New program encourages students to explore African American Literature


The Givens Foundation has launched a program intending to give students greater access to African American literature.  Givens Black Books is a reading campaign that celebrates the works of acclaimed playwright and novelist J. California Cooper.

The first reading event took place November 22 at the Pillsbury United Communities Oak Park Center in north Minneapolis.  It was discussion of Cooper’s first novel, Family, led by storyteller Nothando Zulu.

“It’s important to know where you’re from,” Zulu said in a voice that easily filled the room.  “Otherwise you risk losing your heritage.”  Zulu said that Family, whose narrator talks about her ancestors and descendants, was about intergenerational help.  “Maybe twenty years ago members of the community would help children who weren’t theirs.”

Zulu said that it was a painful subject for some African Americans to deal with pointing to the example of Zora Neale Hurston, who before she wrote the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, was an anthropologist who documented African American culture.  “Her attitude was ‘don’t remind me of back there,’ and when she went back to the south, she had to learn where she was from before people started talking to her.”

“Stories help us know we’re not the only one,” she added.

Zulu is one of the artists participating in the program.  Others include Beverly Cottman and Danielle Daniel. 

As part of the program, Givens is sponsoring an after-school program at North High School in partnership with KBEM, which the jazz station will do in addition to its courses on broadcasting and radio production.

Zulu, Cottman and Daniel will serve as artists-in-residence for the program and the participating students will meet weekly for two and one-half hours from November through April at KBEM’s studios adjacent to North High.

According to Eartha Bell, assistant director of Givens, in this program, students will explore Cooper’s literary influences and choose other authors they like. They will produce short spots about African American literature that will be played on-air.  They will also be able to respond creatively (poetry, spoken word, etc.) to Cooper’s work with opportunities to perform at community events.

Bell said Givens is in negotiations with more schools to participate as well as St. Paul schools.  The book discussions will take place at community centers or local libraries – she mentioned Rondo, Brookdale and Sumner libraries as locations for future events.

Givens will hold a number of discussions and other events throughout the school year with the program culminating with J. California Cooper’s visit to the Twin Cities in April (no specific date is fixed yet). 

The next Givens-sponsored event is a book discussion of Cooper’s collection of stories, Life is Short But Wide.  It will take place January 22 at the Brookdale Library.