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For two hours on Friday afternoon, a group of high school students split between Stockton and Sacramento, Calif., hop on Zoom to discuss the book they’re reading. Although they have never met in person, these students have created a space where they feel comfortable being vulnerable and engaging in enthusiastic discussions.
What is this virtual literary society that encourages black students to read and talk about literature that reflects the entire black experience? Appropriately, it’s called Black is Lit, and it brings young black people together, amplifies their voices, and lets them fall in love with books.
On a recent Friday, the students discussed the n-word and the history of the KKK, as it appeared in their selection of Kim Johnson’s “This Is My America” books. Tiffany Herndon, manager of the Aspire Public Schools Culturally Responsive Projects Plan, who also founded the Black is Lit program in 2021, has seen her students engage in academic discourse rooted in the book, while applying it to their personal experiences and offering emotional support. racialized trauma.
It was a moment to see all the elements of his program come together.
“They were free to be themselves without fear of judgment,” Herndon says of the students. “We talk about these hard-hitting issues that impact the black community and think about ways they want to come out, support and encourage change.”
More than a summer reading program
Literacy impacts the trajectory of your life outcomes.
The Black is Lit program was inspired by the idea of having a summer reading program for black students. Scores in reading and language arts were down, and Herndon wanted to help — and make help available to students beyond his school. So Black is Lit was born, inspired by the concepts of “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy,” author Dr. Gholdy E. Muhammad who says literacy is liberation and education is a form of empowerment.
“We really wanted to bring that concept and that spirit back into the learning environment for our academics, and disrupt like the disproportionate outcomes we see for black students across the country and the low achievement of black students,” Herndon says.
Discussions included textual and character analysis, and making real connections to the text. Through her connections and interactions with the book, 16-year-old Diorue Hodges said she was able to translate these skills to other classrooms, as well as better articulate her thoughts on racial issues.
“I now know how to engage in these conversations without just yelling or getting angry really fast,” Hodges says. “I can have this talk with my peers and educators now.”
The pilot program
In its pilot year, Black is Lit consists of 22 students attending Aspire Alexander Twilight Academy in Sacramento and Aspire Langston Hughes Academy in Stockton. In the fall, the program will be available at all Aspire 6-12 schools.
The program will focus on one book each year, and this year’s pick, “This Is My America,” which focuses on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Each book chosen will have a social justice lens and cover a topic that negatively impacts the black community.
Hodges said she learned a lot, especially about physical reactions to racism and discrimination. As someone who hasn’t experienced overt face-to-face racism, Hodges says she couldn’t understand why her mother, a dark-skinned woman, sometimes freaks out or breaks down after racist interactions.
“In Black is Lit, we discussed the fact that everyone has different reactions and approaches to racism,” Hodges says. “It allowed me to be more empathetic towards my mother and her feelings. And I was able to help her validate her feelings.
“I can be comfortable being a nerdy black kid”
The three students who spoke with Word In Black said that wanting to be part of a group of black university students was their motivation for joining Black is Lit.
“It was one of the first clubs I felt connected to or could identify with,” says Hodges. She was skeptical of joining due to the time commitment and having to be vulnerable with her peers. “We have created an open and welcoming space. Other than [the Black Student Union]there really weren’t many options for a safe space as a black student who can be shamelessly myself.
William Ellington, 14, has always been a good reader, but he wanted a space where he could “be comfortable being a nerdy black kid.” Once the program is completed, it will continue the concept that literacy is liberation.
“I hope maybe to inspire other black kids who feel like maybe they’re not as smart or maybe they’re not as able to articulate as other people so that they are just as much, if not more, than any other child,” Ellington says. . “And I really hope this program helps inspire other kids to achieve that.”
Even though she just graduated, Nieja Harris isn’t leaving Black is Lit. While working toward her criminal justice major in college, Harris will intern in the literacy program because she “isn’t ready to go.” Other than BSU, it has given him a space where his voice is heard.
“It’s important to me because even though I know I’m an older person and I graduated from high school, I wanted to do something more outside of school and I want to do more. advocacy for us as black people,” she said. .
Black is lit all over the land
Overall, Herndon wants his students to embrace the spirit that literacy is liberation and reconnect to how the black community has embraced education as empowerment. She also wants to reframe their learning experience.
“I want them to feel like they are agents of change in their community and are equipped to go out and be leaders,” Herndon says. “My number one goal is to experience a culturally appropriate learning environment and understand what it feels like when your identity is front and center and nurtured and validated in your learning space.”
Going forward, Herndon wants to expand the program to the state level and then take it to the national level.
More importantly, says Hodges, the key is to have an open space.
“We didn’t feel like our voices were being silenced.” Hodges said. “We were able to just express ourselves, and that’s not something a lot of students get on campus.”
This article originally appeared on Word in Black and is published in partnership with Solutions Journalism Exchange.