Creativity and Celebration of Culture at African American Read-In

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Kimberly Quinn Johnson at the African American Read-In in Sag Harbor in 2016. Kathryn Szoka photos. 

By Michelle Trauring

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States. Fifty years later, the country was moving on, but not fast enough for some—including the likes of historian Carter G. Woodson, who saw an opportunity.

Sandra Arthur at the 2016 African American Read-In.

Together with minister Jesse E. Moorland, they founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life—known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—and chose the second week of February 1926 to hold a national Negro History week, coinciding with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

It would go on to evolve into Black History Month—proclaimed as such by every U.S. president since Gerald R. Ford encouraged the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history” in 1976—and has inspired countless communities, schools and organizations to host local celebrations, performances and lectures nationwide.

The Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English was just one of them. What started as a single afternoon of reading work by African-American writers blossomed into a month-long celebration now known as the African-American Read-In—with events in 47 states, the West Indies, Ghana, Germany and Australia at one time or another over the last 28 years.

For eight of those years, the read-in has been an annual tradition in Sag Harbor, an event co-sponsored by John Jermain Memorial Library—where locals will gather on Saturday to read short excerpts of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, oral history and family stories by their favorite African-American authors—and Canio’s Books.

“The importance of emphasizing the need for creativity in our culture right now is very important,” said Kathryn Szoka, co-owner of Canio’s Books. “Therefore, having the read-in helps aid that, and we’re hoping to have it be two pronged: one, have classic traditional works read so that younger people who may not be familiar can be introduced to those writers, and two, to have newer writers, contemporary writers who look at the landscape through a different lens, to get their work out there to show a different evolution of literature.”

Of the dozen or so readers who participate, a handful will always return to the classics—Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—but new voices are constantly emerging, according to Ms. Szoka, who is considering reading from “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward.

“It’s a riveting account of what happens post-Katrina, but not in New Orleans—in nearby Mississippi,” Ms. Szoka said. “It just captures a moment in our American history, and her use of language and character descriptions are wonderful.”

The African-American Read-In isn’t the only event of its kind happening on Saturday in Sag Harbor. Down the road at Bay Street Theater, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm will host its third annual Black History Month Celebration, in partnership with the Eastville Community Historical Society.

“At Our Table: Sharing Diversity, Traditions and Culture through Food” will feature a panel—including food historian Diane Fish, Sylvester Manor co-founder Bennett Konesni, Josephine Smith, a member of the Shinnecock Nation who uses traditional tribal recipes, and representatives from the Organization Latino American of Eastern Long Island—followed by a sampling of cultural dishes and displays of traditional cooking artifacts.

The events of Black History Month all feed into the larger goal of celebrating the achievements of African Americans and recognizing their role in U.S. history—though, at least when it comes to literature, any reason to acknowledge great work is welcomed, Ms. Szoka said, no matter who wrote it.

“I think the point of it is to celebrate great American writing and, especially at this particular point in our evolution, to be able to listen to what really skilled artists say,” Ms. Szoka said. “It takes us out of the aura of Twitter feeds and social media. Great works of writing dig deeper and provide a much greater insight into the human condition and all of its nuances. That’s why we like to celebrate writing and great writers, because we learn something from them when we listen to their words and we’re, hopefully, the better for it.”

The eighth annual African-American Read-In will be held on Sunday, February 26, at 3 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. Light refreshments will be served. Admission is free. For more information, call (631) 725-0049.

The third annual Black History Month Celebration will be held on Sunday, February 26, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Advance tickets are $15, or $20 at the door. For more information, visit sylvestermanor.org.

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