This past week, UT Elementary 5th grade had the privilege of hearing Kwame Alexander, Newberry and Coretta Scott-King Award winning author of The Crossover, speak at O Henry Middle School.
On Monday afternoon, a parent informed me that Kwame would be speaking at O Henry, and by 2pm Tuesday, I had sent enough emails and made enough phone calls to get a field trip booked for our fifth graders to join in. Kwame Alexander is a big deal for reasons more than just awards.
I bought two copies of The Crossover for our classroom this year, and as soon as the books hit the shelves, they were checked out and devoured by students. The Crossover is a book about basketball, and it’s written in verse. Ten and eleven year old boys were spending their free time reading poetry, and girls were reading about sports.
Kwame Alexander isn’t just great because he combines poetry and basketball and fights gender norms. The biggest reason that I love his writing is because he writes in the voice of an African American, and you can hear it in the word choice, the culture referenced, all of it. But he never explicitly says anything about skin color.
This is big. This is big because when my class visited the Scholastic Book Fair this year, we were distraught by the amount of books featuring white main characters, and even beyond having white main characters, having animals with clearly caucasian voices. Kwame Alexander is a voice that is relevant and important and beautiful and far rarer than it should be.
My goal for my students is always that they would leave my classroom feeling empowered. When a child feels empowered, everything changes. Kwame Alexander does just that. On Friday, Kwame showed my African American boys a role model who looks like them, who speaks like them, and who comes from where they come from, instead of this well-intentioned, but unrelatable, privileged white lady they are so used to hearing (i.e., me).
In our class, we don’t want to promote the idea that white is the norm. Tragically, the majority of children’s literature available in stores, book fairs, and libraries promotes the idea that white is normal, and anything else is not. Thank you, Kwame Alexander, for giving us literature that fights back against the norm. We need more authors, educators, and leaders like you. It was an honor to meet you, and we can’t wait to continue reading the words you have for us.
A special thanks to Sara Stevenson and O Henry Middle School for hosting our Little Longhorns and making all of this possible!