Choosing “Jim Crow and Me”

When I initially proposed a Student Readers Group for the Alabama Book Festival at the first planning meeting of the year in August 2011, most of the folks in the room agreed that it was a great idea, and acknowledged that we had discussed it several times before, but thought it probably too ambitious for one person, especially for a volunteer (as we all are on the planning committee) who already had a full-time teaching job and a writing career, too. I saw their point, but like damn near project I’ve ever started, I took the attitude that it may well be too ambitious but I’m going to try anyway. Sometimes projects fail but other times they work out . . .

I have noticed since I have been on the planning committee of the Alabama Book Festival that it has lacked a component that offers an obvious connection to teenage and young adult readers. The festival does a thorough job of engaging small children and families and of offering substantive choices of books and authors to adult readers; I wanted to try to create something that bridges that gap. Certainly there have been YA authors, and good ones, who have come to the festival, but those have mostly appealed to middle-grade readers, and I was more interested in roping in the high school and college-aged young people, ages 14 or 24 or thereabout. The answers to how to do that — I hoped — would lay in gathering a group of teachers from public schools, private schools and universities to discuss ideas about what most appeals to young people and how best to procure their voluntary participation, which to me is the biggest challenge — with no tangible reward or prize and with no grades associated, the Student Readers Group has to be something that high school students and college undergrads will want to do.

Choosing Jim Crow and Me by Montgomery attorney Solomon Seay, Jr. (with Delores Boyd as a co-author) came after two rounds of discussions among those teachers, the creation of a book-selection rubric, an open period of taking title suggestions from planning committee members, and the application of that rubric to the suggestions. After several weeks of researching and reporting findings to each other, I proposed that Jim Crow and Me met our most basic criteria by being an Alabama book by an Alabama author, while also meeting our main “want” by offering content that could be used in any humanities classroom — English or social studies or psychology, as examples — and by having subject matter of real practical importance to all people living this state In the book, Seay tells a plethora of stories about legal, political and social struggles for equality during and after the Civil Rights movement, providing narratives of a range of situations and scenarios in which he worked. Being realistic, I expect our strongest participation to come from students in and around the Montgomery area (due to the costs of travel), and many of Seay’s recollections, though not all of them, are set in many of those areas, in central Alabama and the Black Belt. However, what Seay describes in Jim Crow and Me connects directly any Alabamian’s life, and moreover to any Southerner’s.

We received some very good suggestions for books and for writers we ought to include in the Student Readers Group at future Alabama Book Festivals, but for an inaugural selection, Jim Crow and Me stood out. As a program that is coming out of the Education/Outreach sub-committee, the educational value of the annual Student Readers Group selection has to be unquestionable, and the material in Jim Crow and Me has that quality. Coming from my own ideas, I also wanted it to be clear that the Students Readers Group would not be solely for fiction novels, which in some cases like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Childress’ Crazy in Alabama or Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, have made adept commentaries on Alabama and its culture, but plenty of nonfiction books have too — like Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’, Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, and Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes. Hopefully, when we get back together next year to discuss the second annual book selection, we will get even more good suggestions and pick a book that will enhance the program’s offerings to students and teachers even more.

For now, I’m encouraging all high school students in grades 9-12 and college undergraduates in Alabama to consider reading Jim Crow and Me with us and then coming to the Alabama Book Festival at 9:00 AM on the third Saturday in April. Solomon Seay, Jr. will be there to discuss the book, to take questions, and to autograph books.

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