The African American Read-In Celebration at the University of Northern Iowa Marks Its 15th Anniversary

This post was written by NCTE members Tiffany A. Flowers and Gloria Kirkland-Holmes.

Each year, the African American Read-In is held during February, Black History month. During this program, there are many African American books read and shared with children. However, as seasoned organizers, we contend that it is just as important to promote the authors who research, write, and craft these brilliant books. It often takes years to put historical fiction picture books together. Ensuring the illustrations are authentic and well matched to a text is of great importance as well. After many years of coordinating African American Read-in programs, we have concluded that when you read a book, you are not just sharing the story; you are relating culture, experience, history, and comprehension of the author’s lived experiences.
The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) African American Read-In promotes African American authors and illustrators every year at their event.  The aim of the African American Read-In program is to do culturally specific programming for first graders in the Waterloo Community schools. This can include workshops on hair braiding, Black inventor STEM workshops, drawing workshops, math workshops, and of course workshops that host authors.
UNI aims to bring authors with unique perspectives who can inspire children to greater heights. One example is Jan Spivey Gilchrist, a researcher and cultural historian of African American children’s literature. Jan can create stories that children love. Her talent comes from years of practice, writing, rewriting, and researching how to relate African American experiences to all children. Another example is Crystal Swain-Bates,  a best-selling author who engages students through everyday stories about their worlds. Ty Allan Jackson is known for his work with Black boys. He has an uncanny ability to empower Black boys to love reading through representation. Children delight in his beautiful books focusing on self-awareness and adventure. Teacher-scholar and author Ryan Joiner  brings his books to life by promoting all the reasons that children should learn to read. Ryan believes that reading can take you anywhere.
Promoting brilliant Black authors during the African American Read-In is just as important as reading the books. This is why the African American Read-In is a success every year, and this year’s Read-In, celebrated and hosted during the 10th annual African American Children and Families Conference, sponsored by the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, was no exception.
In fact, this year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Read-In at the University of Northern Iowa! Although we initially expected to hold it in person, we switched to an online model with major modifications. It is important to note that COVID-19 did not stop the university faculty, staff, students, librarians, media specialists, public school teachers, and first graders in Waterloo, Iowa, from celebrating and attending the Read-In. February 11, 2021, saw authors, entrepreneurs, and volunteers from across the United States using Zoom to read to over 1,000 first graders from Waterloo Community schools, who listened from their homes or (socially distanced) from classrooms.

Shown reading at the AARI event (l. to r.) are Jim Bray, assistant professor, Theater, and Whitney Hanley, assistant professor, Special Education. (Photos: Chris Wiebe)

The Read-In committee stayed committed to the mission of the conference to ensure that children were able to participate in this event. We want to give special thanks and acknowledge the African American Children’s and Families African American Read-In Committee, the University of Northern Iowa technology team, and the countless volunteers who tirelessly served to connect children to an experience they will cherish long into adulthood.
As we embark on our journey as literacy professionals to deliver and promote literacy instruction to children in digital environments, sharing our strategies is key to closing the digital divide and helping all students. As program planners across the United States begin their plans for the Read-In next February, our hope is that you will make time in your program for authors to focus on writing workshops, discussions surrounding their work, and the formation of book clubs to read African American children’s books.

Chicago native Tiffany A. Flowers is a children’s author, literacy advocate, and assistant professor of education in the department of cultural and behavioral sciences at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Her research interests include African American literacy development, children’s and young adult literature, urban education, family literacy, field placement, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. You can contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @Prof_Flowers.
Gloria Kirkland-Holmes is an Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood/Elementary Education at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the conference coordinator and founder of the Annual Conference on African American Children and Families and the University of Northern Iowa Annual African American Read-In. You can contact her at [email protected]

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Locating Black Histories in Our Own Front Yards

This post was written by NCTE member Janelle Jennings-Alexander.

The protests and marches of the summer of 2020 proved, if nothing else, that a moral, ethical, and intellectual imperative exists for creating racially literate learners in our classrooms at both K–12 and higher education levels.
France Winddance Twine defines racial literacy in her book A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy, calling it “a way of perceiving and responding to the racial climate and racial structures that individuals encounter daily.”

Twine explains that one primary way to help individuals practice this literacy involves understanding racism as a contemporary problem, not a historical one. However, since so many contemporary issues facing communities of color are rooted in the historical, the challenge for building these racially literate citizens is, first, helping them understand the past within which the present is situated.

Unfortunately, for many young learners, the past that undergirds this critical education is perceived as part of a long-ago and distant history. For my African American literature students, perceiving how few generations sit between slavery and the present day in which they live is difficult for them. I tried to help illustrate this limited distance through Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, the story of Cudjoe Lewis and the human cargo of the last illegal slaving vessel in the US. While we read about Lewis, who experienced the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, to many of my students, his story still felt too distant from their own.
To bring the past into the present, I redesigned this course to help my student locate history in our texts and in our town. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the process of mapping history is not an especially difficult one. Raleigh is a place, like many historic cities, that still carries significant markers of its past. In my class, tracing those markers started on a plantation minutes from our campus.
After the class read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, students took a tour of the Mordecai House, a former plantation and National Park Service historic landmark. On a tour of the house, students were challenged to make connections to Douglass’ narrative. Starting in the sitting room, full of many of its original books, students linked the room to Douglass’s own secretive efforts to learn to read. When our tour guide talked about the “privilege” of being a woman allowed to sleep indoors to care for the family’s children, my students compared this to Douglass’ story about Mrs. Giles Hicks, a white woman who murdered a nursemaid as punishment for sleeping through a child’s late-night crying. When a docent told us that one of the home’s owners was a cruel master to his slaves, my students could imagine someone like the slave-breaker Edward Covey to add context to that story.
As we transitioned to the literary giants of Harlem, students learned about our city’s own thriving black communities after the end of slavery, pairing our Harlem Renaissance poetry with stories and photographs of Raleigh’s Black Main Street. Here, they saw the city as home to black millionaires and business owners who flourished during and after Reconstruction in an economically and racially segregated city. We paired this with a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, along with research on The Green Book, the traveler’s guide used primarily by African Americans to help them avoid those hotels, restaurants, service stations, and other businesses that did not offer service to black patrons.
The students enrolled in the course began to unpack why Raleigh’s black communities and two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Shaw University and St. Augustine’s University, were necessary for black people’s survival in the city.
As they read some of the letters and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, students learned about the time King came to Raleigh and was met by the largest KKK rally in North Carolina, aka Klansville, USA. As they reflected on the Civil Rights movements of the 60s, students wrestled with the duality of the city—partially in disrepair due to practices like redlining and redistricting, and partially rejuvenated due to gentrification.
Students connected what we read about and saw to the Pittsburgh neighborhood of August Wilson’s King Headley II. They connected King’s anger about not being respected as a man, and Tonya’s fears about bringing another black life into an antiblack world, to the pain, sorrow, and frustration that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Students also connected the character of Stool Pidgeon and his hoarding of old newspapers to a resistance to the erasure of black experiences in our increasingly gentrified city.
This course focuses on depth of material through readings in English, History, and African American studies. Moreover, this course serves as a model for what a text-based antiracist education might look like—one that is easy to locate and accessible within our own racial literacies, spaces, and places.

Janelle Jennings-Alexander is an assistant professor of English at William Peace University. She is a 2018 recipient of the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color award. Dr. Jennings-Alexander’s research critically examines whiteness within the context of late 20th- and early 21st-century African American literature and explores antiracist pedagogy. Her teaching explores the intersection of race, rhetoric, and composition in the literature classroom. You can follow her work on Twitter: @professorjja.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.