“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass
When someone comments on my childhood, they remember me with a book in my hands or my head in the clouds. While I played jacks or with dolls and jumped rope, my first love was reading. I received my first pair of glasses due to eye strain because after going to bed, I used a flashlight to read under the covers. Eventually, several blood vessels in my eyes ruptured. The optometrist ratted me out to my mother. Along with the prescription for glasses, I was forbidden to read in the dark. Unfortunately, I still read in bed late at night; but I have a nightlight.
Before I was able to use the elementary school library or the public library, the reading materials available were Sunday School books, the Bible, Ebony, and Jet, or paperback novels left lying around, older adults’ romance magazines (written for white girls). Ebony focused on black lives and positive contributions. Eventually, my mother bought us a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I traded whatever funds I earned or was given as gifts for books. In a round-about way, my reading explorations led me to believe that we must explore culture and heritage through books, art, and music in addition to promoting literacy.
When I was not reading, I was that “quiet as a mouse” listener to grown folks’ conversations. Whether it was the women in the kitchen, talking while pressing and curling each other’s hair or the men drinking brown liquor around my father’s barbeque pit, my people desperately tried to make sense of the nightmare that was America. The
Supreme Court ordered desegregation of public schools in 1954, followed by Eisenhower’s desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957. Desegregation did not happen in a timely manner, nor did it improve equality initially.
The nightly televised news channels reported a biased depiction of events challenging segregation and integration while amplifying the rhetoric for war in Southeast Asia. White supremacy had to be counterbalanced by the works and actions of the organizations we trusted. Copies of The National Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine were critical to my development during the 50s and 60s when black people were vociferously pushing for an end to segregation, pushing for integration, and Civil Rights.
The Rockford Public Library provided limited books written by contemporary black authors. What was available were mainly
slave narratives, the stories of the underground railroad, and the fact that not all black people had been slaves. Other books shared facts about black inventors, artists, and notable leaders before and after Emancipation. James Baldwin, Ernest Gaines, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and others’ words/writings painted a picture of the lives of black people in America. Despite pervasive depictions of Africans and “Negros” as inhuman, barbaric, and pagan, my authors explored the debilitating conditions imposed upon a people who’d been stolen from Africa to provide free labor in the building of America because the men who considered themselves “founding fathers” had no idea how to cultivate the land stolen from the First Nations. Unlike history books written at that time to depict white saviors and their superiority, slave narratives provide both resistance to and impact of slavery, attempts to build a familial structure, and plans for escape. Up From Slavery, The Souls of Black Folk, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were a few of the books I used to focus, illuminate, and contain my anger. Those narratives also explored hope, faith, and limited opportunities.
Unfortunately, written black history still focuses on a small subset of black men and women instead of the massive contributions made by people whose stories were never written but were passed along orally and now reside in regional libraries, small-town newspapers hands or remain in unread diaries left with family members.
During my senior year of high school, I presented a piece entitled “are you part of the problem or part of the solution?”. Eventually, reading Lerone Bennett and Ebony Magazine, James Cone, along with self-analysis, I incorporated my increasing knowledge in university term papers. I participated in university debates about issues of gender, race, and class. Those aspects of my heritage fused together as I began verbalizing and articulating a rationale for action in whatever settings I encountered. I grew confident that my opinions expressed, opinion articles, debates, and proposals were based on solid reasoning.
Reading, analysis, and study of systems, psychology, and sociology formed the basis of my career throughout the era of Affirmative Action, followed by retrenchment from Civil Rights, the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, and ultimately demonizing the poor for being POOR. Because I often worked in institutions designed to benefit white consumers and put Band-Aids on African Americans, my earliest debates and philosophies were grounded in beliefs about citizenship and equity. Analyzing issues from multiple points of view fleshed out solutions that were more than the flavor-of-the-day or political responses. I committed to advocacy positions not for expediency but in support of longer-term solutions.
I often talk to my younger idealist self and remark on the journey of making meaning which now gets reflected in the books and articles I write.
– Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in contemporary fiction novels she pens.