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Bearing Witness: Reading, Writing, and Empowerment

I always wanted to write for youth.  Reading saved me—saved my inside self—and deepened my humanity and fostered resilience. My childhood was impoverished, segregated, and lonely.  I was the sad, shy child being raised by my grandmother.

 

Grandmother with her love of stories taught me the power of the African American oral tradition.  Teachers and librarians fed me classic stories—Heidi, The Prince and the Pauper, and Little Women. While the books I read as a child lacked diversity in the strict sense, they didn’t lack values. Reading, I didn’t see me externally, but I felt me, my humanity. Imaginative literature allayed my bitterness and kept my imagination alive.

 

However, I do believe not seeing myself in books, not reading books by people of color, that I almost missed my calling to be a writer. A frightening thought.

 

I was a junior at Carnegie Mellon when I saw on the library’s new fiction shelf, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. Black women wrote books? It was a revelation. I switched my major to creative writing the very next day. In my creative writing class, I was the only person of color. My classmates would say, “Why didn’t you tell me your characters were black?” “Why didn’t you tell me yours were white?” But truth be told, the experience confirmed that I, too, “read white” unless an author told me differently.

 

During my career, I’ve committed myself to writing multi-ethnic, character-driven fiction to argue against prejudice and social injustice.

 

While wanting to write for youth, I wrote seven books for adults trying to become good enough to write for the most important audience in the world—children. In my adult books, I explored how race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, can wrongly be used as barriers to community. This was great preparation for writing realistic middle grade stories. I write with greater urgency since the world has become more traumatic because of increased poverty, climate change, Co-Vid 19, and so much more.

 

So, I “bear witness,” using narrative to testify how sustaining compassion, empathy, integrity, and human commitment can mitigate and undo injustice, alienation, and sadness.

“Bearing witness” is empowering because it embraces self-knowledge and self-love.

 

Middle grade students, transitioning from childhood to adulthood, need the positive message that their stories, their voices matter and can change the world!

 

So, I want my stories to uplift, focus on resilience, friendship and familial ties, and how believing in and loving yourself can foster goodness everywhere. My books, too, are filled with adventure and growth.  Suspenseful conflicts, I believe, mirror the innate heroism in children and their impact society. Lanesha in Ninth Ward survives Hurricane Katrina, and finishes her journey, proclaiming, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. / I just know I’m going to be all right. / I’m Lanesha. Born with a caul. Interpreter of symbols and signs. Future engineer. Shining love.”

 

“Bearing witness” also means not patronizing youth. Ghost Boys inspired by the murder of Emmett Till and contemporary murders of black youth is an historical exploration of racism and police bias. Three kids—Hispanic, Anglo, and African American—learn they are not powerless and have voices which can speak necessary truths. Just as Till’s death served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, youth are reminded that they, too, can “be the change” and continue advocating against racism.

 

Additionally, researching Ghost Boys, I learned elementary through high school students of color are often unfairly suspended, arrested by police, and in many cases charged with crimes. Once arrested even for minor infractions, the odds that a student will be entrapped by the criminal justice system and not graduate, double. Black Brother, Black Brother addresses this bias in schools.

 

My characters, Donte and Trey, are also inspired by my own experience raising two bi-racial kids (one, light-skinned; the other, darker). Skin color should not determine the ease with which one child is more fully embraced by society and the other is subject to racism. Donte, the younger and darker brother, finds through fencing the key to assert fearlessly his identity.  He shares: “Be you. Even if others can’t see you.” His brother, Trey, provides unconditional love and sibling humor and competition. The two brothers teach their teachers and classmates that everyone’s “Heritage is Lit.” Exterior features do not obscure our common humanity and shared DNA.

 

Today, I’m living my best writing life. All my main characters are inspired by the kids I’ve been privileged to meet. I like to believe kids appreciate my characters because they can sense I’m mirroring them—in all their perfect, imperfect glory. I respect and am in awe of today’s youth for their intelligence and emotions and for their vulnerabilities and strengths.

 

I don’t write every day. I’m terrified of the blank page. (Sssh, don’t tell.)  I don’t write for long hours (at least not until I have an entire rough draft).  What I do is DREAM, IMAGINE. Walking my dogs, cleaning dishes, resting, sleeping, my mind conjures magic. But, to truly, write a character, I have to hear their voice.  Once their voice comes to me, I can tell their story. Respectfully, I channel the memory of my grandmother “talking-story” to me.  I try to serve the need behind the ancient, universal request: “Tell me a story.”

 

My greatest joy is seeing youth creating empowering art—stories, plays, poems…visual and musical narratives. “Bearing witness,” we all ensure a better world. I have the utmost faith in our young, future leaders.