Three years ago, friends and former classmates Andria Cole and Malene Kai Bell were talking when they realized something troubling: Neither of their 15-year-old daughters had read The Color Purple…or The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or any of the staples of black literature they considered “seminal texts.”
“Both of us have degrees in English Literature,” says Cole of herself and Bell. “These books changed our lives. We knew we wouldn’t be the women that we are without having read Alice Walker or having been exposed to Sonia Sanchez. They shifted our thinking.”
And now, they thought, it was time for their daughters to experience that shift—and A Revolutionary Summer was born.
The pair initially conceived of the eight-week summer course as something of a book club, where their daughters and a few other teenage girls could read books by black female authors. As they worked on developing a syllabus, however, they soon realized the program had significant potential—through studying writing and literature, these young black girls could build confidence and reshape their understanding of themselves, helping them realize their limitless potential.
“I’m 39,” says Cole, “and I literally only stopped buying into this myth of black inferiority maybe three or four years ago—and that’s even having been exposed to all of these powerful women writers! I want to cut that time in half for these girls. I don’t want them running around thinking that they’re less than until they’re damn near 40 years old.”
The novels, she says, present a different vision of black femininity than is present in society. (For a fabulous post detailing the differences in representation, check out her blog post here.)
“Your options are not limited to stripper, video ho, baby mama,” she says. “That’s not the truth. If you depend on someone else to tell your story, they’re going to get it wrong. You can’t depend on white folks to tell black girls’ stories. If you look to the television or the media, you won’t find yourself there.”
“It’s so important for girls to see themselves reflected in literature,” agrees Joyell Arvella, a friend of Cole’s and volunteer with ARS. “A lot of the girls I’ve been recruiting to apply haven’t even heard of some of these writers, which was shocking—even Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, who you’d definitely think they’d heard of. That’s why it’s really important for them to see writers shifting the narratives of what it means to be black and a woman and spiritual, to have a different orientation, different abilities, different capacities. It’s important for them to see themselves in a different way.”
Though there is a small lecture component, the discussions are often led by the girls themselves—even when the subject matter gets tough.
“We don’t want to stifle their creativity and expression,” says Arvella. “Whenever I interact with girls, especially girls of color, I try not to impose how I think they should or shouldn’t act because they get enough of that from society. The last thing they want is someone telling them “You can’t do that, that isn’t appropriate.” I think they can do that for themselves—within reason.The last thing our community needs is more rules and more regulation.”
This summer, the girls in the program will study Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Sula by Toni Morrison, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker, and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us by Warsan Shire, as well as the film Pariah by Dee Rees, Lauryn Hill’s album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and visual art by Salkis Re.
Cole says that this is fewer texts than her ARS students usually read, but that’s only to make room for a more substantial writing workshop. (“For me, writing is the pinnacle,” she says. “The ability to formulate and express their ideas articulately will help them achieve so much.”) They will also study vocabulary, yoga and meditation, as well as present “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” at summer’s end—a bold undertaking for eight short weeks, but one Cole is more than sure the girls will excel at and embrace.
Another first for this year’s program? The possibility of a $500 stipend for all participants.
“I felt like it would guarantee buy-in,” says Cole. “Not that the girls don’t show up and work hard, because they do. But I wanted to associate the creation of art and study of literature with some sort of payout.”
For those interested in helping with the program, ARS offers a “Sponsor a Daughter” option on their website, with multiple donation tiers covering everything from tuition and books to the aforementioned stipends. Non-financial options include helping with the final production—or even just being there for the performance.
“Showing up is so important,” says Cole. “Our final performance was packed last year, and it felt so good for the girls.”
In fact, Cole admits that even she has been surprised and humbled by the support A Revolutionary Summer has received.
“I thought maybe it was a bit esoteric, that my aspirations were a bit lofty,” she says. “But people really understand the importance of this. They get it.”
Applications for A Revolutionary Summer will be open until June 5. The program will run every Sunday from 12-4 p.m. June 25-August 13 at Exit the Apple Arts Space. To learn more, check out the website here.
Joyell Arvella, J.D. is a racial and gender justice strategist, doula, mentor, and womanist who works with grassroots efforts and organizations to advocate with underrepresented communities. She serves as the Director of Hollaback! Bmore, which raises awareness about ending street harassment, and is a member of Associated Black Charities Board Pipeline Program Cohort XI. Her public interest work focuses on combating global gender and racial structural barriers.Joyell has lived, worked, and volunteered in Africa, Europe, and the United States. She utilizes her legal and public interest skills to address the intersections of race/ethnicity, equity, violence against women and girls, incarceration, health, and environmental justice.
Andria Nacina Cole’s short stories have appeared in City Paper, Baltimore Urbanite, The Feminist Wire, Hamilton Stone Review, and Fiction Circus, among others. Ploughshares recently published her novella Men Be Either Or, But Never Enough, available for download on Amazon and Audible. She is the recipient of five Maryland State Arts Councils awards, one of which was the organization’s top prize for fiction. Currently, she supports Baltimore schools and communities in her role as a restorative practices specialist. Nothing makes her happier, prouder, or more afraid than raising Sol (17) and Jagger (2), her cute, funny, sharp, clingy, and messy baby loves.