By Natalie Glover

On Monday, Oct 30, the NEA Big Read Lakeshore 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. Dr. Johnson’s lecture focused on the history of slavery and power in the United States and Dr. Cole’s lecture emphasized both his connection to Africa and the importance of personal histories. 

Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Homegoing” explores the complex topics of familial ties that span across countries and experiences. The professors at the Big Read Kickoff Event provided their perspectives on these ideas. Dr. Johnson talked about the history of America and the impact of the tyrannical presence of slavery. Dr. Johnson emphasized that this racism continues to persist throughout the years, pointing to groups such as the KKK. Johnson stated, “just because it’s homegrown, doesn’t mean it’s any less tyrannical.” Dr. Johnson ended his talk by sharing a profound story about his 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 provided a different perspective on these topics and emphasized the importance of personal stories. Dr. Cole stated that he is the sum of 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. Dr. Cole ended his talk by emphasizing the interconnectedness of the Black community, saying that Africans and African Americans are two members of one family who are separated by time and history. 

If you were at this event, it was impossible to ignore the weight of the speaker’s stories. The moments after their sentences were often filled with the “mmms” and “ahhs” of understanding, and other times they were completely silent as people let the words seep into their hearts and souls. This was a perfect event to kick off the Big Read program. We were able to hear two different perspectives: African American and African, historical and personal. Yet both lenses led us to the same conclusion: stories are vital to our existence. They allow us to look back, look forward, and fully absorb the present. I look forward to continuing to experience the Big Read Program and hope that many others can understand and appreciate the importance of stories.

Natalie Glover is a junior at Hope College, majoring in Secondary English Education with minor in ESL, and is a member of the Big Read Team.

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