On October 17th, I met a truly fatigued Kwame Alexander in the middle of his national book tour. He began his book-talk at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library heavily jet-lagged. It was life-affirming to see what passion looked like in the eyes a full-time poet, educator, and author.
As I gathered my wits for the event, I reflected upon my goal to maintain a catalog of living African American writers with careers in literature.
I need to see persons of color—like Alexander, working to demonstrate that writing is not a hapless hobby with ephemeral purpose.
In my experience, people tend to celebrate fiction and non-writers that are not African-American, far too often. Such a practice gives black Americans the illusion that only dead black men and women succeed in contributing to literary conversations. One of my missions as a writer is to debunk the myth that only the dead black writers matter.
We celebrate Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Phyllis Wheatley… but those people—while notable in their own right—are dead. And black men and women need to see contemporaries continuing in the name of writing and rhetorical excellence.
Writers like Kwame Alexander are very critical to inspiring writers like myself.
Alexander traveled with his own musician and a unique bag of tricks, among them getting teens and young people excited about poetry, his first love.
Middle-schoolers were reading his collection with smiles on their faces. They were enjoying reading by connecting funny rhymes to life-changing stories.
He also shared how Louisiana will always be special for him. I was surprised to learn that his spouse calls the Hammond area her home.
Then, he said something I’d never forget. He proclaimed: I don’t believe in the term, reluctant reader. My jaw dropped. His answer to a long-standing criticism about reading had shattered a glass wall that I’d been scaling. He reminded me that there is a bridge between reading and writing that must always be crossed. He opined that because his parents made him read for punishment—even his father’s dissertations—he was never made to believe that people acquiesce to reading. He said parents are often the bridge between a child who reads or not. His experience has shown him that if children and young adults are not reading it’s because parents have not found the medium that propels their children to literature.
I hold his view, that a learning person cannot escape the necessity of the read word. I was inspired by his journey as an author to continuing realizing the beauty of language, words, and overall the binding connection of poetry, prose, and puns to people. Every person has a different relationship with words, but the notion that reading has no job to perform will never hold true.
Kwame Alexander’s newest book “Swing” is out now. It’s a mediation of Jazz set in poetic voice, chronicling a story between two close friends trying to find their “cool” in a world that doesn’t understand them.
I had Mr. Alexander autograph my copy of “Solo”. He shared that Solo was his personal love letter to the enduring power of Rock music, a love letter that resounded well with my own nerdy, weird, and wild heart. Although Alexander writes young-adult books, I can joyfully say that he captured my nomadic imagination. And I am not and will never be a “reluctant reader”.