Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Miami University in Oxford, OH to view the Telling A People’s Story exhibit and to attend their two day conference. This exhibit features the work 33 African American children’s book illustrators, displaying a total 130 works curated into historical themes: African Origins, Middle Passage, Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Harlem Renaissance, Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. The works celebrate artists who have thriving careers while receiving little notoriety both because of their race and because of the sector in which they’ve chosen to work. For the most part, their talent has been limited to African American children’s books. Until this exhibit. Curator of Exhibits, Jason Shaiman, worked with a committee of dedicated individuals to develop this amazing exhibit.
The exhibit’s main goals were to “develop an internal look into the need for validation and the creation of positive self-images and to introduce the African-American experience to those those unfamiliar in order to better understand the cultural, historical and social makeup of African-American identity.”
The conference began with Mr. Shaiman describing the exhibit’s backstory. He also spoke of the exhibit’s future, of plans to develop panels with reproductions of the exhibit that can travel the country so that people across the country can view and celebrate these works. Shaiman shared that the works most often came from the artists themselves, not from galleries. He stated that many of the artists were surprised that a museum wanted to display their original work. Having the ability to see Ekua Holme’s original collage work let me know why it’s important to have the originals.
I can barely express the overwhelming sense of privilege I felt being in that space not only being able to see such an amazing collection of artwork, but to be present with Shadra Strickland, Ekua Holmes, Jerry Pinkney, Java Steptoe, E. B. Lewis, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Chrystal Carr Jeter, Alia Jones and Sam Bloom and many others who added to the knowledge and wisdom that was shared. There are video recordings of the presentations available somewhere on line that will let you hear from these artists about their careers and to hear from the others included in the conference.
This would include Sam Bloom (Librarian and Blogger) who presented on “Who Can Tell a People’s Story?”. Sam presented the audience with a background of some of the diversity issues confronting children’s literature while acknowledging how problematic it was that he was giving this talk. Sam worked as a true ally, relating his discomfort with a topic he could not own and when addressing issues, he always deferred to and cited Indigenous scholars and scholars of color.
While Alia tweeted the event (#tellingapeoplesstory), I took notes so that I could write this post. Notes that today I have to decipher. Time online is killing the art of handwriting. Here are some of my notes.
Javaka Steptoe acknowledged that his father (John) was not the first African American to produce a children’s book (Stevie). [I was so glad to hear him mention that African American youth literature has been around longer than most realize.] His mother is also an artist.
“It’s difficult to participate in a society that doesn’t recognize you.” [I’m thankful for artists who are able to participate and create work that brings us recognition] “It doesn’t make sense to create a book if it’s not to connect with people and inspire.”
“If you don’t know how to research then reading can open your world but so much…it puts the verb into reading.” [And this is why we need librarians who teach information literacy!!]
Steptoe won Caldecott Honors for The Story of Jumping Mouse and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter. In 2017, he won the Coretta Scott King Book Award and the Caldecott Medal for The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which he wrote and illustrated.
Ekua Holmes illustrated Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, which won a Caldecott Honor, a Robert F. Sibert Honor, John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor. She said the challenges of this book were the lack of photographic evidence of Fannie Lou Hamer and how to portray the brutality she faced, while acknowledging the light of her message. “Tell the truth. Students must leave with a sense of power, hope and faith.”
Dr. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong presented with Ekua Holmes. She incorporated information about the Freedom Summer training that was held at Miami U. in 1964. Mrs. Hamer arrived on the campus on 21 June, the same day James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing in Mississippi. Working with the University Archivist and the local press, images were gathered and shared to document the events of that summer.
The campus has erected a memorial celebrating its contribution to Freedom Summer. I admire that the campus did that, and that the organizers of this conference incorporated that event into the presentation. Honoring this history affirmed the commitment to social justice and equity.
Armstrong stated “We have wealth in our community. We need art to amplify that.”
We know Greg Christie as an artist, but he’s also quite a historian. “Picture books are exposing children to their first bit of art” he told us and then, he went on to explain they can teach them about history, science or human nature. Christie shared images and back stories from Jazz Baby, Keep Climbing Girls and Bad News for Outlaws. He also talked about his gallery in Atlanta where he sells art, but more important to him it’s where he teaches art to young people. Christie won a Coretta Scott King Honor (Illustration) for his first book, The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children. Only Passing Through:
E. B. Lewis, won the 2006 Charlotte Zolotow Award for his illustrations of My Best Friend by Mary Ann Rodman. He said, “you’re not painting for those who don’t know, you’re painting for those who do.” That sets a higher bar for the artist.
Jerry Pinkney spoke about the role of stories in life. Unfortunately, I missed his talk! I know everyone was in tears by the end of it, and I.missed.it. having him at this conference, was so special. He brought a continuity to the art and to the books. He knows the industry and stated it won’t change until there are publishing houses are fully integrated. While it was nice to hear the artists personal histories and backstories of the books, it was precious to hear the exchanges between the artists as they talked about who they studied with (Shadra missed the opportunity to study with Jerry), what pencils and brushes they use and how they maneuver light and perception in their work. Pinkney won the Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse and Caldecott honors for Mirandy and Brother Wind, The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South, John Henry, The Ugly Duckling and Noah’s Ark.
Shadra Strickland was the last artist to present. She wove her personal history into stories of her art, telling the beginning of her career, how she got her first books and indirectly relating the strong support she and her art school classmates still have. She really glowed when she talked about her teaching, and work to get her students published. Shadra work includes Sunday Shopping. Ghost Boys, A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. She won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for Bird.
If you missed the conference, don’t miss the exhibit. It will be run through 30 June.
To schedule the Traveling Panel Exhibit, contact Jason Shaiman, Curator of Exhibtions at firstname.lastname@example.org. They will be available beginning in August 2018.