Plaid Cloth Literary Society members, friends, and listeners gathered on the second floor of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History Wednesday to enjoy a celebration of African American writers, along with a lunch of soup and chicken chili.
Many of the group’s members brought along books, sheets of paper, and e-readers containing poetry, essays, biographies, short fiction, and excerpts from books.
The gathering was part of the nationwide African American Read-in, which has attracted more than 1 million participant across the nation over the past 25 years.
Emma Jean Tucker welcomed Mayor Deborah Cochran, who read a proclamation stating Feb. 19, as African American Read-in Day this year in Mount Airy.
Cochran said she was glad to be there, and added that she has “so many bookcases at home.” “Books are my friends. People ask to borrow my books, and I say ‘that’s fine, but please bring my friends back.’”
The mayor brought along two special guests — the district representative for 6th U.S. District Rep. Howard Coble’s office, Brad Langston, who read an excerpt from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” and Teresa O’Dell, 2014 candidate for Surry County Clerk of Court.
“Citizens are urged to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month by hosting an African American Read-in day…we urge all citizens to participate and make a celebration of African American literacy a traditional part of activities…,” Cochran read from the proclamation, followed by a round of applause from those in attendance. She added that she had been talking about the read-in on the radio for several weeks — Cochran is not only the mayor of Mount Airy, she is also a DJ for WSYD.
Bettye Barrett, an original member of the literary society as well as a museum board member, said the Plaid Cloth Literary Society began in March 2011 with four people who met at Pages Bookstore. “We decided we wanted to form a book club…and also promote literacy in the county. We meet once a month, on the second Wednesday of each month, and we want more members — everyone is welcome.”
Emma Jean Tucker said that she went to an African American Read-in at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem four years ago with her sister, Rosa Opoulos, which inspired them to begin one in Mount Airy. “And out of our first one came the Plaid Cloth Literary Society, so it was a great beginning, and there are people here now who were there for the first one.”
Tucker said they record the names of readers each year, along with what they read, in order to report for the official read-in “report card.” She said that according to the website’s information about last year’s read-in, 264,504 people participated across the nation, with North Carolina having the honor of having the most, with more than 50 groups reporting in the state.
Barrett announced to the group that author Rhayne Marcella Thomas, who wrote the book “Gracie-isms: My Mother’s Lists of Southern Sayings & My Job to Interpret the Consequences,” would be speaking to the Mount Airy Rotary Club in May, and asked if the literary society would be interested in extending Thomas an invitation to speak to the group. She also read several excerpts from the “Gracie-isms” book, which contains sayings that the author’s mother passed on to her, along with Thomas’ adult interpretations.
Many other literary works were read aloud by those in attendance, including Langston Hughes’ poems “The Dream Keeper,” “Winter Moon,” “Winter Sweetness,” and “Mother to Son;” Maya Angelou’s poems “Call Letters: Mrs. V.B.;”a reading of the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” which was written in code to lead slaves to freedom; Lucille Clifton’s “Memory;” Nikki Giovanni’s “The Aunt;” and an excerpt from James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.”
A special guest reader was announced by Tucker, who proceeded to play a recording of Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” — “I’ve known rivers:/I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins./My soul has grown deep like the rivers… .”
A book entitled “Tobe” by Stella Gentry Sharpe from Chapel Hill, published in 1939, was passed around for everyone to enjoy.
The story of “Tobe” was written by Gentry because a little boy from her neighborhood asked her why all children’s books were only about white children, which inspired her to write her on story about an African American child. She recruited the help of a photographer, Charles Farrell from Yadkin County, who worked for the “Greensboro Daily News.” Farrell took photos in the Goshen community, which was an African American community near Greensboro, over 50 photos that captured life in North Carolina at the end of the Great Depression.
Biographical information about Josiah Henson was shared with the group, as well as several book recommendations from those in attendance.
Pat Gwyn, branch librarian with the Mount Airy Public Library, brought a book she said she had recently found when doing inventory at the library. “Hope and Dignity in Older Black Women in the South,” by Emily Herring Winston of Winston-Salem, contains a chapter about Sophia Joyce East of Pilot Mountain. Gwyn shared that she thought the book was inspiring, because “if we look around our community and our state, think about how many people could be noted in a book like this again. There are so many people who are only known in their communities for what they do, and they have made huge progress, and we should recognize them, share their stories.”
Surry Community College’s Marion Venable shared a story about finding a wooden box full of stories about the Sawyers family. “Solomon Sawyers was a free colored man in 1840…he met his wife Lucy and married her and they lived in Shoals and raised eight children, and sent all of them to college. We discovered this box in their attic as the house was being torn down.” Tucker said she had seen the box and heard Venable’s presentation about the contents and said she’d love to have Venable share the story with the group sometime.
Sue Stanish shared details about a book called “Far from the Tree” by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, which she said was very inspiring to her. “When I was 16 and living here, I could not wait to leave…then I found myself having to come back home….the feelings and emotions in this book are close to my own…the story of reconciliation and how the past and future come together. It reminds me that not only do we have great history, we also have personal histories that will determine our future and our path.”
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 or on Twitter @MountAiryJess.