By Maxmillian Robinson
The ongoing series “Great Books, Great Conversations” had another successful virtual event on February 8 online when Jacqueline Woodson, an award-winning children’s book author, 2020 MacArthur Fellow and former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, returned to Adelphi. The 1985 graduate, who was an English major and track team member, was joined by Jacqueline Jones LaMon, vice president for the university’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion. LaMon was recently nominated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for her poetry collection labeled “What Water Knows.” The event moderator, Sybile Val ‘99, engaged with Woodson and LaMon, asking them about their early lives, current achievements and future goals.
Woodson, who “The New York Times” labeled a “transformer” for her work writing about people of color in books, is a native of Bushwick, New York. She said she grew up in a community that was filled with poverty. “There wasn’t much to do, but I struggled early on,” she said. However, that did not stop her. She fast-forwarded to the time she fell in love with writing.
“I started writing my first book at Adelphi then finished it at The New School,” Woodson explained. That book, “Last Summer with Maizon,” was published in 1990.
Woodson spoke about her time as a student at Adelphi. In one of those instances, Woodson explained that as a writing exercise, a professor once asked her class to each bring in a song they admired. She chose “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, which is a hymn known as the Black National Anthem. She shared that the professor said “it could be a song for a fraternity club,” an ignorant comment that she said to this day she can’t believe. Woodson briefly informed the audience about being Black at Adelphi, explaining that on several occasions, including the one above, she felt that Black culture and the identity of being Black was not appreciated enough among the educators. In response to her professor's reply calling her song a frat anthem, she bluntly said, “That's not Black history.”
Woodson also mentioned that forming reading groups helped to gain her love for writing, being surrounded by those who could give “constructive criticism.”
The conversation then shifted to the year 2020 and the changes brought by the pandemic. Both Woodson and LaMon agreed that they struggled.
LaMon spoke about how she needed time for her thoughts to refresh during a time of uncertainty. “It was a [dark] time during the pandemic. I like alone time but appreciate socialness amongst others. My neighbor died and many nearby neighbors died while I tried to write `What Water Knows,’ so I tried my best to keep fear out of the equation.”
Woodson said the pandemic “taught me to keep a healthy balance. Everyone was now back at home, which I love solidarity. However, I also enjoy being alone. I started jogging five miles a day. I did this because it helped me focus on my breathing and it helped me concentrate. When the world went on pause, writing kept me sane and hopeful. I’d have to dig in the past to write about the present and future. Our ancestors went through so much more than me and [LaMon], so we remain hopeful for better days ahead.”
Furthermore, both Woodson and LaMon alluded to a certain trick that benefitted them to write better during the pandemic. The acronym stands as B.I.C, butt-in-chair, which must be in full effect when trying to write a story or book. They said the practice allowed them to brainstorm more.
Val steered the conversation back to writing, specifically the difference between genres. Woodson, author of the young adult novel “Brown Girl Dreaming” and the adult novels “Red at the Bone” and “Another Brooklyn,” also creates picture books for young children. She spoke about the distinction between styles of writing.
“As far as the genres, [picture] books often have a structured beginning, middle and ending to the story,” Woodson said. “As it pertains to [young adult] writing, you have more leeway to create a different kind of story.”
Woodson also commented on writing adult fiction books, discussing that you have a “lot to work on when creating them. Only reason to know the rules is to break them and that's what I’ve done when writing fiction,” she said.
Val led a discussion about social justice and what it means to stand for what’s right. Woodson and LaMon spoke about where we are today as a society, and if there will be change in the future. Woodson said, “I think we should acknowledge one month [February] is not long enough to highlight those of the minorities that helped make this country a better place. We should all acknowledge this history all year long. Not only [our] month, but everything. We have it for 28 days, but people forget it afterwards.”
She also commented that she believes we will return to a different society post-pandemic. “We will keep being better,” she said. “There is a rage against change, and I feel change is coming.
When asked, Woodson does not plan to collaborate with anyone new on a book, but advises educators that the “youth media awards,” all give great book nominations and insights on what to use as a teacher in the classroom. Continuing with tips on writing books, she reasserted the BIC theory, but added there must be silence around, with the goal to write for yourself.
“If it sounds good I keep it,” she said. “I am banned in many states for my books, so notoriety happened that way and I went out going for more. You have to write. And rewrite. Even arcing it.” Woodson is currently writing a screenplay on Ida B Wells, and said she wants to have more people telling their stories no matter who they are.
LaMon said, “`What Water Knows’ took 10 years to write and it's a thin book but it came out well. We want readers to read slowly and get something new every time. Commit to writing. When I first started writing I wanted to live and breathe it. ”
LaMon had a final remark regarding the future of social justice in this world and advice to the next generation on perseverance through adversity. “When thinking about diversity, we’re thinking about differences. I wish we all had that voice to us that everything would be alright. I've learned, it's a very internal revelation.”
The “Great Books, Great Conversations” series began Nov. 5, 2020 to showcase alumni industry leaders, original thinkers, artists, authors and athletes. Topics center on the economy, politics, the arts, ethics and even our own mortality. The next event hosted by the University Advancement and External Relations team will be virtually on April 12. It’s titled “Great Books, Great Conversations: Making Law” with trustee emeriti, lawyer and author, Richard C. Cahn who will be discussing his memoir.