2020 is a landmark year for a plethora of reasons. It has been a time of immense change for all, and a chance to step back and figure out what kind of world we want to emerge into post-lockdown. I think I am far from alone when I say I want it to be a world in which racial inequality plays no part.
After the disturbing video of the death of a black man at the hands of a white police officer, the world erupted into outrage—and rightly so. George Floyd’s legacy is that of bringing about incredible change. Though the circumstances are tragic and unacceptable, a worldwide conversation has been ignited, with millions called to action to end the systemic racism that exists in society as we know it. Now, more than ever, it is imperative to amplify Black voices, and as such, I spoke with five incredible authors about their thoughts on writing, racism, and the current iteration of the movement towards changing our world for the better.
1. What do you think is the role literature plays in this crucial point in modern history?
Kevin Shird: Literature can educate people on race, equity, and inclusion at this very critical moment in time. Also, literature is a recorder of history. Fifty years from now people are going to want to see the record of 2020 and they will have a lot of questions. Today, right now, we can be a recorder of that important history by writing those stories.
Kevin Shird is an activist, public speaker, and author. Not only this, but he is co-founder and president of the Do Right Foundation, which is making a remarkable impact on the fight against drugs in America. His book, The Colored Waiting Room with Nelson Malden, is one featuring extraordinary conversations between a confidant of MLK Jr, and Kevin, the modern-day activist. It is an amazing insight into the need to look to the past in moving towards the future. It contextualizes the significance of the killings of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin as well as the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Ferguson, Baltimore, and around the country. With the current wave of anti-racism, this book could not be more important or inspiring.
image via Shird
Lisa Swift-Young: I think that the role literature plays at the moment means looking back over the literature and acknowledging the true story of the black experience here in the US. Many of the stories have been manufactured or adjusted to be more politically correct and not necessarily accurate. Literature needs to be authentic and needs to come from the perspective of those who actually lived the experiences. I respect research; however, first-person stories must be a part of the conversation. The world has heard what others said about our community but not listened to the voices in our community. Good literature comes from an authentic place. Historical literature needs to be factual, not propaganda. For instance, textbooks romanticize the Civil War. Classical American literature presents it as a utopian ideal for an aspirational American culture. It ignores the brutish, violent, and immoral treatment of indigenous people and African Americans. Textbooks, newspapers, or literature that is presented as non-fiction should be inclusive and tell the whole story.
Distinee Gayle: I think that literature serves as documentation. Whether that be factual or emotional, it marks a point in time. I think it’s so important because as we continue to progress into more of a digital world where things can be deleted and edited or photoshopped and doctored, utilizing print as means for documentation feels more comfortable and safe to me.
Angela Sadler-Williamson: For so many years, Black history is told through the eyes of people who cannot understand it. Before I met Rosa Parks, I thought she was just a lady who just decided not to give up her bus seat. Fast forward to April 18, 1998, when I became part of the family and really got to know about Rosa Parks, I realized that my history books diminished her role in the Civil Rights Movement. Even today, her legacy is diminished by large companies who target products towards children. If civil unrest is happening in 2020, it’s because Blacks still feel oppressed. As an educator, I didn’t want to tell a watered down story of one of the most important women in American history so I produced a documentary and then when I felt a large demographic was getting this watered down message, I wrote a children’s book. Racism is a subject that should be discussed at a very early age because America still struggles with it.
Nijiama Smalls: Literature has always played a pivotal role in history. Presently, literature portrays experiences that may be unfamiliar to the reader/viewers. Literature also has the ability to take readers/viewers on journeys that they may not have a chance to participate in that opens the mind and challenges views.
2. Who or what inspires you?
Kevin Shird: Life inspires me. I’ve learned that on any day or at any time, I could be inspired by a multitude of people, places and things, also by different music, or different beaches, mountains or people.
Lisa Swift-Young: As an explorer, what inspires me is learning. Learning about different cultures, learning about nature in general, the pursuit of knowledge. I recently heard that wisdom is knowledge applied. At this juncture in my life, I’m looking to acquire as much knowledge as I can and hopefully apply some of it so that I can pass on some wisdom. I think learning requires one to open yourself to be vulnerable. I feel opening yourself up to experience new things requires you to listen. In addition to being an author, I am a successful sales and marketing professional. I know that part of my success in this field is because I am willing to learn and listen before offering solutions or recommendations. One of my favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela is,” I never lose; I either win or learn.” I am inspired to learn, so I always win.
Lisa Swift-Young Is a marketing maven, author, entrepreneur, and global wanderer. She is the author of Pause 2 Praise: 30 Days to Happier and Healthier Relationships with Your Adult Children. The COO of 4Curls, a haircare brand and co-founder of Change We Seek, giving foundation. When she’s not choosing a new adventure with her family, she’s bingeing international independent films.
image via amazon
Distinee Gayle: Nature is my biggest inspiration. No matter how terrible many of us treat her, she continues to nurture us daily. It is a message that mother nature’s love for us is infinite. We destroy her, and make her sick – yet we still live and thrive. It inspires me to always move forth and rise every morning much like the sun, even when those around me may not deserve my light.
Angela Sadler-Williamson: Rosa Parks, Dr. Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey – These women’s resilience is what motivates me every day.
Nijiama Smalls: I am inspired by people that are not afraid to challenge the status quo and produce commodities (book, film, a talk etc.) that provokes a positive shift in thinking.
I am also inspired by the women that are doing the soul work to heal their emotional trauma all while striving to break glass ceilings and destroy unhealthy ideals.
3. Does this surge in anti-racist activism feel different? If so, how?
Kevin Shird: I think that timing is everything and because people are a bit more focused right now, I think that has played a major role. In addition, I also think that the video of a man, George Floyd, being brutally strangled to death, for almost nine minutes, by a white police officer was a huge factor. Probably one of the most watched video clips in the history of modern technology. Today’s protests do feel different and hopefully they can yield some results.
Lisa Swift-Young: I’m a little surprised by it, to be honest. I’m learning a lot about how people really think. I made some assumptions that turned out to be incorrect, so I’m glad about that. I think it feels different because it is led by a leaderless group. In the past, there has been a central figure. In this instance, people are taking it upon themselves to be leaders. There is not a Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells, or Malcolm X. It’s just sort of everyone joining in organically to address one common issue, equal justice. My mom’s family was very active in the civil rights movement, so I heard all the stories about how they recruited, trained, and protested. There was always a leader to follow. My mom also pointed out that this is different because it is a global effort. So this feels very different where everyone at the same time agrees to one thing. There is a scripture that comes to mind, Matthew 18:19-20. It basically in short form says where two or three are gathered together in His name then He will be there also, anything you ask shall be given to you. When millions of people agree on one thing. I am hopeful that great things will be accomplished. I think this anti-racism activism initiative will profoundly change the way we engage in the global community.
Distinee Gayle: It does feel more different. I am noticing that it’s not an uncomfortable conversation to have anymore for non-black individuals. It’s unavoidable. They are starting to speak up, and their voices are loud. Black lives are being lost at a terrifying rate and we cannot be silent any longer. Our voices are stronger. Our tears have dried up and we are filled with rage that drives change. We have allies that are echoing the same message we are.
Distinee Gayle is a poet, and author of the book Sunflower Soul, a collection of 200 poems divided into five chapters, discussing themes of growth, pain, love and so much more. Written as an evolution from seed to full bloom, this series of prose takes readers on a journey from facing defeat to taking control. Gayle grew up in Maryland, spent her teenage years in Jamaica, before returning to Frederick, Maryland.
image via Gayle
Angela Sadler-Williamson: It does feel different because people from all nationalities are realizing that racism in America is destroying our country. I have been contacted by writers in the Hispanic community and white, middle-class mothers and asked how they can help Blacks fight systemic racism. It is amazing that it is the year of the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and people are still fighting against injustice.
Nijiama Smalls: Instant, viral videos heightened our physiological arousal and changed our level of activism. It is my belief that the video of Ahmaud Aubrey, being chased and hunted, demonstrated to the world that racial profiling is still a reality. In addition, I believe the video that showed Officer Derek Chauvin with his knee firmly planted on George Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes ignited a fury in many Americans. You could not deny what you saw in the video which was an unarmed black man being killed callously by a white law enforcement officer. Those two back-to-back triggering incidents showed how insignificant black lives are to some and that there is an obvious problem in this country that needs to be addressed. Those videos made us realize that there is a sense of urgency behind our advocacy and activism, in this specific time, that is necessary. I also believe that it is no longer black vs. white but it’s now everybody vs. racists.
4. As a Black person first and author second, do you have any advice for those who want to educate themselves?/Are there any books you’d recommend people to read up on the topic?
Kevin Shird: Here are some books that I recommend you read: Between the World And Me, The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, all written by author Ta-Nehisi Coates. And, The Hate You Give, written by Angie Thomas. As far as advice goes, yes, I could say to you, please never make statements about race like, “I don’t see color!” or make statements like, “Isn’t it time we just move on!” And never say things like, “I, nor my family have ever owned slaves therefore I’m not responsible.” These are some of the most ridiculous, disingenuous, and asinine states any person could say to an African American. First of all, we all see color, so, that comment reeks of dishonesty. Secondly, we know that no white person, living today, was involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. On the other hand, it’s been documented that many white Americans, alive today, benefit significantly from their ancestors who created generational wealth via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Do white Americans see the injustice in that? And think about this for a second, only 55 years ago, via the American Civil Rights Movement, black people had to fight for the right to eat in the same restaurant as white people. Only 55 years ago black people had to fight for the right to drink out of the same water fountain in America as a white people. Just think about that for a second. So, when you think about how black people should feel about race and how we see America through our eyes, you must take these factors into account. History matters.
Lisa Swift-Young: I think the easiest way to learn is to listen. I would advise Euro-Americans to spend some time listening and reading. As a black person, I’ve been privy to several conversations around the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The majority of the Euro-Americans contributors focus on rioters, looters, and destruction of property. Whereas the black and brown contributors focus on protesters and the purpose. Both want to validate that their approach should take precedence over the other. In this example, the priorities are different. Working towards solutions means acknowledging the priorities of all parties. There are several ways to educate someone about black communities. Our community has expressed ourselves via numerous mediums, here are a few recommendations.
a. Books: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and Native Son by Richard Wright
b. Video: The Pieces I am – Toni Morrison and 13th – Ava Duvernay
c. Poems: “How it feels to be Colored me” – Zora Neale Hurston, “Dreams” – Langton Hughes, and “Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou
d. Plays – Any August Wilson play
Doing a multitude of things would be a way to begin internalizing what it is like to be black in America.
Distinee Gayle: Education is paramount now more than ever. However, we must understand that information on this topic is not linear. What I may recommend for one person, may not be what I would for someone else. I encourage those who want to learn more to first look within. What bias do you find yourself projecting onto the black community? Do you find yourself uncomfortable expressing your opinions on certain topics because you don’t have enough information to support it/feel like it may be controversial? Acknowledgement comes first. Start there and continue to research additional information. Do not rely on black people to spoon feed you information, because we’ve told our stories already. Our traumas and triumphs are there. It’s up to you to absorb the information. It’s important to never stop educating yourself and others. When you think you’ve learned it all, most likely, you’ve just begun. Also, it’s completely okay to change your opinion on something once you learn better. Never stop growing.
Angela Sadler-Williamson: Do your own research about the history of racism and Blacks in America. It is easy to repeat what other people are saying, but if you don’t understand it, you can’t help us change what’s wrong in society. I learned this the hard way when I started researching Rosa Parks and realized that was so much to this woman who is only given a few sentences in our history books. Read Dr. Jeanne Theoharis’ A More Beautiful and Terrible History; The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Read Rosa Parks’ favorite book, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History by Dr.Jeffrey C. Stewart.
Nijiama Smalls: I’d like to encourage people to watch the films The Thirteenth and When They See Us, both directed and produced by Ava DuVernay as well as the Kalief Browder Story. These are fact-based documentaries that are available on Netflix. They provide a gut-wrenching picture of how the US Justice System has behaved towards Black Americans and has failed Black Men. You will also gain an understanding of why many Black Americans do not trust that the Criminal Justice System will work on our behalf. I also recommend the reading of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Finally, all women, regardless of race, are encouraged to read my work The Black Girl’s Guide to Healing Emotional Wounds. This book paints a picture of the emotional wounds and generational trauma that black women gained from slavery and reconstruction and how it still impacts us today.
Nijiama Smalls is a southern belle, raised in South Carolina, who now lives in Northern Virginia. Smalls is a loving wife and mother, and author, committed to helping black women heal from traumas. Her book, The Black Girl’s Guide to Healing Emotional Wounds, focuses on exactly that, dealing with the implications of family and history on the emotional psyche of black women and girls everywhere.
image via amazon
5. What is your hope for the movement as it continues, now and in the future?
Kevin Shird: Real change must be supported by real legislation that can make a difference. And in my view Reparations is the only answer. Why are people against the idea of reparations being paid to the African-American descendants of slaves￼? Americans benefited significantly from the American Slave Trade, because, slave owners who made millions of dollars from free labor (slave labor) paid taxes. Those tax dollars paid to the government by slave owners were used to fund the construction of roads, bridges, towns and more. Building those assets helped to grow and establish this great place we call America today. The government wasn’t just a passive onlookers during these times. Economic disparities ￼in the black community are a problem and reparations could help bridge the gap in healthcare disparities, education and access to capital for entrepreneurs. Governments have made reparations payments to specific groups before like the Native American Indians, Japanese Americans after World War II, and to Jewish people following the Holocaust. There is a history of this being done.
Lisa Swift-Young: My hope for the movement of moving forward is action. Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative goal of equal justice for all. That includes race, religion, or sexual orientation. I hope that we realize the world Dr. King had supposed. One in which we would be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. I think the COVID-19 pandemic set the stage for this type of change. We are going through a reset. We developed an ability to see things differently and imagine new possibilities. We have all learned some things in the quarantine. We have taken action to become more efficient and more productive. We had a chance to pause and evaluate our lives. I am hopeful that most of us decided to become better versions of our pre-COVID-19 selves. I am optimistic that the light the world shines on America will make its citizens rise to the challenge and ideals of a real democracy. I can think of nothing more American than showing the world that democracy works.
Distinee Gayle: My hope is that we continue to be loud and demand change. I hope we continue to fight for our rights and work together to make it happen. The black community is strong and we are relentless. The culture of white supremacy must end and those who are allies must continue to use their voice to educate their families and children. I hope the performative actions on social media don’t end there. Continue to spread the message offline as well.
Angela Sadler-Williamson: There are so many companies, political institutions, and educational institutions sending messages in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; however, words are meaningless if the population you are trying to support is still marginally employed and discriminated against by these companies, political institutions, and educational institutions. The CEOs, Politicians, and Presidents of the Colleges and Universities still do not represent the audience these messages are trying to reach when they hire for executive positions. Many of us writers have to still struggle with a hierarchy that many other groups do not have to endure to get ahead. Blacks need a support system that raises them out of systemic racism and not keep them there or this will never end.
Angela Sadler-Williamson is multi-award winning film-maker, author, professor, and cousin of civil rights legend Rosa Parks. Having finished a of touring ‘My Life With Rosie’, the documentary, in film festivals across the USA, she now has a brand new book for a younger audience. My Life with Rosie: A Bond Between Cousins teaches young children how to support human rights, even at a young age, by honoring difference in others and not hating them.
Image via LAMOURIE
Nijiama Smalls: It is my hope that the momentum that has been created does not decrease and that more people will join us as we fight for the rights and equality for all. America was built on the back of diversity and that must be respected and appreciated.