Telling a People’s Story: African American Children’s Illustrated Literature has been displayed at the Athens Public Library, 30 Home St., since Nov. 1 and will stay until Dec. 20, showcasing the underrepresented work of African American authors and illustrators.
The exhibit has aspects of social justice, but it goes beyond looking into the adversity of the African American experience, as it celebrates the complex experience through a context intended for children. The exhibit consists of 130 works by 33 artists from 95 books.
“The goal of the exhibit is to call attention to a portion of our country’s history that we don’t focus on enough and bring awareness of the authors and illustrators of the books,” Taryn Lentes, youth services coordinator for Athens County Public Libraries, said.
Telling a People’s Story began at the Miami University Art Museum. There are four other identical exhibitions traveling around to universities, museums, libraries and elementary schools all over the U.S.
“The exhibit goes all the way back to African storytelling and follows through the periods of slavery, the civil rights movement and lastly portraits of modern life,” Lentes said.
Telling a People’s Story contains a mixture of unique experiences of the ancestors of the authors and some of the authors’ own encounters being African American, Lentes said.
“I think it’s got to be incredibly frustrating to look in history books and rarely see yourself reflected back, so it’s important to use this exhibit to call attention,” Lentes said. “It’s also important for students from other backgrounds to develop a sense of understanding and a feeling of empathy.”
The exhibit is set up as a tunnel in the middle of the adult section at Athens Public Library.
“It’s really cool the way we set it up, it gives you a very immersive feeling like you’re walking through history,” Lentes said. “A lot of people will stumble upon it and find it very moving.”
Lentes said that finding diverse children’s literature is something she is always looking for, so Telling a People’s Story piqued her interest.
“I’m interested in children’s literature and shining a light on topics and people that don’t get enough attention, so this is a way to bring both together,” Lentes said.
Athens Public Library will have displays of some of the books that are featured, which are available to check out if anyone would like to do some more exploring on the subject.
Becca Lachman, communications officer for Athens County Public Libraries, said it was decided to bring the panels to the Athens branch because it’s the busiest and has the most space to work with compared to all the public libraries in Athens County.
Lachman said Athens County Public Libraries have been looking at what is in its collection and deciphering who could enter its libraries and feel welcome based on what’s on its shelves.
“Working on diversifying our collection is something we are very adamant about,” Lachman said. “We want people to walk into our libraries and see books that represent them.”
To Lachman, Athens County Public Libraries have a strong art exhibit history, so having an exhibit like Telling a People’s Story is building onto that. She said there has not been an exhibit as large as Telling a People’s Story since she started her position as communications officer.
“I took the time to go through it, and it’s really powerful,” Lachman said. “There’s something about the art that, like, un-numbs you and helps bring about other questions.”
Although Lachman is almost 40 years old, she believes she is still learning so much about African American history. She said Telling a People’s Story does not only consist of material one would learn in elementary school, but it also goes beyond social justice and slavery, celebrating African American experiences.
“OU claims that diversity is a big part of their identity, which takes a lot of hard work and re-educating ourselves,” Lachman said. “So having an exhibit like this that’s focused around books for young ages shows us that recognizing yourself in literature and illustrations is very powerful and starts very young.”
While there are some books that represent other races well, some students believe schools still teach with books that do not portray other cultures in the best light.
“Most of the book lists you are given in high school are written by white people,” Esther Aulis-Cabrera, a sophomore studying English and political science, said. “Books in many of my introductory courses in college have been filled with only white authors. I consistently struggle to find myself represented in literature. One of the main reasons being that not enough of publishing companies want to publish books about people of color and not enough writers are people of color.”