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How Saraciea Fennell Morphed Literary Passion Into Essential Bronx Book Festival

NYC native Saraciea Fennell speaks on how the festival came to be.

Saraciea Fennell's journey with literature has been an integral part of her life since she was a child. During her time in foster care, the NYC native turned to books in order to get lost in an alternate universe while the world continued to press on around her.

"I read books to basically escape real life," Fennell says. "Being in a different environment with strangers, away from family, it was a place that felt like home away from home." Roald Dahl's James And The Giant Peach, and Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret opened up Fennell's imaginative scope which later turned into her love for graphic novels and fantasy passages; Octavia Butler's sci-fi work reserves a special place on Fennell's bookshelf, and she still re-reads The Baby-Sitters Club (but the graphic novel version by Raina Telgemeier, with text adapted from the originals written by Ann M. Martin).

That literary refuge continued to grow in meaning to Fennell's journey and has turned into an event that puts literacy at the forefront for the BX's youth. After closing out a successful Kickstarter to raise funding for Saturday's Bronx Book Festival (May 19), Fennell's idea is within reach, nearly two years after the borough's only Barnes & Noble closed down in Bay Plaza.

Despite this dismal decision, Fennell saw the birth of not only the Bronx Book Festival, but the Bronx Is Reading campaign as a way to deeply engage with her community and provide a space for children and adults to explore literature by authors of color. Since 2012, Fennell, 29, envisioned an outlet that supports the statement "reading is fundamental," but the road to this moment was met with opposition.

"Even though [crowdfunding] was super fast, I really have been working on the seed since 2012, and between 2015 and 2016," she says, "after being hit by several companies and organizations saying, ‘This is a great idea, but we only give money to nonprofits,' which was discouraging, but I decided crowdfunding was the best way to do it and I’m so happy I did it because now the festival is coming."

The event will feature keynote roundtable discussions with authors Daniel Jose Older (Salsa Nocturna) and Elizabeth Acevedo (Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths), writing workshops, a spotlight on young adult writers and queer authors of color plus live readings of works by Wendy Xu (Mooncakes), Sharee Miller (Princess Hair) and others. Before Saturday arrives and Fordham Plaza fills with eager attendees, here's how the festival came to be.

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VIBE: Tell me about your path that has led to this moment of the festival?
Saraciea Fennell: I attended my first book festival as an adult in Brooklyn and I thought it was mind-blowing. I wondered why something like that couldn’t take place in the Bronx. As time went on I kept asking myself, 'Why are all of these really cool literary events happening all around New York City but nothing is really happening in the Bronx?' That was the seed of the idea for the festival and after the Barnes & Noble closed, I decided it was time to do it now. Everyone needs to have literature in their lives and it was important for people of color because the Bronx has a very large population of diverse people and immigrants. I thought it was important to invite authors and creators of color to be a part of this festival so that people who look like me that are brown, black, Latinx, that they can see that this industry exists. People of color are writing books, you can make a career out of this. I also want more people of color to work in book publishing. It’s a very white industry so it would be an excellent opportunity for people in the community to come out, learn more about book publishing and to also support authors of color. I think just to see that representation will open up so many doors for so many people.

I also came across your Bronx Is Reading initiative. How will this festival combat the notion that the borough's residents have no interest in reading given the lack of bookstores in certain communities?
With the Bronx Is Reading program, that program is only open to Title 1 schools. Through the application process, we had so many schools that applied. We had to turn them down so we’re hoping that they apply again for next year. This year we’re going to have three authors visiting three to four Title 1 schools. That’s 600 kids that are about to get books for free. I’m super pleased and so thankful to the authors for coming out. The festival purchased 200 copies of each of those authors’ books to give away to these students. It’s just a way to reimagine my past because I never had a school visit from an author or illustrator so this program is really special to me because I want children of color who come from really tough circumstances and maybe have never been in a bookstore and have only seen books in a library and can’t afford to buy books, I want them to see that this is something special for them and they don’t have to worry about the cost of it. It’s all paid for and handled through the festival and the icing on the cake is they get to also meet a real-life author.

The Barnes & Noble store in Baychester closed due to high rent and may be replaced by a Saks Off 5th. Is there a connection between literature or its lack thereof in marginalized communities and increased costs of living in NYC?
I agree 100 percent. I think that you see nothing but clothing stores and liquor stores and all of these non-educational things popping up in a lot of marginalized communities. It makes it seem like that’s all we care about, that we don’t care about reading or other cultural things that other affluent communities have and it’s just not true. You can just see from this festival, hundreds of people have been sending me messages saying thank you for doing this, this is something the borough has needed, I’m happy to have something in my backyard and not have to go into another borough to get it. I think there’s a direct correlation there. I’m sad to hear that the Barnes & Noble closed and it’s being replaced by a clothing store. It’s like do you really need another one of those?

What were your thoughts on this decision? Did you feel like you ultimately had a responsibility to stress that literacy is fundamental to the youth?
When I heard about it, there was someone who started a petition. I signed the petition and spoke about it to people in my community, like ‘We cannot let this happen.’ From my end, working in publishing as a publicist I tried to get more events confirmed in the Bronx, to get authors in there to speak to people. Unfortunately, the event person who works there was very resistant to confirming authors because they thought no one is going to show up. I’m said, ‘If you book it, maybe people will show up’ because hundreds of people signed that petition to keep the store open. I really wished that they would have upped their events after that because there was so much attention there but unfortunately I couldn’t book anything and I was really bummed by that. So having this festival really makes me excited because I’m like here is the community, these people are here for it. The festival is free but I did an Eventbrite and there are about 500 people confirmed saying that they’re coming. That’s an amazing number for a festival. I had that link up for two and a half weeks.

What’s the significance of holding the festival in Fordham Plaza?
That’s one of my favorite places in the Bronx. That’s where I bought a lot of my books because there weren’t any bookstores. I would buy them from the street vendors that were showcasing their work on the sidewalk when I would walk down the hill from school. It’s also the location of one of my favorite libraries which is the Bronx Public Library Center and then also it’s central to the Bronx. The Metro-North stops there, there’s some Westchester County buses that stop there. There’s some express buses from all over the Bronx that stop there from the North and South Bronx. That was really important to me to give access to everyone in the Bronx, not to cater just to the North or South Bronx, but the entire Bronx. It’s really accessible and easy for people to get to.

Do you think given the recent closures of Barnes & Noble stores across the country, that independent bookstores will begin to see an increase in foot traffic?
I think so. Indies already have a very strong following and it’s because they’re so engaged in the community. At this point, Barnes & Noble is sort of like an independent bookstore because they’re in jeopardy. I think they need to actually start to think like an independent bookstore and rebuild those partnerships with their community. That actually might make a change.

In 2013, the New York Post wrote an article stating 79.3 percent of NYC's high school students entering CUNY schools lacked basic reading skills. In terms of this city's education system, what do you think could've been the cause of that statistic?
Speaking in the Bronx in particular, schools not having fleshed out libraries is an issue. The Common Core thing was an issue where they were having people graduate just because they couldn’t hold them back anymore. There were just so many things that played a part in it, but as far as having access to books, in particular, I think that was probably one of the huge impacts in the Bronx. Not having a bookstore or having one, which was the Barnes & Noble all the way in the North Bronx that many people didn’t visit was a huge issue. The Bronx is made up of mostly Title 1 schools and Title 1 schools have really slim pickings in their school libraries. There are teachers that are going out to buy books for their students because there is no funding. Books and reading are really important and we need to fix this issue. The only way to do that is exposure and showing representation because there’s literally a book out there for every type of person. People who say they don’t like to read, I get it, but reading is fundamental. We need to get people out of that mindset and to get them reading.

It’s interesting that you said there’s a book out there for everyone. There's a professor who said to The Atlantic that instead of teachers assigning general reading requirements, they should assign texts or passages according to each student's reading level. What are your thoughts on that idea?
I think that’s interesting, that might work. I know that there are a lot people who feel discouraged if they can’t read at the same level as their peers. It could be heartbreaking for you to realize you’re reading on a fifth grade level if you’re in eleventh grade and the things that are being assigned to you, you can’t really read and digest them. Instead of forcing someone to read something they can’t digest, giving them something that’s more guided to their reading level is smart.

Visit The Bronx Book Festival webpage here for more information.

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LeBron James: “The Most Disrespected Person On Earth Is The Black Woman”

LeBron James shared a powerful statement in reaction to the lack of justice in the murder of Breonna Taylor, and promised to do his part to bring about change.

“The most DISRESPECTED person on Earth is THE BLACK WOMAN! I promise you I’ll do my best to change this as much as I can and even more!!! Love to you Queens all over this country and beyond,” James tweeted on Wednesday (Sept. 23) along with a shout out to some of the women in his family.

The most DISRESPECTED person on earth is THE BLACK WOMAN! I promise you I’ll do my best to change this as much as I can and even more!! LOVE to you QUEENS all over this country and beyond! 👸🏽👸🏾👸🏿❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 24, 2020

Grandma Freda, Gloria Marie, Savannah Rachael, Zhuri Ann Marie Nova I LOVE YOU MY BLACK QUEENS more than life itself!! 👸🏾🖤🖤🖤🖤

— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 24, 2020

Mema Brinson, Deidra Norris, Pam Walker, Tanesha Walker, Chanelle Walker, Brenda Weems, Caddie Powers I LOVE YOU Queens!!! 🖤🖤🖤🖤🖤

— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 24, 2020

As previously reported, a grand jury decided not to charge officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove for killing Taylor during a police raid. Hankinson, a former officer of the Louisville Metro Police Department, faces three counts of wanton endangerment, but the charges were not related to Taylor being killed.

Collin Kaepernick also took to Twitter with a few thoughts: “The white supremacist institution of policing that stole Breonna Taylor’s life from us must be abolished for the safety and well being of our people.”

Read more reactions below.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

I am just at a loss for words.... 💔

A post shared by Kelly Rowland (@kellyrowland) on Sep 23, 2020 at 5:23pm PDT

Dear Breonna,

I’m so sorry the people in power have failed to get this right. You deserve so much more. Your life mattered. You deserved the bright future that was ahead of you. We will continue to say your name. We will continue to fight in your name. #BreonnaTaylor pic.twitter.com/31M3ndOloK

— DWade (@DwyaneWade) September 24, 2020

They never get it right and that doesn't make it hurt any less. Breonna Taylor should still be with us and her family deserved justice today. Tired of this shit.

— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) September 23, 2020

Bulls--- decision!!! BLACK LIVES MATTER!!! Cannot be said enough times. https://t.co/HOrDQzHJ0d

— Viola Davis (@violadavis) September 23, 2020

Amen 🙏🏽 shit is sooo sad and discouraging. https://t.co/2ex3OImFpv

— iamcardib (@iamcardib) September 23, 2020

Another innocent black life gone with no consequences!! Breonna Taylor was 26, a daughter, a cousin, a friend, a girlfriend, an ER technician, an AMERICAN. 💔

— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 24, 2020

Understand what that truly means because Accountability needs to occur in a new way. Word is Bond to the Father. Let’s not be sorry, Let’s correct this fucking Error. Rest Easy Queen #BREONNATAYLOR pic.twitter.com/dzWTtV90Zl

— Busta Rhymes (@BustaRhymes) September 24, 2020

#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor#JusticeForBreonnaTaylor pic.twitter.com/eURn5iMQrl

— COMMON (@common) September 23, 2020

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Kanye West Says He’s Giving G.O.O.D. Music Artists Back What He Owns Of Their Masters

After nearly two weeks of speaking out against Universal Music Group and Sony/ATV, Kanye West has promised to do his part to help artists on his G.O.O.D. Music label imprint.

“I’m giving all Good music artist[s] back the 50% share I have of their masters,” West tweeted on Wednesday (Sept. 23). Big Sean, who signed with West’s label more than a decade ago, thanked West for the gesture.

Thank you!!! This would help so much 🙏🏾 https://t.co/6yR3fAKlwB

— Sean Don (@BigSean) September 23, 2020

The move comes as West spoke with Billboard to further discuss his plans to “free artists” from oppressive record deals.

“The desired effect will only be achieved when every artist owns their masters,” said West. “I’m Team ‘Free Artists.’ I’m committed to doing whatever is necessary so artists own their own copyrights. The response is awesome because everyone knows this is a broken system that needs to be fixed. Currently, artists take advances to make records and yet when they repay those advances the record company still owns the records.”

West said that he is in talks with Universal, and their parent company Vivendi, but reiterated that he wants to fix “everyone’s situation,” along with his own. “My brand and influence goes way beyond just music and that of course is meaningful to Vivendi, as it is to Adidas and many other conglomerates. If that helps me be able to help free all artists, of course I’m going to use it,” West explained.

“You only need to look back to the early days of the record companies and see how predatory they were,” he continued. “Old execs admit it. The contracts are almost the same now. The shape, the terminology... And yet, in that time we moved to a completely digital age. Has the attitude of the labels and the structure in which our music moves on our side changed to that degree? No, it has not. You’re locked in; once you’re locked in you can ask no questions.”

Despite his feelings on UMG and Sony/ATV, West hasn’t closed the door on working with the label giants in the future. “I will work with anyone who treats artists fairly and righteous. They do that , I will partner with them in bringing music to life. I will redesign the whole process.”

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Former Louisville Cop Brett Hankison Charged, But Not For Killing Breonna Taylor

Former and current officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department, Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, were facing potential indictments for killing Breonna Taylor, but only one was charged in connection with the case, Louisville Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced on Wednesday (Sept. 23).

The grand jury opted to indict Hankison, who was fired from the department in June, on three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree for firing recklessly and endangering neighbors on the night of Taylor’s murder. Hankison was not charged for her death. If convicted on all three charges, he faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Cameron stated that he spoke with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer ahead of the announcement. He called the 26-year-old emergency room tech’s death a “tragedy,” before revealing “facts” in the case, which concluded that all of the officers acted lawfully.

“There was no video or body camera footage of the officers’ attempted execution of a search warrant at Ms. Taylor’s residence. Video footage begins at the point that area patrol officers arrive at the location. And therefore, the sequence of events from March 13th had to be pieced together through ballistics evidence, 911 calls, police radio traffic, and interviews,” said Cameron, who denied that police were executing a no-knock warrant in the early morning hours of March 13. Louisville moved to ban no-nock warrant’s after Taylor’s death.

Mattingly, Cosgrove and Hankison were called on as “extra personnel” during the raid on Taylor’s home, and only had information that was “conveyed” during a prior briefing, according to Cameron. Another unnamed officer filed the warrant.

“Evidence shows that officers both knocked and announced their presence at the apartment. The officer’s statement about their announcement are corroborated by an independent witness who was near in proximity to [Taylor’s apartment],” continued Cameron. “In other words, the warrant was no served as a ‘no-knock warrant.’ When officers were unable to get anyone to answer or open the door the decision was made to breach the door.”

Mattingly was the “first and only officer” to enter the residence, where he saw two people (Taylor and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker), Cameron said. Both Taylor and Walker were unaware that police were raiding the residence and were sleeping prior to being woken up by the commotion. Mattingly observed Walker in a “shooting stance” and was shot in the upper thigh, Cameron said.

“Seargent Mattingly returned fire down the hallway. Mattingly fired six shots. Almost simultaneously, Detective Cosgrove also in the doorway, shot 16 times. This all took place in a matter of seconds,” Cameron said. “In total, six bullets struck Ms. Taylor. Medical evidence obtained by our team indicates that only one shot was fatal.” Cameron added that Crossgrove fired the fatal shot and that Taylor died within seconds. However, Walker told authorities that Taylor struggled to breathe for at least five minutes. She went untreated for more than 20 minutes.

“I think it is worth repeating again our investigation found that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in their use of force after having been fired upon by Kenneth Walker,” Cameron reiterated.

Cameron does not plan to release the grand jury indictment. When asked about the racial breakdown of his team he replied, “Well I’m Black. And I speak for the entire department.”

Benjamin Crump, one of the attorney’s representing Taylor’s family called the charges “outrageous and offensive to her memory.” Read his full statement below.

Today’s indictment is outrageous and offensive to Breonna Taylor’s memory, yet another example of no accountability for police. Full statement: (1 of 2) pic.twitter.com/pmurOrV5My

— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) September 23, 2020

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