Denmark Gatewood had a captive audience. On Saturday, he sat on a small stage reading children’s books filled with stories about Black children, written by Black authors to a group of mostly Black children and parents. Despite the gathering at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO) for the Barbers, Books & Bridges’ (BBB) event, this triple combination is not a common feat, for more reasons than one.
The storytelling and educational event was centered around this year’s theme for Black History Month: The Crisis in Black Education. Since its founding in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History has selected a theme to guide the month-long commemoration of Black history and culture. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), 90 percent of children’s books are authored by white authors, while 48 percent of children in the US are children of color. Of the 3,200 books CCBC received from U.S. publishers in 2015, only 243 were about Black children, with only 105 written by Black authors. That comes out to 12 and 3.2 percent, respectively.
That year, Gatewood founded BBB, an Oakland-based non-profit that collects and donates books to barbershops and other community hubs. At the same time, his three-year-old godson started going to the barbershop. “I wanted books in front of him,” he said.
He’d heard about Barbershop Books, a Harlem-based non-profit launched in 2013 with the mission of helping 4 to 8-year-old Black boys connect with books and reading, while creating child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops. But Gatewood did not know of a similar organization in Oakland.
Still reeling from the death of Michael Brown, the 17-year-old unarmed teen who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson during the fall of 2014, Gatewood felt a dire need to do something. “I was snapped,” he said, reflecting on his anger and frustration. He thought again of his young godson: “What can I do—materially, physically—to help him?”
Gatewood began collecting books focusing on children of color from the East Bay Children’s Book Project, a pro-literacy non-profit that’s given away over 1 million books since 2005, and from Oakland libraries, which he says often had books dealing with Black children in their giveaway—and eventually, discard—piles. Apart from book distribution, BBB hosts book clubs that bring children and adults together to read through books, probing them for authentic narratives and stories that connect with readers.
On Saturday, Shatae Deckard brought her 1-year-old daughter and two nieces, 10 and 13, to the event. BBB staffers gave a presentation about the lack of diversity and equitable representation within children’s literature, then gave parents and children an opportunity to pick out books to take home. To close out the event, the group gathered in a circle for story time. Deckard’s daughter squirmed playfully in her mother’s lap, but settled down once Gatewood began to read aloud.
Visiting Day, one of the four books that Deckard read, tells the story of a young girl living with her grandmother as she excitedly prepares to visit her father in prison. The story, written by author Jacqueline Woodson, who’s been awarded the Caldecott Medal, National Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award and other awards for her literature, pushes back against the notion that parents who are incarcerated don’t remain active within their children’s lives.
“I want her to develop the love for books and not technology,” said Deckard of why she brought her daughter to the event. “The book scene has been taken away.” Her daughter is enrolled in Berkeley’s YMCA Early Head Start program and is a member of a Bay Area branch of Imagination Library called The Berkeley Baby Book Project, a free book program and literacy initiative founded by Dolly Parton in 1995. Deckard remembers the lack of diversity among the books available within the club and decided to give the director some feedback; the director, she said, then made adjustments.
Gatewood says that underrepresentation and cultural appropriation make it hard for children of color to identify with characters and narratives within literature. He defines cultural appropriation as, “Someone telling someone else’s story or telling a story that isn’t their own and profiting from it.”
As a child, Gatewood did not feel like he or kids like him were represented in the books he read. When he was young, Gatewood said, the only books he remembers liking were the Bernstein Bears because “the bears were brown.” He says eventually lost his interest in reading during his adolescence.
According to the BBB’s website, their mission is “strengthening community relationships and promoting learning through culturally representative and empowering literature.” It’s framed around their organizational belief that “American schools consistently provide Euro-centric and non-representative literature for Black and Brown youth.”
Among the other books read aloud on Saturday was actor Taye Diggs’ Mixed Me!, a book about a confident, energetic biracial boy name Mike, who’s often called “Mixed Up Mike” by his peers who can’t seem to understand Mike’s curly red hair, green eyes and caramel skin. In Lola Plants a Garden, Lola’s love of garden poems prompts her to research and plant her own garden with the help of her mother. Daniel Beaty’s poem “Knock Knock,” which has over 500,000 views on YouTube, was converted into a children’s book, Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me in 2013. It tells the story of a father-son relationship that begins while the father is present and continues in absence, using the knock-knock game as a metaphor.
So far, BBB staffers have passed out more than 300 books to children in Oakland at over 15 barbershops and at community centers and festivals, but this was the first event they’ve held at the library. Devin Weaver, BBB’s organizational strategist, met with Veda Silva, AAMLO’s project director, a few months ago after the two realized their missions aligned. “AAMLO’s mission is to promote community through historical literature and our mission is promote through contemporary literature,” said Weaver, who says there were kids all over the place during his first visit to the library.
Silva said African-American history is best preserved through knowledge. “If you don’t have books, you don’t have knowledge,” she said.
The books that BBB offers, she says, cannot be found in Oakland schools or in AAMLO’s catalogue, which includes thousands of historical, non-circulating books. The two organizations are working together to create an additional children’s section within AAMLO that is accessible for children while their parents are reading and researching at the library.
“My whole purpose is to engage with the parents and children under one roof,” Silva said.