African-American Read-In at Canio’s on Saturday

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Circa 1940: African-American poet and writer, Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967). Although born in Joplin, Missouri, he was a central figure in the Harlem renaissance. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

As far as Kathryn Szoka is concerned, every month is African-American Literature Month.

But that is not a reality, and she knows it.

So, Szoka — co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor — joined forces with the John Jermain Memorial Library to bring attention to all-too-often overlooked African-American authors by hosting a “read-in” during Black History Month, inviting locals to share short excerpts of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, oral history and family stories by their favorite African-American writers.

Ten years later, the tradition holds strong.

Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson reading at the African American Read-In at the John Jermain Memorial Library in 2017. Kathryn Szoka photo

“We also consider this great American literature,” Szoka said. “The hyphenation is understandable, but we also want to embrace some really great writers and have them come to the top of everybody’s mind during this month as great American writers.”

The Sag Harbor reading, which will be held on Saturday evening at the bookstore, is part of a larger national tradition started in 1990 by The Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English. What began as a single, casual afternoon reading work by African-American authors 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.

“It’s been going on for quite some time,” Szoka said. “It’s just good to be not only connected locally in our community, but to be connected nationally in many communities throughout the country to support great American literature, especially at this time.”

Toni Morrison, a Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The read-in has been popular in Sag Harbor from the start, drawing anywhere from 20 to 40-plus people annually, Szoka said, noting that reading isn’t necessary to attend.

“We always welcome listeners. Every voice needs an extra set of ears, so we invite people to come and just enjoy the great literature that our country offers,” she said. “Last year, we had a really excellent turnout and we had a lot of people bringing new voices into the mix, more contemporary writers, so that’s always exciting. It’s nice to introduce people to new talent.”

Perennial talent typically includes the words of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but Szoka said there are always a few wildcards.

“That’s part of the charm of it. Even though, every year, there will be a few people that will have a classic readings, you may not have read the section that the person has chosen, or if you have, it’s been so long ago that you didn’t really remember it. So that’s always great, even with the classic authors,” she said. “But yes, sometimes we’ll get a person coming in with a work from an unknown writer, someone we have never heard of. Sometimes people bring regional writers in that may not have experienced the same level of awareness in the broader culture, and it’s a new writer that we can go to and read their works when we go home.”

Szoka encourages interested readers to sign up in advance, but also expects inspiration to strike during the read-in itself — and the bookstore will be ready.

“Recently, there’s been a number of new releases of the Harlem Renaissance writers, so we have a number of best titles in the store and we’re hoping people will be reading from some of those,” she said. “The backdrop of what’s happening in our culture reminds us that we can never take for granted strides made by any group on the margins of our society. Therefore, we just have to continually celebrate the legacy of these great writers.”

The 10th annual African-American Read-In will be held on Saturday, February 17, at 5 p.m. at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. Light refreshments will be served. Admission is free. For more information, call (631) 725-0049.

Colson Whitehead is known locally for his 2009 novel titled “Sag Harbor.”

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