There’s a reason why we celebrate Black History Month every February. Decades after the Civil Rights Movement, the political leaders, inventors, and artists in U.S. history books are still overwhelmingly white. But a new program by Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative in Kalamazoo aims to help students learn about diverse authors and orators.
Rae’shana Robertson, 16, is one of 21 students in the Great Writers Program. Sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council, it introduces students from Loy Norrix High School and Milwood Magnet School to renowned black and Latino authors.
Then students will attend workshops with local Michigan authors and start writing their own work. Rae’sheana says that’s the part she’s excited about. She says she wants to advance her writing beyond poetry.
“This will teach me or help me write more about plays or short stories and things like that,” she says.
Laura Henderson is the interim director at Fire and project leader for the after-school program:
“We have really pushed for the students to understand the potential that they have and to see someone more similar to them having had achieved such great works and have written things that have withheld the test of time, but they are not introduced to in school. And these are not authors that a lot of people will go out and read on their own.”
The kids are learning about authors like James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Junot Diaz. Henderson says Fire made a point to pick several female authors as well. That’s what drew Dave Cushing to the Great Writers Program. He’s not a student though - he’s an x-ray technician at Bronson Lakeview Hospital in Paw Paw.
Cushing is one of four adults in the program. He says he got inspired to read more female authors after picking up Gloria Anzaldúa’s book “This Bridge Called My Back.” Cushing says it was an important book in third wave feminism, which focused more on the rights of minority women and women in the LGBT community.
“And quite specifically said that women of color needed a voice. That women of color weren’t being adequately represented in second wave feminism and they were going to make a strong move to make sure that it was as…that it lived up to its potential and was as inclusive as it could be,” says Cushing.
“We think it’s just as important to include all ages into reflection on what we’ve learned from history, what we’ve been exposed to and see that it’s never too late to learn about another culture,” adds Henderson.
Henderson says at the end of the project, Fire hopes to publish an anthology of stories, essays, and poetry from participants in the Great Writers Program. Fire is also filming the process for a documentary. Henderson says ultimately she hopes to continue the program next year and help make these authors regular reading for kids in the Kalamazoo Public Schools.
“And it is quite a process to get things changed in the curriculum, but we have to start somewhere," she says. "And so I think getting the reactions of the voices and the students that we are teaching is definitely impacting the instructors to see just what a change that could make.”
The Great Writers Program is open to everyone. Members will meet on the first and third Thursday of every month at Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative until May. To join the program, e-mail Fire.