Saint Mary’s welcomes Jacqueline Woodson for annual Christian Culture Lecture
Genevieve Coleman | Wednesday, September 29, 2021
This year’s annual Christian Culture Lecture featured author Jacqueline Woodson, who spoke on the power literature has on children and participated in a question-and-answer session with College President Katie Conboy.
Conboy introduced Woodson, who as a child, was known to write on places such as on walls and in books that would get her in trouble with adults.
“But how lucky for all of us that she did not outgrow the writing instinct,” Conboy said. “Those tiny tales and confident signatures inevitably gave birth to her prolific writing career and when I say prolific, I mean she has produced a title every single year over the last three decades.”
Conboy expanded on Woodson’s many accolades including the National Book Award, Newberry Honor Medal, Hans Christian Anderson Award and the MacArthur Genius Award.
Woodson began by reading from her picture book “Show Away,” which detailed her matrilineal ancestry. Thinking back to the time when she knew she wanted to become a writer as a child, Woodson remembered the wonder she felt when she crafted literature.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old and I just loved the way that words made me feel,” Woodson said.
Woodson shared a teacher changed her perspective about writing stories after Woodson became infamous for telling lies as a young person.
“I had a teacher who said, ‘Instead of lying, write it down because if you write it down, it’s not a lie anymore. It’s fiction,’” she said. “It was a greenlight into this world and the fact that this thing that I was doing, that one hand could be seen as so deeply morally wrong and on the other hand could be celebrated.”
In addition, Woodson thought about “Show Away” as a story about resisting the odds found in oppressive systems.
“It’s its own tale of survival,” she said. “The fact that I’m here because someone persevered and then someone else persevered and then someone else persevered — in the same way that I’m sure so many of you are here when you look back on the struggles of your ancestors … We’re here because someone had the will to do the work and push back against the systems that were trying to erase us.”
In regards to the concept of banned books, Woodson described the importance of remembering the difficult parts of history in order to create a better world.
“When we look at the importance of knowing history, I always think of that idea of if you know where you come from, you’ll know where you’re going and if you know what happened before, you won’t repeat it,” she said. “If we continue to try to erase the history that makes us uncomfortable in this country, we are destined to repeat the same mistakes.”
Woodson made a clear distinction between what she called “navel gazing” — or writing superficially — and writing about the greater good. She noted her writing often stems from having questions, not answers.
Speaking directly to younger members of the audience, Woodson urged them to take on work that feels purposeful to them.
“If I don’t say anything else to you tonight, let the work you choose to do be meaningful and let it bring you joy because if that happens, your joy is going to help change the world,” she said.
Woodson then recalled growing up and noted her mother’s skepticism about Woodson’s writing career and how Woodson has had to accept her own daughter’s aspirations to become an actor. Because of her experience in both roles, Woodson gave both parents and young adults advice about not making choices they will later regret, especially in this moment of the pandemic.
“Parents, support the young people, even if they want to do sketch comedy,” she said. “Young people, think about what brings you joy and do it, as long as it’s legal.”
Before the pandemic, Woodson made school visits where she noticed a distinct difference in the imaginative dreams of elementary school students compared to the apathy of middle school students.
“I wondered where the dream got broken — where they got the message what they wanted to do was not okay and it always saddened me,” she said.
Woodson read an excerpt of her novel “Another Brooklyn” and spoke about how she purposefully integrated traditions of grieving from other cultures to counter the traditions in America, which do not allow individuals adequate time to grieve after the death of a loved one, she said.
Woodson concluded her lecture by reading selected poems from her book “Brown Girl Dreaming” and reflected on her family as she was growing up.
Conboy then asked Woodson about her response to the intense changes that young people are currently experiencing during the pandemic.
“I think that’s it’s a really hard time in this country in so many ways and as long as we do the little bit that we can do to make it better for ourselves and others when we get to that other side, I promise that it’ll be worth the struggle,” Woodson said.
Woodson then explained her idea generation process and walked the audience through reading like a writer in order to grow as one.
“It means reading slowly and deeply engaging with the text, so that when you get to a point and it makes you cry, go back in the reading and find out exactly what words the author used to make you feel that way,” she said.
To conclude the evening, Woodson explained that by reading classic fairy tales and fables as a child, she knew how she wanted to tell stories herself.
“I wanted to tell stories that made me feel a certain way and a lot of times people talk about how you intend for your reader to feel and I’m not thinking about the reader,” she said. “I’m thinking about me and how I feel.”