ELIZABETH, NJ - Howard Wingard recalls that when he was in college, he was given a list of white American authors and their books to choose from for a term paper.
That didn’t sit right with him, so he asked his professor if he could instead write about Richard Wright or James Baldwin. Why weren’t they on the list of great American writers?
This Black History Month, Wingard shared the memory during an event celebrating the National African American Read-In with members of the Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) at Community Access Unlimited. Young people in TOP receive independent and transitional living support services that prepare them for a stable, self-reliant adulthood. CAU is a Union County-based statewide nonprofit that works to integrate people with disabilities and youth at risk into the general community through comprehensive supports.
Over Zoom, the group discussed the contributions of African Americans to American art, science and culture. Wingard, assistant director of TOP, asked the group to try to connect with Black history, or their own ethnic or cultural identity, in a way that makes them feel enlightened and proud of who they are. He started off with a reading of “Thank you, Lord” by Maya Angelou.
“I thought it was very powerful,” said member Leticia Ceaser, who said she is Black and Puerto Rican. “Sometimes folks don’t take the initiative to recognize Black culture so I liked it a lot.”
The African American Read-In has been a longstanding tradition at CAU. Established in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English, the Read-In aims to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month and has reached millions of participants around the world.
“We do want them to get interested in literature and the arts” Wingard said. “We want to get that side of them out to be a well-rounded person...It’s important to let the members know about their culture to get them interested in it, and it’s not just for kids who are African American. It helps them recognize and be proud of where they come from.”
Member Rory Gras said she was also interested in the event and has been learning more about groundbreaking African Americans such as the first female self-made millionaire in the country, Madam C.J. Walker.
The group also discussed the 2017 movie Hidden Figures, which highlights the brilliance of three African American women working for NASA in the 1960s. On Friday, NASA unveiled the renaming of the space agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to honor Mary Jackson, NASA’s first female African American engineer and one of the inspirations for the book and movie.
“I think Black History Month is a very powerful for thing for the black culture, it gives black people hope,” Ceaser said. “I’m glad they fought to have a month and can appreciate where they came from.”
Eligible youth can become a Community Access Unlimited TOP member by referral through different sources depending on the services needed. Referral sources include the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Children’s System of Care, referral by local schools, community organizations or local agencies, faith-based organizations, hospitals and medical offices, self-referral, or by anyone encountering a youth seeking shelter or assistance.