One Woman Changing the World + Langston

Shout out to Dena Simmons. She has Antiguan roots


Screen grab from interview in which Dena talks about her mother being her inspiration.

(her mother is an Antiguan who emigrated to the US), which I discovered when we met at Breadloaf roughly 10 years (wow!) ago. That was a writers’ conference; so, of course, I thought she was a writer – which, she is but she’s also so much more. Hello! She’s changing the world.

She’s one of “theGrio’s 20 Millennial Women Making Moves. It’s a countdown of change agents who are currently getting their shine on in entertainment, politics, technology, social justice, business, sports and other industries. The ladies we’ve handpicked for this inaugural honor are not only outsized talents, but they are leveraging their influence to uplift The Culture.”

It’s a list that includes entrepreneurs Meagan Ward and Arlan Hamilton, art curator Kimberly Drew, musician/singer H.E.R., comediennes Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (2 Dope Queens) p.s. check out Jessica Williams’ film The Incredible Jessica James (it’s funny), actress Kiki Layne (of a film I haven’t seen yet, If Beale Street Could Talk), writer Angie Thomas (whose book The Hate U Give and the film adaptation I’ve written about here on the blog) and Eve Ewing, Stephanie Lampkin who is transforming hiring in the tech sector, tech entrepreneur Jasmine Arielle Edwards, entrepreneurial activists Afua Osei and Yasmin Belo-Osagie, actress and brand Zendaya, and politician Lauren Underwood.

Dena Simmons, at #11 on the list, is described as an academic, author, and “voice for the voiceless” which, if you’ve ever caught any of her presentations on marginalization in education you’ll agree she is.

Dena from the Bronx is one of those who having walked a path to success wants to make sure it doesn’t become overgrown so that those who come behind have to cut their own. She ‘recounts going “to sleep to the sounds of gunshots” in the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her two sisters and immigrant mother. She never allowed her circumstances, however, to stop her from dreaming beyond her scope and eventually becoming the assistant director of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence. It’s a journey that unfortunately has come at a tremendous cost. “I realized that my own journey to where I am now did not come without its trauma—the erasure of self to fit into a box that was never created for me, the trauma of the White rules I had to follow in order to have doors, otherwise closed, opened for me,” Simmons told theGrio. Because of this, Simmons combines her passions for activism and education and serves as a strong, unwavering voice for causes including school reform, racial equity, diversity, LGBTQIA rights, and anti-bullying. A prolific speaker who has addressed the United Nations, at just 35-years old, her TED Talk on how impostor syndrome affects students of color went viral.’ And that’s not the half of it.

Dena – writer, educator, activist – is working on a book called White Rules for Black People, due out 2021 from St. Martin’s Press. Congrats to her.

And speaking of books…

I saw mention of all these strides and strivings in Dena’s newsletter but really decided to blog about it when she mentioned a favourite author of mine and a favourite period in literature, Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. I studied Langston and the Renaissance in university and fell in love (Zora Neale Hurston is my forever inspiration from this period but Langston is perhaps my second). I loved loved loved his poetry, I remember sitting on the floor of the library at University of the West Indies and reading his Simple stories (these stories about a character – in both senses of the word), then, of course, there was the novel Not Without Laughter (which I read off right then and there thrilled to discover that one of my favourite poets was not only a short story writer but also a novelist). That said, I knew Langston’s work before I knew him since I grew up seeing Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, a film based on a play my theatre troupe did in College – and though he didn’t write the play, there is clear thematic connection between Langston’s poem Harlem (A Dream Deferred) and the Lorraine Hansberry play. The last time I read Langston was some years ago when the book club I was a part of read one of his short story collections. And it was Dena’s reference to a Langston collection that made me decide to blog about her newsletter. She wrote, “I have been getting into fiction lately, and I would love to recommend, The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes. It is gut-wrenching, subliminal, and poetic. My favorite stories are “Home” and “Father and Son.”‘ Yes, yes and yes. I’m not just here to big up Langston though but to share a bit about how Dena – ever the teacher – advised the teaching of Langston (because I do think, as someone who has two books being read in Caribbean schools + who has tried to be responsive to questions from teachers, it’s some pedagogy worth passing on). She spoke of the linkages you can create in the classroom between what’s happening on the page and what’s happening in the world AND what’s happening in their inner world in response to these external happenings.

She wrote: ‘…you can ask your students to read “Home.” You can also pair this literature study with newspaper stories related to current police-related violence against Black bodies or other historical readings from the setting in the story. Discuss with students similarities and differences from “Home” and the newspaper stories as well as how the author uses prose and emotions to tell a story and to paint the picture of race relations in the United States. The culminating activity could be students’ writing their own short stories or poetry based on current events, a meaningful cause, or a response to “Home” and holding a coffee house for families and the school community to continue the discussions on race relations with the larger community.’

I was involved in a radio discussion just last night on how to make literature relevant – if it is relevant, what is its purpose. Well, here you go, literature can illuminate our world, prompt us to reflect on that world, and maybe take steps to change that world. Art is alive.

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