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Reflecting On Police Shootings, Author Kwame Alexander Focuses On Next Generation


Kwame Alexander is an award-winning poet and children's author. In his writing, Alexander touches on themes of love, education and race. And when he's not writing, Alexander speaks to children in schools around the world. After last week's violence - the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the police officers in Dallas - we asked Kwame Alexander what there is to say about this particular moment in time.

KWAME ALEXANDER: We look at this past week and we look at what's happening in the past year - and these things aren't new. These things aren't novel. These aren't, you know, sort of oh, we're at a crossroads, you know, in our country. I mean, my father wrote about it in 1974 when, you know, he forced me to march over the Brooklyn Bridge to protest police brutality. And that was, you know, when I was 6 or 7 years old. So this is not new. But I'm writing about it from a space of how can I make the world a little bit more beautiful? How can I make the world a little more hopeful?

Does it mean I'm oblivious to what's going on in the world? No. I choose to write for children. I like to make this remark, the snide remark that I've given up on the adults. And it's a half-truth. But the real truth is I really want to focus on the children. I believe strongly that the mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child. And I'd like to spend my life trying to ensure that this next generation of children - including my daughter, my 8-year-old Somaya (ph) - are going to have a better world to be able to imagine for themselves and for their children.

MARTIN: Do you - I mean, she's 8. She's in school. You have to imagine that people talk about this stuff, I guess. I mean, do you - how do you equip her to be able to talk about these issues? I mean, what kind of conversations did you have with her this past week?

ALEXANDER: You know, I'm guilty of, again, trying to protect my child. I want to protect her as much as possible. And so what I realized this week - she came in the room and, you know, I'm watching the news, and I turned it off. She's like, no, no, I want to see what they were saying. And so yeah, I had a conversation with her. And it was sort of - the impetus for that was I got interviewed by this kid reporter this week. I'm at ILA, International Literacy Association, in Boston. And I - and the last question this kid asked me, this 12-year-old, he says, Kwame - or he says, Mr. Alexander. He's very polite. He says, Mr. Alexander, with the tragedies that are happening in Minnesota, in Baton Rouge, in Dallas, what can we do as children to help?

And, of course, that's not a question a child should ever have to ask. What that says to me is we've failed them as the parents, as the adults, as the teachers, as the librarians, as the children's book authors, as the - you know, the adults in their life. If you've got to ask me that question, then we've failed you. And so how do I communicate with my daughter? It's through the power of literature.

And so I say to her (reading) when the world is not so beautiful, the flowers waste water, the women can no longer find their song, the children refuse to play, there are no men to teach to love, the ground inside collapses, the coldest winter screams, the summer burns red, the sea is full of blues and the sky opens up, at least I'll have poetry - a gathering of words, a get-together of emotions, a font of ideas, hope with wings.

MARTIN: Tell me what the reading was that you just did.

ALEXANDER: It was called "When." It was a poem that I wrote 15 years ago. It was about dealing with these moments in our lives. And, you know, Rachel, we've had this conversation before. I believe in my heart that words can be the door to a purposeful, possible, powerful life. And this is not just the black kids, Rachel. We're talking about all the kids because police officers don't start as adults. They are kids at some point.

And so if we don't give them books that are mirrors as well as windows, if they aren't able to see not only themselves, but if they aren't able to see outside of themselves, then how can you expect them to be able to have something in their mind that allows them to connect with this person who looks different, who lives different than they are? You cannot. I choose to focus on that. And it doesn't mean I'm oblivious. Again, I'm in tears just like the rest of us. But I've got to focus on something that's uplifting, and it starts with the kids.

MARTIN: Kwame Alexander. His latest book is called "Booked." Thanks so much for talking with us, Kwame.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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