- InterventionsAn Interview with Kwame Alexander
Wordsmith extraordinaire and literacy activist, Kwame Alexander has touched and transformed lives across the world. Born in Virginia and raised in New York City by activist-scholar parents (a history professor dad and English teacher mom), a life dedicated to the transformative power of words and boots-on-the-streets social justice action was the air Kwame breathed. In college at Virginia Tech, this would materialize in student protests against, for instance, the university's ties to South African apartheid as well as curricular demands such as for Black Studies. It also materialized in his singular dedication to the craft of writing as a means to powerfully expand imaginations and throw open doors to positive ways of seeing and transforming the world.
Kwame's journey had many bumps in the road, but he never let "NO" define him. Today he is the award winning, New York Times bestselling author of over thirty-two books of poetry, YA and Children's literature, and nonfiction. Kwame often uses a splendorous range of poetic devices to convey and capture the inner workings and outer actions of girls and boys of color growing up in the US. Touching on themes that are at once detailed and specific to a panoply of characters anchored in time and place as well as exploring universal conundrums and truths, Kwame's books have captured the minds of all types and generations of readers from around the world. In novels such as He Said, She Said: A Novel (2013), the Newbery-Award winning The Crossover: A Novel (2014), Booked (2016), Rebound (2018), and coauthored books such as Solo (2017) and Swing (2018), Kwame transmutes narrative and poetic forms and blurs lines between so-called high-brow and low-brow culture in ways that show the world the rich and complex ways that youth of color exist today. Kwame breathes life into histories otherwise shunned or untold, including in his remarkable corpus of literature aimed at children such as Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band (2011), Surf's Up (2016), the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winning, Out of Wonder (2017), and The Undefeated (2019). In his poetry, fiction, and nonfiction Kwame captures the beauty and complexity of life. He infuses agency into the thoughts and actions of youth today.
In tandem with his extraordinary career as an author, Kwame runs workshops in schools and prisons, created the Barbara E. Alexander Memorial Library and Health Clinic in Ghana, and launched VERSIFY—an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that aims to "Change the World One Word at a Time."
I had the great pleasure of learning from Kwame during a recent visit to Columbus to share his recently published The Undefeated.
Kwame, how do you see your work intervening—socially, politically, intellectually, and creatively during a time when we all feel so crushed by what's going on around us?
I've always been interested in trying to make the world a better place, whether it be my own personal world or whether it be the world at large. So writing has always been a tool to make stuff happen.
I remember standing on the Brooklyn Bridge as an eleven-year-old all fired-up, protesting police brutality. I was scared that the bridge was going to open and we would fall in and die. Finding my voice on that bridge and the power of words grounded me. They made me feel better.
I remember writing a poem a day for a woman that I met on a bus, as a way to court her. I didn't have a whole lot of material stuff, but I had poetry. I could use words to convey my feelings and my interest in her. She ended up marrying me. We've been married for eighteen years.
I remember doing a workshop in a prison for a group of boys. At the beginning of the workshop they were either falling asleep, not paying attention, fighting, or being generally uninterested. At the end of three hours they were begging me to come back. At the end of three months, I helped...