Darren Vincent was 30 years old before he read his first book. His tough neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. offered enough real stories to keep him focused on just trying to survive. He was a young man filled with rage who fought other young men every chance he got.
“I was a hard-headed, young, black boy who didn’t want to pick up a book,” said Vincent. “The first book I read was 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway' by Susan Jeffers. At that moment I realized what I lacked: knowledge. Most of all, I realized that all the information came from books. I used to complain I didn’t have access to information like the guys in the suburbs had. But books taught me that I had access too, if I just read.”
A year after reading his first book Vincent, who everyone calls “Jaz,” opened his first book store in Charlotte, N.C. Today, he owns Red@28, a cultural lounge and restaurant that that hosts book signings by the famous and the up-and-coming. He also produces the Charlotte Literary Festival, featuring popular authors from around the country and local vendors. But Vincent has not forgotten the young, angry boy who did not read, or the difference discovering books made.
On October 16th, he took 18 children to a historic celebration of the life and works of literary icon Toni Morrison at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, one of the event’s hosts, teaches at Virginia Tech. The poet, who befriended Vincent after an appearance at his literary festival, invited the children. The tribute to Morrison included other noted writers, activists and actors reading her works. India.Arie performed a song called “Never Afraid of the Dark,” which she wrote in college after reading Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.
Vincent’s children, ages 8 to 14, were winners of a contest in which he asked participants to write an essay based on the quote attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The winners will have their writings published in a collection coming out next year.
Before the celebration, Morrison and legendary writer Maya Angelou were honored with an award given at a reception on campus. Angelou also opened the evening of tributes to Morrison, enchanting the audience with her personal style chat about life and Morrison.
Vincent’s young writers listened intently to Morrison and Angelou, both of whom are now in their 80s and in wheelchairs. The program was two hours of readings and recitations by some of Morrison’s famous friends and the children sat quietly, their eyes focused on the stage. If they spoke, it was to whisper, “Who is that?” or even, “Which book was that from?”
Among the young winning writers was Maya Clay, 11, who was named after author Maya Angelou.
“When I was little I loved to write poems, something short,” Maya said. “ I didn’t like to read. But then when I got to be in sixth grade and went to the library, I started loving books.”
Her three siblings were also on the trip: Alexis, 12, Tracy Jr., 9, and Gabrielle, 8.
Her sister Alexis said before the event, “I love mystery books that you can’t guess the ending. I’m reading about Maya Angelou now, how her name was Margaret when she was born.”
“They all love to read,” said Evanie Clay, their mother. She takes much of the credit for steering them toward books. Her husband, she said is “a computer techie.” Clay said she was watching a movie where the mother took away the children’s privilege of watching TV and had them read instead. Clay thought that sounded like a good idea so she cut back the children’s television watching to two hours a week.
“The remainder of the time they can go to the library and read,” she said.
A by-product of the rule is that her children read a lot and love books.
Zaylah Nails, 11, went to the program at Virginia Tech accompanied by her mother and father. The family drove from Durham, where they live, while Vincent’s three vans of children and chaperones left from Charlotte.
Nails said her daughter “writes a lot of poems around the house and she writes short stories.” She asked her daughter to prepare for the trip by researching Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
“I got her to look them up so she would get an understanding of who they are and how honored she should be to be selected for the event and the book,” said Nails, who is an author herself . Zaylah’s dad, Eric, is an I.T. analyst.
“I like to write when I’m bored,” said Zaylah. “I write either stories or poems, but I like to read historical nonfiction, or science fiction such as The Hunger Games.
At the end of the night’s festivities, Nikki Giovanni, who agreed to write a forward for the children’s book, came off the stage to meet the young bards and pose with them for photos.
Vincent was delighted for the opportunity to introduce children to real authors and he’s looking forward to the publication next year of the book by the children.
“I have not done the Charlotte Literary Festival for a few years and I didn’t feel I was reaching my goal to do more to encourage kids to read,” he said. “I wanted to find something that will affect kids long term. I wanted children to look at what they could become but to also understand how they can affect the community.”
He insisted the book be a hardback so it would last longer, even if it means it will cost more to publish.
“ I want it to act as a reminder to them of what is possible.”
* Vincent is still looking for 25 more pieces to put into the collection by young writers. If you know a young bard between the ages of 8 and 14 , contact Vincent for more information email@example.com.