By Sam Piha
Daniel Summerhill is an Oakland native and a poet, spoken word artist and college professor. He recently led a ten-week writing workshop for young black men in Oakland which explored what it means to be young and black in today’s day and age. A collection of their work from that workshop was recently published in the new book Black Joy: An Anthology of Black Boy Poems.
I first heard Daniel Summerhill interviewed on KALW radio. Listen here. You can also view some of Daniel’s spoken word/poetry on his YouTube channel.
We thought that Daniel could help us in better understanding the intersection of equity and literacy. This post includes his responses to our interview questions.
Young folks of color have a different lane into literacy and the world of literature. Most of the canon is Eurocentric and is pretty well guarded to keep it that way. The canon as it stands may not be appealing to young people of color because they don’t see themselves in it.
Q: There are many people that believe that young people of color and those from low-income communities are not interested in writing or reading. Do you think this is a result of a “bias” issue? Would you also include this in a discussion of equity?
A: Absolutely. That notion is simply not true. In my experience as both a product of a low-income upbringing and my time teaching, I have found that young folks of color don’t have access to a catalog of genres/titles. Just as there is no one size fits all model for pedagogy, there is no one size fits all model for reading and writing. I wasn’t exposed to Shakespeare as a child, and honestly, I don’t know that I would have been interested if I had been. I was much more interested in Hip Hop Culture because that’s what I related to.
Young folks of color have a different lane into literacy and the world of literature. Most of the canon is Eurocentric and is pretty well guarded to keep it that way. The canon as it stands may not be appealing to young people of color because they don’t see themselves in it. That is what I discovered once I reached high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to read, it was that I didn’t like to read things that made me feel “othered" or “separate” or “inferior.” It is all about finding what piece of reading interests you. The writing comes naturally after you find the right book.
Q: How did you get involved in writing? Was there an adult that encouraged you?
A: I began writing in middle school. The first person who served as a catalyst for the poetry already inside me was my oldest sister, Tenesha Smith. She is a poet as well. When I was just 12 years old, I found a journal of poems she had written while she was in high school. All it took was for me to recognize what words were capable of. In particular, she wrote a poem called Wishing Upon a 747. In the hood, stars aren’t visible, so her poem, a play on the Wishing on a Star idiom, showed me that I could also use my culture and my discourse to share that story, that vantage point.
Once I got to High School, I had an English teacher named Mr. Ross. We did a unit on poetry. We wrote poems and then we shared them with the class, mine was received well. The next day after class, he pulled me to the side, bought me a brand-new journal, and wrote in it: “so much talent, never waste it.” Til this day, I still have that journal and I have been looking for Mr. Ross to let him know the effect that day had on my career.
Q: Was there a time or event that got you interested in reading? Was there an adult that encouraged you?
A: During the same time Mr. Ross bought my journal, he also bought me my first book. It was called The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty. It is a great book and I highly recommend it to any young person (high School). Him buying me a book based on what he knew about me helped me realize that there was a world of writing separate from To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies.
When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.
Q: We have found that young people greatly enjoy reading, being read to, and express themselves through writing be it through journaling or poetry/spoken word. Can you comment?
A: Human beings by nature are empathic. We want to connect and to be understood and heard. For a young person, this is true even more as they are discovering their voice. It is up to adults to provide a scaffold or framework in which they can discover their voice. Poetry, reading, writing is a multifunctional way to accomplish this. Not only are they improving their literacy skills, but they are also learning how to critically think, how to articulate, how to convey information, how to rebel, how to advocate, and how to safely release emotions. All it takes is encouragement, a pen and a paper. Poetry in particular, is universally economical that way.
Q: Can you provide any advice on how to engage young people in out-of-school in reading or writing, especially those who are turned off by school?
A: If a student is turned off by school, it usually isn’t the student’s fault. It is because adults haven’t found the right method/environment of teaching for that young person. As we all know, there are a slew of different pedagogical methods, and many ways kids learn. Again, human beings are wired to learn. Whether it be in a classroom or in the streets, learning is inevitable. The key to fostering a safe and successful environment is discovering the student’s interest and the ways that they learn. This goes for outside of school as well. “What activity can you engage them in that will aid in their development?” is the question you should ask.
Q: We have found that older youth enjoy books that are read aloud- something rarely done in after school programs. Do you have book recommendations for young people of color?
A: Chike and the River, Everyday Use by Alice Walker and One Friday Morning by Langston Hughes. Also, check out some poetry collections. They are awesome to read out loud. Some good ones are Joshua Bennett’s’ The Sobbing School and Dreaming in Kreyol by Danielle Collins.
Q: Do you have any book recommendations that young people may enjoy reading alone?
A: It is sometimes challenging for young people of color to retain information when it comes to narrative. I have used short stories to combat this. Lost in the City, a collection of short stories by Edward P. Jones is a brilliant collection to tap into. Best of all, it is a collection of short stories through the lenses of young people. All American Boys is another favorite of mine, by a good friend Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds. Anything by Chinua Achebe.
Hailing from Oakland, CA, Daniel B. Summerhill is an assistant professor of poetry/social action and composition studies at California State University Monterey Bay. He is the author of Divine, Devine, Devine (forthcoming), a semifinalist for the Charles B. Wheeler poetry prize. Summerhill holds an MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College (Solstice). He has received the Sharon Olds Fellowship and was nominated to Everipedia’s 30 under 30 list.
Daniel has performed alongside greats such as Jasmine Mans, Abiodun Oyewole, Lebogang Mashile, Gcina Mhlophe and others. He co-headlined a European tour and was invited by the University of Kwazulu-Natal and the U.S. Embassy to teach and perform at the annual International Poetry Africa Festival in 2018. He is the 2015 NY Empire State Poetry Slam Champion and a 2015 Nitty Gritty Grand Slam Champion. His poems are published or forthcoming in the Lilly Review, Califragle, Button, Blavity and elsewhere. A chapter of his research, Black Voice: Cultivating Authentic Voice in Black Writers is forthcoming by the Massachusetts Reading Association.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.