One hundred and forty-nine years ago, Kwame Alexander’s great-great grandfather, March Corprew, found himself in Chesapeake, Virginia, waiting on a pension for his service to the Union that would never come.
Corprew had changed his name to Morts Corpin, because he did not want to put his family in danger if the Union lost the war. And, because Black people were not allowed to read, he would claim he did not know how to spell, even though he had taught himself.
A farmer, Corprew saved his money and used it to build a home for his nine children. Then, along with land, he donated what was left over for the first school for children of color in Chesapeake’s Bells Mill area.
“Every time I walk on that land in Bells Mill, I am recharged,” Alexander said. “I am the great-great-grandson of March Corprew; I have written 39 books. When I think about the role that literature has played in my life, I understand that literature enjoys a sort of permanent authority. … Literature can save us.”
Alexander, a Newbery Medal-winning author whose books have appeared four times on the CLSC Young Readers list, spoke about his writing journey and the power words have to inspire at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater to continue the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Six theme, “A Life of Literature.” The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Class of 2023 were guests of honor, seated front and center for the lecture.
When Alexander was 3 years old, he lived on New York City’s Upper West Side while his parents were in graduate school studying children’s literature at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“I was surrounded by books,” he said. “Books were punishment and reward in my house.”
He described his father as a “staid and incomprehensible academic,” but his mother made reading cool. She read him poetry from Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni and – his favorite at the time – Dr. Seuss.
One day, while he waited for his mom to pick him up from preschool, he decided he would build her a block house to show her how excited he was to see her. Just as she entered the classroom door, another child kicked the building over. His response was Seuss-ian.
“I walk up to him with the only weapons I have, my words,” Alexander said. “I say, ‘Those were my blocks that you flipped, lest you want a quick payback, better fix my quick blocks stat.’ ”
The teachers told his mother that Alexander was arrogant and intimidated the other kids with his words.
“My mother said, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said. “This was the first moment I understood the power of words.”
By the start of high school, Alexander had a different opinion working for his father’s publishing company as a project assistant. His role mostly consisted of licking stamps, selling books and reading the dictionary and his father’s dissertations. He had grown to loathe books.
At age 16, he joined his father on a trip to London for a Black publishers’ conference. Tasked with running book sales at their table, Alexander decided to read their collection. One book stuck out the most for him, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, who he met on the trip.
After returning to school, his teacher assigned his class a 30-page essay on any book of their choosing. Naturally, Alexander chooses Things Fall Apart. He said he knew the paper was good, having just had dinner with the book’s author, but when it was returned to him he received an F.
After asking his teacher why she failed him, she said his paper was college level and there was no way he could have written it. His father and mother had to visit the school before the grade was changed to an A.
“But what about the kids who don’t have parents to go up to the school?” Alexander said. “How are they going to know their worth”
It was in this moment he decided he wanted to spend his life using words to help young people find their worth, he said.
After graduating college, he started writing love poems, or what one publisher called “pick-up lines.” Undeterred by their rejections, he continued searching for career opportunities where he could write. One day, he saw an ad in the newspaper for a job visiting schools to teach poetry. He was hired.
The first visit he made in the role was to an alternative school. He recalled walking through metal detectors, being frisked by staff and having a dog sniff him before entering a class of about 20 kids. He now had the challenge of grabbing their attention.
“I stand on a chair, and I scream at the top of my lungs: ‘I got up this morning feeling good and Black, thinking Black thoughts. I did Black things, like played all my Black records and minded my own Black business. I put on my best Black clothes, walked out my Black door, and, lord have mercy, white snow,’ ” he said, reciting Jackie Earley’s poem “1,968 Winters.”
For the next four years, Alexander continued writing, publishing books and visiting schools. Then, he got an opportunity to speak at the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.
When he arrived at the school he was confused to see it surrounded by barbed wire. It was a prison for teens convicted of drug offenses. Before entering the classroom he went through a metal detector, got sniffed by a dog and a guard wished him luck.
“I go in the classroom, there are maybe 20 boys, many of whom look like me in orange jumpsuits, and there’s no life in their eyes,” he said.
Unsure of what to do, Alexander started a call and response poem:
“Kicks so hot, his feet glow. Moves so cold, you see snow. Tall as a cypress tree, bro. Game so lit, makes seeds –”
“In your face, 3D show. Game so deep, it’s be –”
“Air so swift, you breathe slow. Watch me fly from the freethrow. Superman is sweet, yo. But Kwame is my –”
He spent the rest of his time that day leading students in writing haikus. When he returned home, he told his wife he did not plan on going back. She responded that the students probably did not expect him to in the first place.
At that, he changed his mind, and for the next six months he ran the workshop, which later resulted in a published book of poetry by the students, titled Concrete Dreams. After the workshop came to an end, one of the boys, now living in a halfway house, asked Alexander if he could buy a few copies to sell on the street. A few days later, he told Alexander he needed to “re-up” — but he didn’t mean drugs; he wanted more books.
“Words and literature can change our lives,” Alexander said.
By this point, Alexander had yet to manage financial success from his writing. Recently laid off from his 11th job, and caring for his newborn daughter, he decided to apply for a paid writing fellowship in Brazil. Backed by recommendation letters from Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, he was confident he would be chosen.
He was denied.
Instead of applying elsewhere, Alexander planned his own fellowship. He rented a villa in Tuscany, Italy, and invited nine other writers to the Kwame Alexander International Fellowship. In July 2010, the group embarked for the three-week writers trip.
“I know how powerful words are, and I know they can change your life,” he said, thinking to himself, “I need this to change mine.”
After the first week, surrounded by a personal chef and a pool, he struggled to find inspiration. After the second week, surrounded by cafes and vineyards, he still struggled to write. Then, on the third week, he passed a farm with chickens and roosters – and the roosters looked as though they were partying.
Inspiration struck. If the chickens were partying, there had to be some music at this party. If there was music, it had to be live music. If there was live music, the rooster was playing the guitar, and his cousin Duck Ellington was playing, too.
For the next hour, Alexander wrote the first draft of the children’s book Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band. Later, when he finally got the book published, he was on job No. 17. If he wanted to make a living writing, he had to make the book a success.
So, Alexander traveled along the East Coast quickly selling out of the story at farmers markets. When publishers got wind of the story, he was invited to a book conference. There, a woman told him he should write a novel for young readers.
For the rest of the summer, Alexander did just that. He walked away from his writing space – a Panera Bread – with the first draft for The Crossover.
Written entirely in verse, the book tells the story of two twin brothers, Josh and Jordan, who love playing basketball. Its themes of family, trust, honesty, responsibility and being true to yourself serve as the backbone of the book. As a rift grows in the brothers’ bond, Jordan makes a bet: If he makes the last shot in the game he gets to cut Josh’s locs, which are central to his identity.
Alexander recited Josh’s response to the bet:
“If my hair were a tree / I’d climb it. / I’d kneel down beneath / and enshrine it. / I’d treat it like gold / and then mine it. / Each day before school / I unwind it. / And right before games / I entwine it. / These locks on my head, / I designed it. / And one last thing if / you don’t mind it: / That bet you just made? / I DECLINE IT.”
Publishers rejected the book 18 times, Alexander said, because of the prevailing belief that boys do not read poetry, and girls do not read sports books. Now working job No. 21, he put the book away in a drawer. But then, he remembered everything he learned from his father and great-great grandfather.
He published the book himself, and the next week he received an email from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. The Crossover became a hit with students across the country, and a year later it won the Newbery Medal. In April 2023, Disney released a television adaptation of the novel.
Alexander then set out on a book tour, which brought him to a school in Wagner, Pennsylvania. A majority white school in a county that went 75% for former President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Alexander was unsure how students there would perceive his writing. When he walked into the school, he saw rows of kids dressed in basketball jerseys excited to hear him read.
At the same time, he was running a fundraiser to build a library for a school in Ghana he had visited that had 200 students but no walls, no computers and no books. Before he left the stage, three students walked out with a check for $3,875. The school was so moved by his writing, he said, they were inspired to raise money for his library project.
“Books are windows where you can look out and see other people and become more empathetic,” Alexander said. “Books are also mirrors.”
Alexander also shared a video from a student thanking him for inspiring him to do well in school.
“Never doubt for a second the power of literature to change a life,” he said. “Our kids need to be able to imagine a better world and their place in it. And what better way to start it than through the pages of a book?”