pennsylvania. Her coverage spans across the southcentral region of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @carls_marie.
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