Ezra Hyland is a teacher educator at the University of Minnesota and is responsible for the University's African-American Read-In (AARI) program. Learn more about the program, some of his favorite AARI events, and his young reading life during elementary and high school. You can read his full biography and also see a complete transcript of the interview below.
PART I: African-American Read-In
Well, the African American Read-In – I think this is year 25 now – was founded by Dr. Jerrie Scott and others in the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English to highlight the importance of reading. When you look at African American literature, a dominant theme throughout its existence has been the struggle for education and literacy.
And one of the things we noticed though is that when you think about the traditional canon, people of color, women, they just aren't – in the Western canon – are not there. And if you have teachers who want to do the right thing, they want to do a good job, but you have to give people permission. And so the Read&-In was an attempt to give people permission to incorporate this literature that they love and that they need into the first Sunday and Monday in February. And the demand grew to the point that now we've expanded the Read-In to the entire month.
The second reason why African-American literature is important is – there's a wonderful poem by Waring Cuney that says she does not know her images – she does not know her true beauty. She thinks her brown body has no form and grace. If she could dance beneath palm trees beside the Nile, she would know, but street lamps and dish water give back no images.
When we have a country that is increasingly of color, then we have to have images in the classroom, images in industry, images in politics that reflect the composition of the country. And so when you have children in school and the literature doesn't look like them, it doesn't sound like them, it does not deal with their issues, you're pushing them out rather than inviting them in. And so the Read-In is important for I think all those reasons.
The Read-In is the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is go to NCTE.org and there's a link for the African American Read-In. We have a bibliography and suggested activities. And all we ask is for community members, for churches, for businesses to incorporate African American literature into their daily activities during the month and to send back a report card.
Our goal is to record at least, to document at least a million participants each year. And we've met that goal sometimes. Sometime we haven't. And we know that many people are doing it. They simply just don't know or just forget to send in the report card. And one thing that's really cool is that people are given an electronic certificate that they can print and put on their walls, and it's amazing to me the number of schools I go into, you know, in April, May, June, even in September and see those certificates still up.
One of the most amazing things is my mother was a retired nurse, and she's been a church person all her life. And she heard about the – you know, she saw what we were doing with the Read-In. And she went to her church, and they fundraise and had very successful Read-Ins. They brought in university professors. They had young people speaking and would record them, you know, would video them.
We'd work with young people – with people in prisons who would read, and it really helps to bring people together, and it's something that if you have one book, you know, of poetry, everybody can read a poem. People can bring their own poems to very elaborate programs. Dallas Community College with Carla Ranger was one of the most amazing examples of really bringing a whole community together to do the Read-In.
Increased interest in the Read-In
One of the most amazing things is 15 years ago or so when I became involved with the African-American Read-In in Minnesota, people seemed almost angry when I would come to them. And we were fortunate enough to get donors, and I'd have shopping bags of books that I'd say, "If you do the Read-In, I'll give you these books." And people looked at me like I was crazy. And those same people then would call me back and say, "This is really cool. Do you have other resources?"
And now our African American Read-In in the College of Education at the University of Minnesota is yearlong. We have a weekly adult literacy program called Black Men and Women Reading. We've expanded to do chess mentoring. We work with schools still to supply books and do book donations. We have a wonderful relationship with the professional athletes in town that will come in and do readings and school visits for us.
So, I've seen the demand really go from literally people in denial about the literacy problem to people who, to now. We could do something every day if we had the resources.
Sharing literature in families
One of the things that is so heartbreaking sometimes is that we have taken literacy and literature and stories and we've privileged them to the point that some people have stories that are legitimate to tell, and we silence other people. And one of the things that happens within African- American Read-In when you're encouraging people, bring in the literature that you love.
I had one person, an elderly person, every year would come and do Maya Angelou and then talk about where she was when that poem – when she first heard the poem and talk about different times in her life. For someone to come in and say they could remember when that was the first record their mother brought in the house and how they would play that and they would recite it.
So, it really is an opportunity for young people to come and say this is what we're listening to. And have older people say wait, that's not new. We've been saying that for 20 years or, you know, we've been saying it for 50 years or for 60 years. And to really see people share pieces of themselves that they couldn't share in other ways. And it also I think allows parents to become a resource for their children. When the parent can say, "This is the stuff I love" and share something, I think it becomes a family tradition.
We do have several participants in our Read-In who are just families. And every year it's the mom, it's the children. It might be an aunt and an uncle. So, five or six people submit it every year and say we did the Read-In. So, it's a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.
Literature changing lives
One of the most amazing Read-In experiences we had in our black – we first started a group called Black Men Reading. Alfred Tatum is wonderful talking about this emotional intelligence that has to be developed. And we had a community reading. And so there were people of all backgrounds, all cultures, all colors there. And after the Watts Riots, there was a group called the Watts Writers Project started.
And they published an anthology, and it's slipping my mind, I believe called Black Power. And in there there was a short story called "I Remember Papa." And in that short story, basically, this boy is – this man now is recalling his childhood when his father's job as a black menial laborer was basically making big rocks into little rocks at construction sites. But he would bring his son, and he was so proud that his son could see him providing a living for his family.
And the father loses his job, and their lives deteriorate. And I saw grown men who had never seen each other before crying and talking about how now they understand their fathers and their father's struggle. So, literature can do those kinds of things.
When you see young people who are maybe acting out in school and they're about to be suspended and you come in and you say "Well, what's going on in your life?" and they can't tell you and you begin to talk to them about poetry and spoken word and you share with them poetry.
And they begin to write their poetry. And instead of fighting or acting out in school, they then write a poem. And so we actually have young boys and young girls who during lunch hour might stand up in the cafeteria and tell a poem that's talking about the violence in their home or the violence in their street. So, rather than acting out now they're speaking out and people are listening.
And I think, so you see these kinds of examples where literature every day is changing lives. But unfortunately we're going to an educational policy that's only concerned with testing. Can you answer this question? And sometimes the answers to questions are more complicated than the question will allow for. Sometimes answering a question is really asking that same question in a different way.
Or sometimes answering the question is simply saying, "This question doesn't even apply to my life." And literature allows for all of those forms of expression, all of those answers that can be correct and are correct.
One of the things that is so important about the Read-In is that we have begun to build true partnerships and relationships with our community. And we're breaking down those walls. One of the things that's fascinating is we have adults. And even and we're in North Minneapolis. The campus is basically South Minneapolis. If we're traveling from north to south, we'll say we're going to take a road trip.
And for many people in bypassed communities, the entertainers, the educators, the scholars drive through their neighborhoods, but they don't stop. So many activities happen on campus, and I think all college campuses are the same. There's never any place to park. If there is a place to park, it's too much. And the announcements are never placed in any place that's familiar to community people.
So, we're able to say – we don't say, "Go to the university." We're able to say, "Come on, we're going. We're going together. And we have a place here and there's a space here and we're invited." And so it's really breaking down those walls that takes place that's often inhospitable to the community around it, and they're starting to make it feel more like home, and also to remind the campus that it is not an island of prosperity in the midst of all this despair, but really reminding the campus community of its obligation to the communities around it.
PART II: Connecting to Literature
Stories make us human
Literature and language are life, you know. Amiri Baraka, I heard him say one time – he was quoting someone else, paraphrasing someone else – that human beings don't make up stories, but it's our stories that make us human. And so literature is the repository of our stories and the repository of our humanity, a reminder of our humanity.
I've done this long enough now that I have seen some of my students grow up, get married, have children, enter careers. And so the thing that is so fascinating to me is to walk into that room and imagine who those young people will be 30 years from now or to go into that room and have one of those young people ask a question in a way that I'd never imagined it before.
So, the thing about teaching is that every time you walk into the classroom, it's a chance for a new beginning and it's a chance for growth that I can't imagine coming from anyplace else.
I think that the – still the biggest disservice that we do is that we have taken literature, we've taken language, the most basic thing to what it means for us to be human and we've placed it on this kind of privileged place, right. You know, it's like taking medicine. You take it because it's good for you. And rather than saying and finding ways to tell these young people that you have stories to tell.
And so again one of the things that's so important about approaches that the African American Read&-In takes and that NCTE is trying to take is to validate the experience of the young people who come to us. If you look at some of our inner cities, they're war zones. And if that child can get up every day and navigate that war zone and make it to school, that child has a story to tell because we don't know what they saw on the way. We don't know what happened in their community at night.
And if we tell them to sit down now and now you're going to read this writer from some bizarre place who's talking about some life that is not real to you, we're not inviting young people to the table.
There's a horrible myth that boys don't read. But boys tend to read differently. And so because boys don't read often the way teachers want them to read, then we punish those boys. I've seen boys, you know, get a video game and they read the manual, they go online and they're looking at blogs, and they're doing all this kind of stuff to figure out how this thing works.
And boys often want to know how things work. Maybe we need to do more things in literature that will let them know how things work, let them know how their worlds work and how someone else's world work. I remember when I taught middle school, we started with the Clovis people, and they were some people who supposedly came over on the land bridge, and we know because they left an arrowhead someplace.
And these boys are sitting there trying to figure out what does that mean to me, right. But inside of that lesson there's a story of journey, and we have to figure out ways to talk to young people about their journey. They were people who had technology in the form of rocks. So, what kind of technology do our young people have that they need to navigate in their world and survive in their world to talk to them about what they're leaving behind and ask them what they want to leave behind.
Just like those Clovis people. It's not so much memorizing the millennium they came over and recognizing, you know, what they hunted and what they fished so we know all about them. We need to find out how we can use stories like that to help our young people know and learn about themselves.
But I think boys and girls need the same things. It's just that we I think as educators prize one form of knowledge and one form of learning and one form of communication over the other and discourage others that don't fit in those neat boxes. I believe it was Asa Hilliard who said he never met a child who wasn't a genius.
Reading life as child
When I grew up, I grew up with these two wonderful people, Mommy and Daddy. It wasn't until I got to college that somebody told me that they were my foster parents because, you know, you do those things when you're a freshman and introduce yourself. And I would say well I had Mommy, Daddy, and other Mommy, and it was confusing people. And then they said oh no, that, you know, William Gibbs and Iola Gibbs, they were your foster parents. But they both were close to 80 years old when they took me in.
Daddy was a preacher. And I never saw my foster mother, I never saw Mommy write her name. But Daddy was a preacher. And if you know anything about men who are 80 years old, they don't play hide and seek with you. They don't chase you through the park. They read the – you know, he would come home and he'd read the newspaper.
And so and as a preacher he read the Bible. So, I don't remember as a child nursery rhymes and things like that, but I remember him reading the Bible. And he used to have a newspaper with a sword on it, and I just cannot remember the name now. I wish I could. But there were sermons in it and religious things in there. He would read that.
We would read The Afro newspaper. And it was my job when I got big enough is when the paper would come, I was supposed to read it and then tell him what stories were important. I would watch the news and tell him what stories were important. So, I grew up with this literacy, but it wasn't a typical child's literacy.
My brother Vince is eight years older than I am, and one day I'm going through his boxes in the basement and there was this book that had an image on it I had never seen. It looked like me. And it was Haki Madhubuti's We Walk the Way of the New World. And that's the first non-Bible, non-newspaper kind of book that I remember reading.
And I remember reading those poems. He had an essay in there called "No Knock" where he's talking about revolution and he said that that 12 midnight is just like 12 noon only darker, and if you really want to make a significant impact in the world, you'll find that the 24 hours in a day are like the seconds in a fast minute. And I began to read that stuff and go wow.
And at about the same time I found a book called Cavalcade of Poetry. And I tried to read it because my brother had to read it I guess for school. And there was a poem in there and it said I saw a man pursuing the horizon. Round and round they sped and it bothered me. So, I accosted the man. You can't. "You lie," he cried and ran on. And for some reason that, you know, I'm in elementary school. That poem stuck in my head.
And going through the things that you go through of being taken from the foster home and living here and moving, eventually moving across to the Midwest from the East Coast, I was getting in all the trouble kids get into because I was away from home. I was away from family. I was away from friends.
And I saw a Malcolm X record called "The Last Message." And it said "Last Message." It had him at the podium, and it was a speech he gave in Detroit the day after his home was bombed. And I heard that and I said "Wow, Malcolm is the smartest guy in the world." And in eighth grade I can remember going to the school library and asking about this guy named Lumumba and finding out that in the upstairs in like the storage room there were all these bound copies of Time magazine from the '50s and '60s.
They were red with gold Time on it. And there were all of these encyclopedias and things that nobody wanted. And because I went to a poor school, as long as you didn't cause any trouble, you could do what you wanted to do. And I can remember staying up there all day long by myself skipping cla– you know, because nobody cared, not going to class, right, reading these things about Lumumba and the Congo and Kenyatta and all these people, right.
And then thinking "Wow, well, if he's the smartest guy in the world, I need to be smart." And then saying "Well, I need to learn more stuff." And I saw this guy, Alan Watts, and I began to read Zen, you know. And Haki Madhubuti was Don L. Lee at the time, right. And then reading Don L. Lee. And all this stuff was just in the library. I don't remember going to the public library as an elementary and high school student.
But I do remember that the school library was my refuge because I wasn't doing anything in my classes. I had a teacher – one of the biggest issues in my home – I got in so much trouble because he called my parents to come to school, and he said I was the greatest underachiever he ever had because I was getting an A in his class, his speech class because I'm reading Malcolm. They can't mess with me and whatnot.
I'm reading Martin Luther King, you know, in whatever, ninth grade. They can't mess with me, right. Who's going to – what high school is going to compete with that? And he said I was the greatest underachiever he ever had because I was getting A's in his class and didn't buy the book, never got the book. I didn't need the book. I was reading Time magazine or reading Malcom or reading Don L. Lee or reading Nikki Giovanni. And so literature saved my life because I wasn't a math guy, I wasn't a science guy, and all that, but I understood that if I really needed to figure it out, if they could write it down, I could read it and figure out how to do it.
And so I read myself into an education in spite of what was going on in my school. And when I finally got into college, my English teacher told me that I wouldn't make it to first semester because his son had gone to my university and did not make it. And I remember the pride when I went back and told him that I made it my first semester. But again I could read my way through because I knew if they wrote it down, I knew I could read it because Malcolm could do it, you know.
And so that's my life, my literary life. And but very much it started because, you know, I had this foster father, and he was too old to convince me that I was only valuable because I could throw a ball. I had a foster mother who loved me too much to let me just run the streets, right.
And so that's my literary life. And today I still have much better communion with books than I do with most people. And when I think about my fantasy trips or my fantasy life, you know, it would be spending time with some of those great authors.
We Need Diverse Books: Ezra Hyland
We need diverse books because diverse books reflect the world as it is, not the way the world never was and the way the world never will be.
Part III: NCTE Community
I am a member of NCTE because of two amazing people, Dr. Geneva Smitherman and Keith Gilyard, who were people who really, I think Keith was past president and Dr. G. has been a long-time member and founder and author, and they really were people who gave of themselves and give of themselves on a daily basis and encourage me.
You know, people who sometimes wouldn't let me quit when I felt like quitting. And so through them I was introduced to NCTE through them and Dr. Elaine Richardson introduced to the African-American Read-In. And NCTE has just become such a wealth of resources. This little two or three days, I mean this is – you'd get a master's degree if you can make it to enough seminars and this little two or three days that we're here.
And so it's just become a wonderful resource and it's a place that I constantly find myself going back to notes from past conferences and sessions. It's just – it's my primary resource I think in many ways to develop.
NCTE's Black caucus
NCTE is, you know, is an American institution. And America — Du Bois said the problem of the 20th century would be the color line. And the idea of color and "othering" people is still a factor in our world today. And so NCTE and its constituents have carved out places where people of color and people with different orientations are able to gather we were talking during the break I guess about this idea of silence and to have a voice and to program to meet their needs.
So, there's a thing called the rainbow strand where the different communities of color and the different orientations are able to create programming that address their needs to make sure that members of their communities are included in the program.
And so the Black Caucus has become a wonderful place where individuals of color can come together and support each other and meet their needs and speak in ways that perhaps they could not speak in a less supportive environment to tell the truth about what's going on and know that they'll be protected and that they will find people who will understand.
So, Black Caucus is an amazing, amazing institution. And it's something that I hope NCTE with all of the caucuses and constituent groups continues to understand and value.
I think NCTE gets it. And NCTE has a long history of trying to promote students' rights to their own language and using differentiated instruction to reach different students where they are, but I think our society – Martin Luther King said there's something wrong with a society that rather than seeking new and secure shores keeps sailing towards old and destructive rocks.
And I do think that there's this destructiveness and this need to value one group over another, to pit one group against another that is very much American. And I think it's rising in our society where as we become more diverse, people begin to question more why do we need diversity.
And I often tell people say it out loud. And they say, well more people of color who are participating in society and more women who are participating in society in ways that they've never participated before. And then the response is well, let's pretend they're not here. We need to go back to those old ways and that old canon and that old curriculum.
I think that NCTE is important because it continues to be a voice crying in the wilderness at a time when there seems to be this desire to narrow and restrict what it means to be American.
Ezra Hyland teaches Multicultural Literature and Thinking Through Art at the University of Minnesota, as well as in the College of Education & Human Development's Post-secondary Teaching and Learning First Year Experience Program. Mr. Hyland is also responsible for the African-American Read-In program at the University. The African-American Read-In is a national effort sponsored by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English to raise awareness of African-American literacy, specifically and American literacy in general. Locally, the CEHD African American Read-In provides opportunities to the Minneapolis community year round. Some of the major efforts of the CEHD Read-In are its chess mentoring program, Black Men Reading, book donations and a speaker series. Mr. Hyland has a M.A. in Urban Counseling from Michigan State University.