The U.S. government wants people to read good books, think about them critically and engage other readers in conversation.
To advance this goal, the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, has been administering since 2006 the NEA Big Read program, a grant-making initiative that enables local organizations to select and distribute a title, then organize events that bring readers together.
The NEA has funded more than 1,300 Big Read programs over the course of 11 years, distributing $18 million in funds.
The City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs is among the latest recipients, earning $10,500 for its plan to make Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” available to local residents and arrange a series of Big Read events for September and October. “Citizen” is a critically acclaimed and innovative examination of race and identity in America.
Cultural Affairs will work with the Charleston County Public Library, the city’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker, organizers of the MOJA Festival and staff members of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston. Events likely are to include panel discussions and small-group gatherings, spoken word programs, school outreach and possibly a keynote address. A full schedule will be made available shortly.
“This gives us a chance to take something that’s timely and topical, especially in a community like Charleston, and get people excited about reading the words not just of a contemporary writer, but of contemporary poetry,” said Scott Watson, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs.
Watson said he expects the experience to lead to new “points of discovery and points of inspiration,” and to see their community with fresh eyes.
“At the end of the day, it’s just great to have a big community read where potent ideas and powerful poetry … can instigate discussion.”
Nathalie Caula Hauff, public relations manager for the Charleston County Public Library, said the initiative fits well with the library’s other literacy programs. The main branch will help distribute “Citizen” to interested readers, both in hard copy and digital formats, and it will host about 10 book discussions as well as the kick-off event, Hauff said.
The library was a recipient of a 2006 NEA Big Read grant, which it used to distribute Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and organize related events. So the library can assist the current effort by drawing on past experience, Hauff said.
Joshua Feist, program director at Arts Midwest, said South Carolina libraries, universities and arts organizations have received 14 Big Read awards since 2006.
Applicants choose a book from among dozens of titles on the list and describe how they’ll use the money. Available books meet a set of loose criteria. They are typically by an up-and-coming American writer; they increase diversity in authors, topics, experiences and so on; and they include strong themes that easily lead to lively discussion and community engagement. Feist said “Citizen” is a popular choice, but far from the only option.
In Santa Barbara recently, readers tackled “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, a novel about the Vietnam War. The grant recipient partnered with the local military base. In Massachusetts, the foundation that received the NEA grant partnered with several community organizations to organize a placemaking community day, story walk and more, all in an effort to explore the issues raised in Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Into the Beautiful North,” a book about immigration.
Each year, about 75 communities get an NEA Big Read grant, Feist said. Grants range from $5,000 to $20,000. Grant recipients provide Arts Midwest with a calendar of events, revised budget and final report.
Watson said the proposal to read and discuss “Citizen” was part and parcel of the city’s interest in encouraging continued dialogue about race, and that it fits in with several initiatives led by other institutions.
The College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, spearheaded by the Avery Research Center and funded by Google, has brought important speakers to town, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bryan Stevenson and Marion Wright Edelman. The Race and Social Justice Initiative also organized a conference in June called “Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World” at which Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture, delivered the keynote address.
The Charleston Forum on Race hosted a public discussion in June. And other community groups have sponsored dialogues about race, including Pure Theatre, which mounted a staged version of “Citizen” in 2016.
A few months after the June 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill hosted a televised dialogue on race at Circular Congregational Church, beseeching the community — and the nation — to keep the conversation going.
“I just see this as another opportunity to make good on that challenge,” Watson said of the chance to examine collectively the issued raised in Rankine's book. “While we have the opportunity to speak about social justice, there is nothing more human than responding to someone else’s words. It helps people deal with their own feelings, their own ambitions, their own sense of self. And it’s an incredibly powerful book.”