Thinking Souls: Interview with Arleta Little and Carolyn Holbrook

October's Thinking Souls is concerned with the Givens Foundation and their fresh republication of a classic of nineteenth-century literature: "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs.

Arleta Little

Black writers, like all Black people, have not had an easy time of it in this country. Harriet Jacobs, an ex-slave who was born in 1813, fought for most of her life to get her story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published and distributed. Although Incidents was published in 1861, it was largely forgotten and out of print until its reprinting in 1973. Its “rediscovery” at this time is largely due to the Civil Rights Movement, and concommitant interest in Black literature. In 2003, the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, based here in Minneapolis, partnered with Washington Square Press to re-issue this classic slave narrative, and make it more widely available to the public.

In this edition of Thinking Souls, we talk to Givens Interim Managing Director Arleta Little (AL), and Givens Director of Education Programs Carolyn Holbrook (CH), about the foundation’s programming to support Black writers of today and yesterday: what has changed, and what has stayed the same for those who pursue this vocation?

SG: Can you tell me a little bit about the foundation?

AL: The Givens Foundation is more than 30 years old. Its mission is to enrich cultural understanding through programs that promote African American literature and writers. So it’s one of the only organizations in the Twin Cities, and probably in the state, that focuses exclusively on African American literature and writers, and develops programming around that, in support of that mission.

SG: In that thirty years, what has some of the programming looked like?

AL: Well, our original focus was on creating scholarships for kids going into college; that lasted for a little over 10 years. And then a prominent African American collector in the community was putting his collection of African American literature up for sale, in 1985. The Givens Foundation played a central role, in partnership with the University of Minnesota, in securing the community support for purchasing that collection, and then making sure that it was located within the university.
The collection was our focus, in terms of promoting it and preserving it, for quite a number of years. And within that period of time, we took an exhibit featuring the Black Renaissance, and went national. It was called “A Stronger Soul Within a Finer Frame,” and we took that all around the country in 1990.

We developed “Origin,” which was African American culture in Minnesota schools. It was a teacher training program, to get teachers more familiar with what was out there.

We had the Black Mystery Writers Symposium in 1996, in which we invited national mystery writers to Minnesota, and I believe Walter Mosley was the keynote speaker for that.

More recently, our focus has turned exclusively to our programs.

SG: What was that decision based on?

AL: Basically, the ownership for the collection went to the university. So we acquired it in partnership with them, and then they became owners of the collection. After several years of promoting and preserving the collection, we really needed a new purpose in order to continue to exist.

So, we had a strategic planning session. We redefined our identity as a supporter of African American literature in general, and writers. And we cultivated new program areas. One of which is our NOMMO Lecture Series – which is just going to be called the Givens Lecture Series now, and it’s aligned with our mission to focus on literary African American authors who define excellence in African American literature.

Traditionally, we have three lectures a year: We have one in January, which focuses on public policy and youth issues; we’ll have two new lectures coming up, one in October and one in November this year. And the focus will be on bringing more prominent African American authors in to talk about their books, and how they have played a role in defining excellence.

SG: Do you know who’s on deck?

AL: We have not contracted with the authors yet, but we have an idea of who we want to go for. We’re looking at Walter Mosley and Suzan-Lori Parks and Rita Dove (who is also one of our national advisers).
We’d also like to do more with book clubs and academic coursework here in the Twin Cities to try to link the authors coming with the community, and cultivate real appreciation for their literary work.
So we’re looking at partnering with African American book clubs, and working with academic instructors who use Black-authored books in their coursework, and wanting to support and supplement what they’re doing.

Our Children’s Literature Conference, moving into its third year, brings teachers, media specialists, and educational professionals together to talk about the use of African American literature in children’s classrooms. We discuss how to select children’s literature, how illustrations play a role, and then next year, the focus will be more on the use of historical narrative in the classroom. Especially with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is one of the features from the collection that we have reprinted. And then finally, our publications.

Our publications are the last key piece of programming. We have reprinted seven works which had been hard to find. The works are drawn from the Givens Collection, and they are identified by John Wright and Karla Davis. John Wright is at the U, with the Department of African and African American Studies, and he has played a central role in finding novels and other works that have a social or cultural or historic significance that for whatever reason haven’t received much notoriety. So he brings those books out of the shadows. That’s the goal of our reprint series.
We have a new work coming out, probably before the end of the year, Black and White by Seth Moglen.

SG: You collaborate with a publisher?

AL: We do. We work with Simon & Schuster; they have a publishing office called Atria, and we partner with them.

SG: How does the foundation view its role in the community? Is the foundation more for writers who are here working, who are Black, or is it more for kids who are consumers of Black literature, to educate them?

AL: I think that there are two parts to our mission: One is for Black literature, and the other is for Black writers. And I want to say African American literature and African American writers, because we are very specific.

We are working to increase our role in being the voice of African American writers in the community. And really providing a forum for African American writers to be introduced to new audiences, and give them an opportunity to showcase their work.

SG: Do you feel like there’s a lack of opportunity here for African American writers?

AL: I think that there’s plenty of audience, but I also think that it’s dispersed. So there really is an opportunity to organize, and to provide greater access. And that’s the role we’re really working to strengthen.

SG: What are some of the major challenges that the foundation is looking to address in the next few years?

AL: We have an ambitious expansion going on. We want to be able to be able to provide access, not only to authors, but to literature. And not just in the Twin Cities. We have a plethora of authors here that we can put into the classroom, but regionally, to be able to say, “We have a lot of talent. We’ve got to get this talent out, we need to get the work out.”

We have a great online curriculum. If we could just promote it nationally, it would be a great resource for teachers in the classroom, where they don’t have access like we do in the Twin Cities to information about how to bring African American literature alive in the classroom.

So, we have some quite ambitious goals to expand our education program. We started with a pilot this year, and we want to take that to quite a few more schools. And also to expand it, not just K-12, but also to some pre-K as well. So that younger kids are getting exposed to literature, parents are learning how to read to kids, and getting creative about bringing books alive – which is so key to not only academic success, but civic engagement.

SG: I find it interesting as well that Minneapolis has one of the highest drop-out rates of Black students in the country.

CH: And also one of the highest rates of African American teen pregnancy in the country.

SG: Right. And I wonder if one of you could talk a little bit about the role of promoting literacy in the Black community, and how you deal with education issues that we do face. Being a reporter, I’ve done a lot of stories about the dearth of Black teachers in the classrooms, the books that African American kids are reading, that they can’t relate to it at all, there’s not very many Black writers in the curriculum, and so on.

CH: That’s an interesting and important question that needs to be addressed, by Black people, by an organization like the Givens Foundation. The fact that a city the size of Minneapolis is among the leaders in teen crime, teen pregnancy, and teen illiteracy [in African American communities] really speaks to the importance of our mission.

When we started last year, in our education pilot program, we just had people coming out of the woodwork, wanting us in the schools. We had teachers, we had principals, we had what they’re calling in the ‘burbs “Integration Specialists.”

SG: Whoa. Integration Specialists. Sounds like 1965 or something.

CH: Uh huh. We had people just begging us to come into the classroom, but to come in February.

In the new brochure that’s coming out soon, and in the guidebook on how to plan a Givens residency, we’re really explicit about that.

February was designated Black History Month by Carter Woodson in 1926. Black artists always have work in February. They may not have it any other time. And unfortunately, in our schools, many teachers associate Black things with Black History Month. So they just assume that we were only available for Black History Month – that our programs are only available then. So I had explain over and over and over again, “Well, these residencies are available throughout the school year.”

So, this year I’m adding a FAQ page in the guidebook, and we’re also mentioning it in the new brochure that we’re working on. And the question is: “Are Givens artists available for Black History Month?” The answer is: “Givens artists are available September through May, including Black History Month, Kwanzaa and African American Parents Day.” So as not to ignore these things, but just to keep pushing the fact that we’ve got issues in this community.

SG: I was also wanting to ask you about the relationship between your work and the high dropout rate. Tell me a little bit about the education program itself.

CH: The Givens Education Program is titled “Spirited Minds and Strong Souls Singing,” which is a take-off on the two bibliographies that Archie Givens compiled several years ago for age-appropriate African American literature, one for young men called “Spirited Minds,” and one for young women called “Strong Souls Singing.” So we combined those two, because they’re recognizable in the schools as Givens work.

The purpose of the program is to partner with teachers, to support them in meeting the [State] Academic Standards, the reading, writing and critical thinking parts of the Language Arts Standards. And to promote pride, and self-expression and communication in these kids, so that they can start to learn to express themselves, and that their thoughts, feelings, and ideas are important, and that they matter.

We had eight artists this year. We have artists who are poets, spoken word artists, storytellers, fiction writers, people who work in creative nonfiction, journalism, playwriting – to give kids the whole picture of the literary arts.

AL: We want to provide a variety of different ways that students can learn. The dropout rate is the result of kids not being engaged in their learning process. And by bringing artists into the classroom who can not only give a face to a literary work, but who also can engage students in finding their own voice and identity within the context of literature — I think that’s how you get kids engaged. It’s not just necessarily by one method.

CH: Yeah, experimentation is really important. And when you have an artist in your room who not only looks like you, and acts like you, and talks like you, it’s really validating. It’s just amazing to watch kids of all backgrounds…I went to site visits at various schools…to see them engage with the artists. To have them come away with the sense of, “Wow. There is something really good [about literature…]”

SG: I wondered if one of you could talk about the book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. I mean, it is an American classic, but what do we mean by that? Why is it important?

AL: Carolyn just finished working with [local African American storyteller] Beverly Cottman in building a curriculum for the book.

AL: We had a panel of teachers that got together and reviewed a variety of books from the Givens Collection, and gave their input as to which books they thought were appropriate for use in the classroom. And Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was one of the books that they selected – it was highly recommended, both for middle and high school. I think because it portrayed a unique feature, in that it’s one of the rare narratives from the female perspective. She talks about her experience of initially not knowing English in slavery, and then gradually, becoming aware, and then alternately her experiences with her White owners, and then she escapes through the progression of what happens in the book.

But we have a lot of narratives that we are well-known from a male perspective, and those we have in the context in the collection as well. But this was an under-appreciated narrative that really provided an insight into the life of a slave. It’s very accessible for the youths in the classroom.

CH: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl touches on issues that are still contemporary: women’s issues, issues of family, the light-skinned/dark-skinned caste thing that is still happening in our community, good hair/bad hair, religion. And then the whole issue of how slavery was justified by people who called themselves Christians. And today, all these issues that we don’t even talk about are being justified in the same way by the people in power.

And the book is well-written. I think that before this book was reprinted by the Givens Foundation – and there are several other reprintings even now – people just had difficulty, Black people and people of other ethnicities, people just had trouble recognizing the fact that there were some slaves who could read and write. And they were articulate – they could do more than just simple arithmetic.

So I think that when we speak of ways that this program can help our young people, one of the ways is to reaffirm, over and over again, that we are not an ignorant people, and that yes, we do come from a background of severe oppression and invalidation, but look folks, look kids – it’s right here in front of you. Look at that picture of Harriet Jacobs. She was an elderly woman by the time the book was published, but she talked about her life when she was your age. And the environment that we live in in Minneapolis, how does her living environment compare with where you live today and why?

AL: I think teachers need to know that this book has an easy, straight-line comparison with books that are already a part of the canon, like The Diary of Anne Frank, where a very similar-aged protagonist could be compared through their experiences, using the uniqueness of their experiences to kind of shine a light on human experience.

SG: What do you say to the person who says, “You know, I’m not African American, and I’m not really interested in African American things and reading African American literature. I love literature, but it’s not my tradition, so why should I really pay attention to the Givens Foundation’s work, Black writers, and stuff like that?” Or the person who says, “I don’t want to appropriate what you’re doing.” What is your response?

CH: One of my immediate responses is, “Why shouldn’t you read African American literature? Why isn’t it your experience – you’re an American, aren’t you?” I think that even in order to think about racism, we need to own up to the fact that American literature is very broad, just like the American population. So, African American literature, just like dead White male literature, and all kinds of literature, are important for greater understanding of this country.

AL: I also think that the world is getting smaller. And we need to cultivate, not only within our kids, but also within ourselves, the capacity to understand the human experience from a variety of different perspectives. No matter what you’re reading, you’re reading through a particular lens. And the ability to read through a variety of different lens will only increase an individual’s capacity to be able to relate and communicate effectively with people from other aspects of the human experience. So, I think that exposure to African American literature in particular, provides people with another lens for understanding the human experience.

AL: Literature is the opportunity for an expanded self – not just for an individual, but for a group, for a people, for the nation, for the world. When you expose yourself to various perspectives, you create an opportunity for an expanded self. So, we have to go in that direction.

Stephen Hancock [Professor at University of Carolina, Charolette] did a study of teachers in America, and what he came away with is that most teachers are White women, because they’re just sort of drawn to that occupation. But, like everybody else, when you’re in a group of people, you look for yourself. And so, the complaints that African American parents hear about their children is that they’re not cooperative, they’re unruly, they don’t sit still. And when you think of who fits that criteria in American culture, it’s White women. Because they were raised to be cooperative, to sit still, to be good. Our kids are automatically wrong.

So, I bet expanding teachers’ view of American literature, and African American literature, having them interact with African American artists, is a good way for them to understand that our kids are different than yours, but don’t throw them out of the room just because they’re different. Let’s find ways to expand your own consciousness of what is good and what is right.

Ready to expand your consciousness? Pick up a copy of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Washington Square Press, 2003) for online book club discussion. Look for a book review in a few days.

Next month: We’ll talk to Jane Jeong Trenka and Sun Yung Shin, editors of Outsiders Within (South End Press, 2006), the first book by and about transracial adoptees, about the economics, politics and culture of adoption. Eleven of the anthology’s contributors are Minnesota writers.


The Givens Foundation (