“It’s a dream come true to come back and have ‘made it,’” the popular novelist Jacqueline Woodson told me as she walked through the gym last week at Bushwick High School, where she graduated in 1981, and was now walking toward a cluster of students waiting in line to hear her speak. Her 2016 novel Another Brooklyn had been widely reviewed, a nominee for the National Book Award for Fiction that year. In the years since, her work has landed various other notices, like the popular MacArthur “Genius” grant. 

Woodson was there to read excerpts from Another Brooklyn, as well as her earlier memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, which both focus on her experiences growing up in Brooklyn as a girl of color. It was a relatable concern. 

“If there’s anyone our students can see themselves in, it’s Jacqueline,” says Nina Simone, an executive at the major nonprofit United Way, which brought the novelist back to Bushwick as part of a series in the city called “BookMobile Tour.” Last week at Bushwick High was the first out of eight stops in a tour through all five New York City boroughs, the concept’s second annual iteration.

High school students from the area were invited to tour a renovated bus throughout the school day, where the seats were now lit with a collage of text and photographs. “Spotlight for Black Entrepreneurs,” one label reads, while another board described the enduring influence of African music, highlighting instruments like the mbira, also known as the kalimba, and the shekere. 

At the front of the bus was a map of the world, overlaid with information about the African diaspora, marked by small red stickers. At the back, was a lunch counter with three stools, recreating imagery from Woolworth’s during the Greensboro sit-ins.

“We want young people to know the power and agency that they have,” Simone told me. “We want them to walk away more curious about Black studies. We want them to be able to say, ‘We didn’t learn about this, so what else don’t we know?’” she says. 

To wit, United Way staff members were on call to pull teenagers through the displays in the single corridor of the “BookMobile,” discussing a litany of accomplishments of various Black people in the U.S. and across the world. Within the bus were a smattering of books: Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir Becoming.

The tour ends in front of a large mirror, ringed with names of African origin, in youthful handwriting and colorful dry erase markers. Tai. Mateusz. Messiah. Students get the chance to add their name to the mirror: to see their names represented, even in this small way.

“So many children never get to see their name on keychains at the gas station,” one of the United Way employees told me.

Boys were assigned to listen to Marlon Peterson, a writer who grew up in nearby Crown Heights with a different path to success than Woodson. He told students about how his life was changed by a felony conviction, and how he fell in love with writing while in prison. “The paper was the only place I could go to as a safe space,” he said.

The group had also roped in Woodson, along with Marlon Peterson, a different writer with his own ties to the neighborhood, and a different path to modest success on literary and talking circuits. Growing up in Crown Heights in the 1980s, he went to jail for a decade after participating in a robbery that resulted in two murders. While there, Peterson became immersed “in anti-violence activism, education, and prison abolition work,” according to his publisher, which put out his 2021 memoir under the title Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song after he performed a successful Ted Talk called “Am I not human? A call for criminal justice reform.”

The audience at the high school was split, with Woodson assigned to girls and Peterson assigned to boys. Simone told me the decision was made to both help mitigate book fair traffic, and give students someone she thought they could more directly relate to.

Peterson spoke earnestly of his early life in Brooklyn, his felony conviction and the love for writing that came after, which he called his “only safe space” while in prison. He told the young men in the crowd about Maya Angelou and told them to seek and work for the life they want. When he was a teenager, he could never imagine growing up and giving speeches like this, he said.  

“My limited exposure and my ignorance didn’t allow me to see then where I’d be now,” he told them, “we as Black folks have an amazing library of greatness.”

Simone told me that Peterson was invited to the event to provide what she called a fresh perspective to the boys, so they could see themselves represented.

“He has a really unique story and background that our students don’t typically get to hear about,” Simone says. “And we want to be able to speak to our boys of color so that they can feel connected, because they often feel left out.”

Meanwhile, Woodson talked to the young women about her own time at Bushwick High, laughing at old memories and inside jokes of exes and rigged school elections. The girls watched and laughed attentively.

Woodson and Peterson then signed free copies of their books in the gym, chatted with students and smiled for photos. Several tables erected in the gym were stacked high with free books. 

“One thing that’s so great about something like a BookMobile is you can put it outside the schools where books are being taken off the shelves, where books are being burned. You can put it outside someplace where kids don’t have access to literature,” Woodson told me.

The Black studies curriculum that the group is pushing, called Hidden Voices: Stories of the Global African Diaspora Vol. 1,” is currently being piloted at a dozen schools across the city, as part of the city council’s Education Equity Action plan.  

According to Simone, her group hopes to “flood the streets with culturally relevant books.”

“Everyone did not want this to happen,” says Lester Young, currently a chancellor at the New York State Board of Regents, which manages the state’s public education system, and is backing the curriculum that the group is promoting. 

“This is not a club. This is not an activity. This is not entertainment,” he continued, addressing the addressed high school students. “It is important to understand that this is a movement not just for New York City, this is a movement for the entire state and the nation. You are our leaders. We are looking to you. I have to tell you — when I look to you, I see a bit of myself.”

The next stop for the BookMobile Tour is the Bronx Children’s Museum on March 30. The museum is expected to secure authors through its own connections, names yet to be announced.

Photos taken by Ashlynn Perez for Bushwick Daily.

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