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Marking the anniversary of the death of George Floyd  

Written by Rachael Norris, 25th May 2021

Today we mark the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, and the events arising around the world in the wake of that killing. At The Reader, staff have been reading works by African American writers and offer the following recommendations ... 

Sallya Reader Leader in our criminal justice team, selects ‘two powerful poetry collections’ - Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead and Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. 

Schools Partnership Programme Manager, Sami, also recommends Danez, choosing their powerful poem ‘dear white america’  

i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving 

too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust 

the God you have given us. 

Watch Danez reciting the poem in full here. 

North West Hub Lead, Anna, recommends An American Marriage by Tayari Jonesdescribed by Barack Obama as 'A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple'. 

[What Does It Mean to Want] by Claudia Rankine 

What if what I want from you is new, newly made
a new sentence in response to all my questions, 

a swerve in our relation and the words that carry us,
the care that carries 

Director of Special Projects, Geethawrites: “I am loving exploring the work of Claudia Rankine. We read the first piece in her book Just Us in The Reader’s Diversity Advocates meetings - it unearths the complexity and challenge of having difficult conversations around the age-old call for change’” and has opened up some honest, personal and vital conversations for us.  

Helen, Head of Shared Reading Programmes, highlights Audre Lorde's poem 'Coping' as a poem that ‘just keeps on giving and Teaching and Learning Coordinator, Lisaoffers two recommendations: 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi 

A powerful novel charting several centuries and the descendants of an Asante woman from south-central Ghana. Some go on to become free, some cannot escape slavery. All have their stories to tell.  

"No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free." 

'Truth' by Gwendolyn Brooks 

Change, though we hope for, and strive towards it and know that it will be better for us, can be difficult to face – even uncomfortable and disruptive to go through. 

And if sun comes  

How shall we greet him? 

Shall we not dread him, 

Shall we not fear him 

After so lengthy a 

Session with shade? 

For younger readers, Storybarn Coordinator, Roxanne, recommends Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes & Gordon C James, saying: “It’s a stunningly illustrated, vibrant and lyrical celebration of the culture of the barber’s shop – a joyful picture book about the confidence and sense of belonging that a haircut can gift! 

NicolaHead of Site Operations at Calderstones, recommends Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter. A series of short essays dedicated to the daughter that the writer never had but sees all around her’.    

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” 

Letter to My DaughterMaya Angelou. 

Janewho delivers Shared Reading in a prison, selects the poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes.  

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human  

blood in human veins. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. 

Marketing and Communications Manager, Maisie, selects Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah – a novel exploring race and identity. 

“If you don't understand, ask questions. If you're uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It's easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here's to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” 

Rab, Partnership Lead and Criminal Justice Reader Leader, chooses the novel The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin which is dedicated to 

 … all those that have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question”  

Jane, The Reader’s Founder and Literary Director, recommends three great novels she’s read during the last year – Native Son (1940) by Richard Wrightsearing account of the life and trial of one young Black man living on the South side of Chicago 

The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Alice Walker’s first novel, is an unflinching account of the effects of the trauma of slavery and racism on one family from the 1920s through to the 1960s.  

Ernest J Gaines A Lesson Before Dying (1993), the story of a young man, wrongly accused, and those who help him cope with his incarcerationis based on a true story, set in 1940s Louisiana.  

These novels are a kind of family, says Jane, “And their voices have all helped me understand more about the brutal death of George Floyd, and many others, than I could have imagined.  

Clare Ellis, Head of Teaching and Learning, recommends the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and in particular, his poem ‘Sympathy’: 

I know what the caged bird feels, alas! 
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; 
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass, 
And the river flows like a stream of glass; 
When the first bird sings and the first bud opens
 And the faint perfume from its chalice steals — 
 I know what the caged bird feels! 

I know why the caged bird beats his wing 
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; 
For he must fly back to his perch and cling 
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing; 
 And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars 
 And they pulse again with a keener sting — 
 I know why he beats his wing! 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, 
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, — 
When he beats his bars and he would be free; 
 It is not a carol of joy or glee, 
 But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, 
 But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings — 
 I know why the caged bird sings! 

Frances, Head of Publications, recommends Begin Again, US academic Eddie S. Glaude Jr’s book about James Baldwin, which sends you off to Baldwin’s books and essays (anything, everything he wrote) to find more of the fearlessness, the independence of thoughtand the dedication to complexity that Glaude shows makes Baldwin the best writer for this moment. 

‘The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us... And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realise this... In great pain and terror because one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating.’ James Baldwin 

Eve, our Hackney projects leader, chooses Wonder Woman’written by poet Angelo Geter in celebration of his mother. 

For as long as I can remember
My mother has been the strongest
woman I've ever known
A queen whose face is made of stone
Jigsaw puzzles in her teeth piecing the truth together
Her eyes are bridges
that connect the past with the future 

Somerset Hub Lead, Julie, selects Dawn Revisited’ by Rita Dove, the first African American to hold the post of US Poet Laureate. Julie says: “I love the "new day fresh start" optimism of these lines in particular”. 

How good to rise in sunlight 

in the prodigal smell of biscuits - 
eggs and sausage on the grill. 

The whole sky is yours 

to write on, blown open
to a blank page.  Come on, 

shake a leg! You'll never know 

who's down there, frying those eggs,  

if you don't get up and see. 

It is good to remember the possibility of rising in Rita Dove’s sunlight.  But today, The Reader wants to end on a tougher note. In February, as a staff group, we shared and spent time talking about Lucille Clifton’s powerful, moving and intricate poem Won’t You Celebrate With Me?. As we remember the death of George Floyd, if feels right to read and listen to it again,  here. 

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