Visitors to the 16th annual African-American Read In at the Kenosha Public Museum Saturday went home inspired after hearing everything from original poems and the words of well-known authors to the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Michelle Obama.
Held nationally, the event celebrating African-American literature was launched in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English as part of Black History Month.
Local readers included students and ministers, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, state Sen. Robert Wirch, state Rep. Tod Ohnstad, local NAACP president Veronica King and Kenosha’s poet laureates.
Chicago storyteller Alice Collins also captivated the audience with her tale of “Ruby Pearl and Queen Nzingo.”
Many, like sisters Aniyah, 15, and Ariana Ervin, 13, were also repeat readers, participating for the third year.
What they especially enjoyed was picking readings that meant something to them.
“Usually for Black History Month, people think of slavery,” said Ariana, who read the poem “Black Excellence” by Laverne J. Harvey. “I wanted to read something that spoke of black people’s accomplishments.”
Aniyah said her selection, “Dear Little Black Girl” by C. Moné, speaks to the struggles of “being young and black,” she said. “It’s hard to be a woman, and it’s hard to be black.”
For the adults, participating and hearing the readings was just as meaningful.
“They’ve been participating since they were younger, and I like how they’ve evolved now to pick different poems that speak about issues,” said mom Treva Ervin.
“It brings awareness to the culture,” said Kimberly Butler, whose niece, Ryleigh, was one of the readers.
“So many people have this stereotype of African-Americans, that the color of our skin makes us different, but the content of our character is the same.”
Ryleigh, 11, read one of her mother Genia Butler’s original poems, “What Is Black?” for the first time.
“I just wanted the kids to know that black is beautiful,” no matter the skin color, Ryleigh’s mother said of her poem.
There were serious and personal readings, including pieces about astronaut Mae Jemison and poetry by Maya Angelou.
Sholanda Black of the Kenosha County Child Support Agency read her original poem, “Time for Peace,” about her mother’s battle with dementia.
Derrell Greene offered some education about Black History Month and asked the question about the law that abolished slavery: Was it Juneteenth, the 13th Amendment or the Emancipation Proclamation?
“Most people think it was the Emancipation Proclamation, and that’s not true,” he said. “It was the 13th Amendment (ratified Dec. 6, 1865.)
“Ask most people the day the slaves were freed and they don’t know. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war tool to punish the states against the Union. It freed a lot of free labor (slaves) and provided more soldiers for the Union.”
For young readers like Joey Williams, 11, this was a chance to read something more lighthearted like the poem, “Notes on the Peanut” by June Jordan for poet David Henderson, even if he seemed to question some of the words.
His sister, Mia, 6, took her reading of poet Nikki Giovanni’s short poem, “Knoxville, Tennessee,” seriously, however, prompting Wirch to quip, “That’s a tough act to follow.”
Wirch’s closing reading was a portion of one of Martin Luther King’s favorite sermons, which probably best summed up the afternoon:
“’Love, even for enemies, is a key to the solution of the problems of the world.’ Thanks, Dr. King.”