By Natalie Glover, a Secondary English Education student and an intern for the Big Read

The NEA Big Read Lakeshore program is dedicated to spreading love and passion for reading in Ottawa, Allegan, and Muskegon counties. On Monday, Oct 30, the program had its kickoff event! Hope Professors Dr. Ernest Cole (English) and Dr. Fred Johnson (History) shared their ideas surrounding the importance of stories and how this topic relates to the Big Read Book, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The novel explores the complex topic of familial ties that span across countries, experiences, and generations. The kickoff event aimed to highlight the importance of engaging with difficult stories such as this one. 

Dr. Johnson’s lecture focused on the history of slavery and power in the United States. The talk emphasized that racism continues to persist, pointing to groups such as the KKK. Johnson stated, “Just because it’s homegrown, doesn’t mean it’s any less tyrannical.” By emphasizing the ever-present nature of racism, Dr. Johnson called attention to the importance of reading and listening to marginalized stories.

Dr. Johnson ended his talk by sharing his profound experience in Liberia, where he saw African people crying and saying that “one of the stolen ones has been returned to us.” He claimed that in that moment, three hundred years of separation closed, and he was able to fully understand the themes of Homegoing.

Dr. Cole’s lecture provided an additional perspective on these topics and emphasized both his connection to Africa and the importance of personal histories. Dr. Cole talked about the importance of his two historical and cultural identities: African and African American. He said, “I am my story. My story matters,” and went on to explain that to challenge his story is to “interrogate the legitimacy” of his existence.

Dr. Cole explored the concept of power and how our histories are inevitably missing certain stories because of those who were oppressed in the past. This is why stories like Homegoing are so vital – they give a voice to people who have historically been silenced. 

If you were at this event, it was impossible to ignore the weight of the speaker’s stories. The moments after the speaker’s sentences were often filled with the “mmms” and “ahhs” of understanding. Other times, the room was completely silent as people let the words seep into their hearts and souls. The event served as a reminder of the importance of literacy and led me to one vital conclusion: stories are vital to our existence. They allow us to look back, look forward, and fully absorb the present. The Big Read Program helps to spread this message and aims to show students and adults alike the importance of stories. 

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