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College of DuPage's Student Newspaper

The Courier

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Gathering to Celebrate African American Writers

COD is set to host its annual African American Read-In to help start its calendar of upcoming Black History events.

Even as we all face the unusually warm winter weather this February brings, this month also heralds the start of Black History Month. Over the next few weeks, College of DuPage will host a multitude of events to celebrate. 

One of the first events is the African American Read-In on Feb. 8 hosted by the COD Library. The African American Read-in originated in 1989 and gained notoriety in 1990 when it was sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English. According to Tony Bowers, associate professor of English at COD, a read-in is meant to highlight creative works from a specific group of people, often from a marginalized group.

“It’s an introduction for the larger world to a noted writer, author, artistic or thinker. It could be any myriad of things,” Bowers said. “It happens to be Black History Month; so we’re focusing on [presenting] African American writers, creatives and artistic people. So anyone can grab a piece of art or literature that they admire by an African American creator and then present that to the world.”

The event runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Library Alcove. While all of the slots are filled, people are encouraged to come, listen and digest the material presented during the Read-in. Bowers is this year’s event facilitator, a position he received for the first time since working at COD.

“I think it’s always important to learn about any culture to be exposed to different points of view, different perspectives,” Bowers said. “All cultures, their art and their intellectual offering should be brought to the world so that we can all expand our thinking and our understanding of other people and communities that are around us.”

“On the Nine” by Tony Bowers

Bowers is also a published writer, with his most recent book, “On the Nine,” published in 2015. The book is a collection of short stories about a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago called Greater Grand Crossing, where Bowers grew up. As the facilitator of the read-in, Bowers reflected on how his experience as a Black author shaped his perspective on other events that focus on African American art and literature.

“Being a Black man, who is a writer, is an awesome responsibility. But being a writer is an awesome responsibility period,” Bowers said. “It’s like you step your game up even more in February if that makes sense.”

Among some of the presenters is Sunshine Ballentine, co-sponsor of the Black Student Alliance and a student success counselor here at COD. This is her first year reading for the event, after attending her first read-in only last year. 

“One of my colleagues in the counseling department was reading something for the event, and he personally invited me and some other people from our department to come see him read,” Ballentine said. “When I got that personal invitation, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, you know, this is something that I could do.’”

“Push” by Sapphire

Ballentine is presenting some excerpts from the novel “Push” by Sapphire. The book follows a 16-year-old African American girl as she struggles with the daily abuse she suffers at the hands of her parents, raising one child with a second one on the way and working to learn to read and write. The novel was adapted in 2009 into the movie “Precious” directed by Lee Daniels. Ballentine first read the book while she was in college for her African American women’s literature class. The book left such a profound impression on her that when she signed up for the read-in, it was the first book that came to her mind, citing it as one of the reasons she became a counselor. 

“I always knew I wanted to be a counselor, but I guess this really solidified it for me,” she said. “Seeing everything that she went through as a person in that book: feeling alone, feeling invisible to the world around her that she wanted to be so much a part of, not having someone to support her or not having someone to be with her, that she made that journey. But that made me want to be a counselor. That made me want to be an advocate for somebody.”

Other presenters, like COD student mental health counselor Dennis Emano, find it difficult to find the perfect art to present. At the time of his interview, Emano was torn between two pieces, a poem by Danez Smith or a chapter of Brandon P. Fleming’s book “Miseducated.”

“There’s a chapter called ‘The Teacher Born.’ I was considering also taking some excerpts from that chapter and reading it because it’s just a nice, inspiring kind of message,” he said. “Some of the stuff that I’ve read in the past hasn’t been easy to read. Because it talks about the reality of the African Americans’ experience in the U.S., which is not always easy. It’s not always a happy experience.”

“Miseducated” by Brandon P. Fleming

Like Ballentine, Emano found a common thread with Fleming. The situations Fleming found himself in as a college student studying to be an educator reminds Emano a lot of what he experiences as a counselor at COD. Despite the commonality, Emano worries he’ll miss the mark. 

“The problem is I only have 10 minutes, and I don’t know if I can do justice within 10 minutes,” he said. “I think I need 20 minutes minimum. The chapter is just rich. It’s hard to leave out pieces.”

Both Ballentine and Emano feel honored to be a part of the read-in this year. For Ballentine specifically, the fact COD is hosting an event like the African American Read-In marks an important achievement in the pursuit of racial equality.

“When you think about the fact that for African Americans, to even be able to read was illegal, not very long ago,” she said. “If you were a slave that was reading, it was in secret. To even know the alphabet is a form of resistance. To be able to speak words is you practicing resistance. To be able to write a book where other people can hear your perspective is a form of resistance. For us to honor the resistance that it took to get us to this point where we can share that is like laughing in the face of everyone who’s tried to oppress us thus far.”

Photo pulled from the COD Library page

The African American Read-In is set to be hosted from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Feb. 8, in the COD Library’s Alcove. More information about this event, as well as the link to the signup page, can be found on the Library’s website. Everyone is welcome to attend and, as Bowers hopes, forge deeper connections with others in the diverse COD community. 

“We see through the art and the offerings that we have a lot more in common than we have separate,” he said. “Once you have that understanding that our experiences are, in essence, at the heart, not as different as we thought they were, then we can have a certain commonality and empathy.”

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