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Diverse Literature Creates Connection

Looking for something new to read? Pick up one of these civil rights novels.

Black girl picking book off of a book shelf full of books

From the 18th century to today, “Reading has always played a really important role in civil rights movements,” said Professor Kristin Matthews (Civil Rights and Racial Injustice) on March 9, 2023, at the Humanities Center Colloquium. She delivered a presentation called “‘There is power in the word’: YA Literature and the Contemporary Freedom Struggle.”

Matthews told how black slaves learned to read in Sunday school, and of Black literary societies of the early 1800s, civil rights book clubs from the 1960s, and other stories of Black literacy. But within the civil rights community, there is still a desire to create a space for Black women in literature: Black women authors and Black female characters for Black female readers.

Reading and writing play a role in identity creation, Matthews explained. Black women literature ranges in genre from biography and creative nonfiction to fantasy and Afrofuturism, and even a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. These books bolster Black girls as readers, writers, and budding activists.

Matthews gave a number of examples of different works that entertain, inspire, and address challenges and issues, including the following:

  • Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique W. Morris, is a book that addresses how Black girls are seen as more adult than White girls and how one Black girl was even tackled by a policeman. 
  • Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, cowritten by sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite, is a story of Black struggle and joy. This book is about community and the healing that can result from stories. 
  • Watch Us Rise, by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan, is a story about two young women doing freedom work together through creativity. They don’t always get things right, and readers get to watch them do the work of learning. 
  • The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert, takes place on voting day and follows a girl who has turned her reading into action to fix things. 
  • The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, is written entirely in verse. The main character, Zamara, is a reader and writer of poetry. Matthews’ presentation title, “There is power in the word,” is a quote from this book. 

Matthews explained that there is power in reading stories—even ones that make you feel uncomfortable. Reading can introduce you to a world that is not your own. It can help voices be heard, can counter violence with creativity, can create connection and community. These published texts tell our friends in underrepresented groups that they are seen and they are heard, but just publishing them isn’t enough. Matthews challenged the audience to pick up something different to read. Pick up one of these authors, or even a banned book, and, as in Watch Us Rise, do the work of learning.