Books and Classes for Black History Month

The illustration reads Black History Month, with two silhouetted figures to either side and a diamond patter in green, red, and black above and below. The lower pattern

by Brandon B.

February calls us, as a society, to reflect and honor the contributions of Black Americans who made our country. The late, great Carter G. Woodson is considered the father of Black History Month. Woodson is the second African American to earn a Ph.D., after Edward Alexander Bouchet earned one in physics from Yale in 1876. The fight for equality, justice, and humanity for African Americans has always been a topic of discussion.

In the past century, Blacks have had to overcome Jim Crow laws. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Supreme Court cases to desegregate schools helped to change American culture. Thurgood Marshall and a team of NAACP attorneys fought against the “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown vs Board of Education. Signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act strengthened the right to vote that had been granted to Black men with the 15th Amendment. All women had to wait for the 19th Amendment to grant suffrage.

To celebrate Black History, consider a visit to the Equity Resource Center at HCLS Central Branch, which has a great selection of books, movies, and audio materials that showcase many groups. Some classic titles that celebrate Black culture and contributions include James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Consider watching films, such as Selma, that tell the story of Civil Rights leaders and a collective group of individuals, who fought for the right to vote.

Black History Month is a time of reflection, healing, and celebration. In February, take the opportunity to learn about Black culture and history through classes, books, and films.

Art Wars! Black History Month Edition 
Tue   Feb 7         6:30 – 8 pm  
HCLS Miller Branch
Ages 11-18. Registration required, drop-in if space permits.
Create artwork in 40 mins! Learn a little about prominent African American artists, then use that inspiration. Enter the Art War contest for a chance to win a prize, or just create and enjoy! Materials provided.  

Wiki Edit-a-Thon: A Celebration of Black Authors and Artists 
Thu   Feb 9    5:30 – 8:30 pm
Online
For adults. Register.
Edit Wikipedia pages of Black authors and artists whose works are found in our library collection. The evening is dedicated to collaborating on research, writing, and editing relevant Wikipedia pages. Participants check pages and cite sources as they work.

Black History of Howard County 
Sat Feb 11 1 – 2:30 pm
HCLS Savage Branch
Ages 14-18 and adults. Register.
Learn about the history of African Americans in Howard County and the town of Savage, as collected in History of Blacks in Howard County, Maryland: Oral History, Schooling, and Contemporary Issues. Hear about particular players in local history and learn why Howard County is the way it is today, with historical and personal perspective from Deborah Costley, local historian and genealogist. Share any experiences brought up as part of our Brave Voices, Brave Choices project.

African Experience Tour 
Wed Feb 15 4:30 – 5:30 pm & 7 – 8 pm 
HCLS Miller Branch
Ages 8-11. 60 min. Ticket required. Tickets available at the children’s desk 15 minutes before class. 
Learn about the diversity of African culture through hands-on exploration of artwork, videos, and discussion, facilitated by Doris Ligon, director and co-founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland.

Brandon is a Customer Service Specialist at HCLS Central Branch who loves reading, football, and taking nice long walks around his neighborhood.

Cover image by Freepik.

Wrapping Up 2022

Kristen B. and Julie F., Chapter Chats editors

Thank you! We appreciate our readers and subscribers who have followed Chapter Chats through another year. We share a wide variety of posts with you, from Winter Reading selections to upcoming author events to a tremendous selection of reviews – fiction and nonfiction, for adults, teens, and children.

A fairly plain cover with a red edge and the title in script and the author's name hand lettered. A small wolf stands between author and title lines.

Here are some of the most-viewed posts of the year:

These posts garnered fewer views, but are definitely worth a look if you missed them:

A black cover with gold text and a mysterious illustration of the phases of the moon, a mystical eyes, and spiral all centered above a book.

And, by far, the most viewed post since Chapter Chats began in 2020: How to Bypass the News Paywall with Your Library Card.

For more great book recommendations: HiJinx, the HCLS podcast, wrapped up its year with folks talking about their favorite reads of 2022: listen here.

We hope you’ll stick with us as we head into 2023! Happy New Year!

Local History with Marcus Nicks

Marcus Nicks, dressed in a grey suit and striped tie, stands out

Marcus Sankofa Nicks is an educator, researcher, and historian of African American History. He regularly facilitates conversations surrounding the African American historical experience, the topic of race, and its present-day implications. He has served in the Howard County Public School System for more than 12 years, primarily supporting Black/African American students through a culturally relevant, trauma-informed approach. Since then, he has established History Heals Consulting, LLC, which uses African American history as a vehicle to aid schools, institutions, and businesses in fostering healthy and inclusive environments.

Nicks offers a multi-session course that takes a comprehensive and expansive look at the history of African Americans in Howard County. It covers the influences and contributions of African Americans from the earliest beginnings of Howard County up to the contemporary era. He provides historical accounts and a wide range of perspectives on the diverse experiences of African Americans.

The Establishment of Columbia, The Rouse Dream, and Its Impact on African Americans

Monday, Dec 12 at 6:30 – 8:30 pm Central Branch
Register at bit.ly/hclsheal3

Upcoming sessions in 2023:
January 9: Influential African American Trailblazers & Pioneers in Howard County

February 13: Finding New Meaning and Perspective Through the Lens of History

From an interview with Marcus Nicks:

What was your first job?
After graduating from Bowie State, an Historically Black University, I became a substitute teacher. I taught in Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore Counties, and the educational landscape of these school systems helped give me a broad sense of how to engage students of various ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses. After a year, I decided to return home to the Howard County Public School System as a full time educator.

What is a book you’ve read that changed how you think about a topic or your life?
A book that significantly shaped how I think about life and see the world was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. I remember there being so many mixed depictions about Malcolm X, so I decided to read the book for myself. I read it as a college student and remember it being more intriguing to me than any textbook. I found a lot of resonance to my life as a young adult. The book had many themes that provoked me into thinking more broadly on topics such as coming of age, trauma, racism, colorism, mental health, family dynamics, the incarceration system, Black Nationalism, peer relationships, Black history, and leadership. I found Malcolm’s X’s evolution inspiring and believe that we share similar qualities, such as the intent to educate and be studious, a work ethic, being a researcher, and using words and speech to analyze society critically.

What inspires/motivates you?
My family inspires and motivates me every day, since I know that what I do builds off a generational legacy. My parents always encouraged me to pursue education. My wife and life partner has always fully supported me along my journey.
I am deeply inspired by my daughter, who pushes me to be the best version of myself possible as a father. She continues to give me a reason to leave behind a legacy for her to be proud of.

I am further inspired each day through the lessons of history and the stories of those who rose above adversity amidst seemingly insurmountable odds. Lastly, I am inspired and motivated by anyone who is passionate about their craft.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
I’m generally content with a quiet space to read and study (haha), but I would love to visit the continent of Africa. Africa has given so much to the world. I would love to visit the place where scientists have said human life first began. I would also love to experience the culture of various countries throughout the continent. Africa has been such an integral aspect of my studies, and I believe traveling there directly would have such a profound impact on me and my family that it couldn’t be put into words.

National Education Week: Let’s Play

The contents of the On the Go Literacy Activity Kit displayed against black background, including toy vehicles, books, and tip sheets.

by Jean Boone, Central Branch

“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.” said Fred Rogers.

By definition, PLAY is FUN but that doesn’t make it unimportant. For a child’s development, it’s serious business. Play feeds a child’s imagination and creativity, and it helps them explore and discover their capabilities and their world. As it spurs brain development, play becomes a pathway for learning and creates the foundation for literacy and school readiness.

To support children and their families in growing and learning through play, we offer some incredible resources.

The toy collection includes more than 300 wide-ranging, developmentally appropriate and safe items:

  • Does your child love pretend play? Borrow a wooden sandwich-building set or the bilingual (English-Spanish) EnSALADa play set for some imaginative cooking!
  • Is your child always on the move? Take home a parachute, trucks and other vehicles, and push and pull toys for building motor skills.
  • Help your child learn their letters, numbers, shapes and colors with toys like the Counting Carrots Stacker, Rocket Shape Sorter, or Oscar the Grouch stacking cans.
  • Encourage storytelling with a set of puppets like the Three Billy Goats Gruff or Peppa and George Pig, or music-making with My First Piano or the Hedgehog Accordion.
  • Promote problem-solving with all kinds of puzzles, for toddlers to kindergartners.

Literacy Activity Kits combine themed books, toys, games, and hands-on activities that are both educational and entertaining. Created for three distinct age groups, the kits also include a bilingual parent guide with ideas for how to engage your child with these materials.

For 0-4 year olds, kits focus on essential concepts with books, music, and toys:
Numbers and Shapes
Colors and Letters
Bilingual English and Spanish
Things that Go
Barnyard Animals

For 5-7 year olds, kits contain books and problem-solving projects and games:
The Three Little Pigs
The Gingerbread Man
Goldilocks and the 3 Bears
Fun with Words
Dive into Dolphins and Sharks

For 8-10 year olds, kits offer books, worksheets, and games that strengthen literacy skills:
Super Spelling and Wonderful Writing
Stretch Your Storytelling
Pass the Poetry
Focus on Fluency

All of these materials can be borrowed for three weeks, just like a book. Come into your nearest branch and bring home some serious fun!

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

National Education Week & The Importance of Reading

Two adults and two children sit on the modular sofa at the library, both children have books in their laps.
Library Life Savage Branch

by Eliana H.

When was the last time you read a book to a young child? Maybe it was a title you’ve read dozens of times, and the child was even saying some of the words along with you. You might be hoping they will get excited about something different soon. Perhaps it was a book you hadn’t read before, and you enjoyed discovering it along with them. Either way, you were helping that child’s brain develop just by reading to them.

We all want our children to be successful. While there may be a range of opinions on what that looks like and which tools are most helpful to support said success, research provides a few clear answers. One of those is that reading with children, from birth onward, sets them up for academic and later life success. Numerous studies have shown that reading with children from early in life encourages language development, as well as overall brain development. Children who are read to every day during their early childhood may enter Kindergarten having been exposed to over one million more words than their peers who were never read to. This increased vocabulary sets up those from a literacy-rich home for success from the start of their school careers.

Thankfully, you can find plenty of high-quality children’s books to borrow for free at any of our HCLS branches. If you bring a young child to one of our classes, you can even get a break from being the reader! Feel free to ask any of our staff for recommendations for books to read with your children. And don’t be afraid to let little ones choose some for themselves. For more suggested activities and materials to help children develop literacy skills, check out one of our Literacy Activity Kits. Or perhaps select a toy to borrow and act out a story you’ve read or created on your own. Whatever books or materials you select, read early and often with young children to set them up for success in school and beyond.

Eliana is a Children’s Research Specialist and Instructor at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

At the Table Together

by Brandon B.

The book cover is a photograph of a roasted turkey on a white china platter, with silverware in front and garnished with greens.

The Thanksgiving holiday is an opportunity for families to gather at the dinner table, express their love, enjoy each other’s company, and give thanks for what life has to offer. On Thanksgiving Day, people watch the parade in New York, the national dog show, and football games, but the holiday feast is the main event. Many families showcase a variety of food choices from their respective regions or countries.

Some families could decide to have mashed potatoes with their turkey instead of macaroni and cheese. Many people prefer collard greens to green bean casserole, or sweet potato pie over pumpkin pie. Apple, cherry, and blueberry pies might also make an appearance. Even though turkey, ham, and other meats can be served during Thanksgiving, plenty of plant-based or meatless options are now available for vegans and vegetarians. Many pescatarians will have seafood as one of their main entrees for their feast.

The book cover depicts an illustration of a live male turkey at the top, superimposed above a maize-colored arrow that points to a roasted turkey on a platter at the bottom.

We can help you plan for Turkey Day with a wide variety of cookbooks from our collection. Fine Cooking Thanksgiving Cookbook: Recipes for Turkey and All of the Trimmings, from the editors of Fine Cooking magazine, will help prepare your holiday feast. With Rick Rodgers’ Thanksgiving 101: Celebrate America’s Favorite Holiday with America’s Thanksgiving Expert, you can explore timeless dishes and helpful holiday tips. Preparing for a plant-based meal presents certain challenges; Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Cafe offers celebratory menus and recipes from New York’s premier plant-based restaurants.

The book cover depicts a variety of fruits and vegetables, vegan cheese and crackers, and three cocktails on a platter, all resting on a white table.

Being thankful for the time that you spend with your family and friends is vital. Our society has had its recent share of trials and tribulations, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic. We as a nation have a lot to be thankful for. So please, cherish the people you love and the time you have to celebrate together during this holiday season.

Brandon is a Customer Service Specialist at HCLS Central Branch who loves reading, football, and taking nice long walks around his neighborhood.

Freedom in Iran: Stories Teach and Inspire

The book cover depicts a bird in silhouette flying free from an open filigreed cage, in shades of turquoise.

By Maryam S.

It is said: Even if you leave your homeland for good, she will never leave you. Whether recalling friendships that I have cherished for over five decades or when in some life circumstance, suddenly an expression from my homeland, Iran, comes to mind. One unforgettable piece are the stories from my childhood: stories that are deeply rooted in the past yet alive in my memory to this day, which still unify the Iranian people.

One epic story “Zahhak, the Serpent King” was written around 1020 CE by the famous poet Ferdowsi, with all the beauty and purity of the Farsi language. It inspires several questions relevant to the current day, especially: How much can a human soul take to achieve freedom?

In the story, Zahhak, the son of a kind king, rises to power after killing his father. One day, the devil, Ahriman, shows up to the doors of his castle and asks the king if he can cook for him (“Ahriman” means “Satan” or “devil” in Persian). Ahriman’s culinary skills are excellent, and Zahhak asks how he can reward him. The devil’s only wish is that he allow his cook to embrace the king as the sign of humility and gratitude. Although surprised, the king accepts the embrace; Ahriman kisses each of the king’s shoulders and immediately disappears. Once the devil disappears, two black snakes grow from Zahhak’s shoulders that cannot be removed. Learned doctors gather about him, but no one finds a remedy. Then, the devil appears in the form of a wise doctor who recommends feeding each one of the snakes the brain of a young man or a woman everyday. From then on, every day, two young people’s brains are fed to the serpents. Zahhak lives for a very long time, casting a dark cloud of hopelessness and grief over the people and the land. Eventually, a child called Feraydun is born. At age 16, his mother tells him how his father was killed by Zahhak, and how she escaped and hid herself and Feraydun, safe from the king’s assassins. Feraydun decides to gather enough followers to challenge Zahhak’s powerful army.

Meanwhile, Kaveh, a blacksmith who has lost 11 sons to Zahhak, comes to the palace to demand that his last son be freed. First, Zahhak’s guards try to seize the insolent commoner, but a mountain of iron, tall and forbidding, rises up before Kaveh and protects him. As father and son leave, Kaveh hoists his leather apron on a spear as a rallying point and shouts, “Today it was my boy, tomorrow it will be yours.” A crowd of people gather and everywhere they march, joining Feraydun and his followers. Eventually, they defeat the evil king, imprisoning him in a deep, dark cave in Mount Damavand where he will suffer until end of the time. Feraydun returns to the palace and ascends the throne. The whole earth rejoices, and peace and fortune return to the land and to her people again.

So, the story considers what happens to those who swim against the river of power, greed, cruelty, violence, and selfishness. Losses and loneliness can seem insurmountable for those few who choose this path. But what encourages those few heroes whose decisions are unchanged, fighting for freedom until their last breath? Is there anything but faith in freedom for humankind, for their sisters and brothers, for their country, for a better society to pursue a better life? One modern woman’s story can provide some answers.

Bengt Oberger, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In 2003, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an Iranian woman, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She was the first female judge during the secular regime in lran, before the Islamic revolution of 1979. However, according to seventh-century sharia law, after the revolution she could no longer practice as a judge and was forced to work as a family lawyer. In her first book, Iran Awakening, published in 2006, she shares an overview of her upbringing, the history of social and political changes since the revolution, her challenges, and her fight for under-served children and women in the Islamic republic of lran. Although the world recognized her efforts for the well-being of her country, she suffered from the regime’s hostility, espionage, and social harassment, ultimately leaving in exile in 2009.

1979 Women’s Day Protest in Iran, public domain image.

Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in lran is her memoir, published in 2016, of events in lran and the Middle East. Ebadi’s views about the lives of ordinary people in lran encompass a good part of the book: the economic hardship that many Iranian families endure daily, as well as the regime’s zero-tolerance policy for political criticism. She also writes about the women who selflessly assisted her in continuing her work as a human rights lawyer. She worked not only for women, but for men, for those with different religious beliefs, for jailed writers and journalists, and even for those who worked for the regime but didn’t understand how the wrong interpretation of Islamic law and the abuse of Islamic sharia was destroying family structures and the society overall.

Although this book was written a decade after the first one, l still found Ebadi’s words honest. Her description of the events and incidents that she, her family, and her colleagues endured are described in frightening and unsettling details. She repeatedly mentions the security that the Nobel peace prize committee afforded her; legal support from the committee was like an invincible human force against the regime’s hostility and humiliations, so she could continue her legal fight for her clients pro bono. I found her hopes for the freedom of her country unshakable, despite losing most of the valuable possessions that she was attached to, emotionally and physically. Through her words, I found her vulnerability not pretentious but genuine, whether doubting herself or receiving criticisms from her closest family members. She is still an ordinary human with flaws and achievements in her life. But, she is still closer to the reality than a dream for freedom described in the stories of my youth.

The cover depicts a Persian man astride a horse, with his sword in a scabbard aside as if he is going into battle. The horse's front legs are raised and the rider clutches its mane with one hand and the reins with the other.

The story of Zahhak the Serpent King can be found in Myths of the World: The Ancient Persians, written by Virginia Schomp.

More about Dr. Ebadi can be found in these titles:
The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz; illustrated by Saffa Khan.

Who Did It First?: 50 Politicians, Activists, and Entrepreneurs Who Revolutionized the World by Jay Leslie

Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella

Maryam S. is a customer service specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves traveling near and far and loves to cook and bake from new recipes.

Celebrating 20 years of A+ Partners in Education

A crowd of fifth-graders dressed in colorful costumes talk excitedly while at Battle of the Books 2022.
Fifth graders excited for Battle of the Books 2022 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

by Katie DiSalvo-Thronson

In the fall of 2002, Howard County Public School System and Howard County Library System formed A+ Partners in Education to expand the educational opportunities and enhance the academic achievement of every Howard County student. It was one of the first systemwide school and public library partnerships in the nation.

We are proud to celebrate 20 years of collaboration. Together we have furthered students’ academic success, enhanced their love of reading and learning, and forged a connection to libraries that will serve them their whole lives.

Right from the start
The library is integrated into student’s experiences from the beginning of their academic career. Kindergarten, Here We Come prepares and inspires incoming kindergarteners and gives them a chance to tour a school bus. Then, every kindergarten class takes a field trip to the library for a class, a tour, and a friendly connection to this important family resource. We are proud to add another point of early connection: next year, the HCLS mobile unit will visit every HCPSS Pre-K to engage students and parents!

Connecting to serve students
Every school has a dedicated HCLS liaison, and our educators and staffs collaborate to offer hundreds of school-based HCLS classes and events that serve those school communities. Two great examples of that work: supporting National History Day student projects, and facilitating parent and student engagement at Deep Run Elementary School (both initiatives featured in the current issue of Source, our award-winning publication). We also collaborate on summer reading lists and promotion, to help all students read and continue to learn all summer.

Our systems are connected, too! Did you know every HCPSS student has an account with the library system, built right into the student portal, hcpss.me? With one click, students can access all online library resources and reserve books at HCLS branches. In the last year, students borrowed 80,337 books, e-books, and other resources on A+ accounts.

A+ Partners also connect to offer students free support via Brainfuse: last year, HCPSS students received 12,164 free online tutoring and test prep sessions and used Brainfuse study tools 52,355 times!

A+ Makes Learning Fun
In Battle of the Books, students experience reading as dynamic, social, and exciting. Teams of fifth graders read 10-14 titles over a year and practice answering questions about each book in a competition with pun-ny teamwork, costumes, and a dance party! Affectionately referred to as BOB, the contest grew from one high school gym to six sites. This year, we celebrated with 1,234 students at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

HCLS also sponsors the local competition of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. More than 7,000 students from 41 HCPSS schools participated last year alone. Saketh Sundar, one of the historic Octo-champs of the National Spelling Bee, was a four-time winner of the HCLS Spelling Bee!

More Outreach, Equity & Impact
HCLS is deeply grateful to the leadership of HCPSS, library instructors, and school-based educators, staff, parents, and volunteers who help us serve children through this partnership.

We look ahead with energy and commitment. HCLS is dedicated to strategic, collaborative work and additional outreach and engagement with schools to help every student and their family enjoy increased opportunity and academic success with library resources. Whether as a volunteer, school leader, or prospective sponsor, we welcome you to reach out and join us in this important work.

Here’s to 20 more years!

Katie is the Community Education and Engagement Manager for HCLS. She loves people, the big questions, the woods, and chocolate.

In Conversation: Pierre Jean Gonzalez

The photograph depicts actor Pierre Jean Gonzalez in his starring role as Alexander Hamilton, wearing a white shirt, pants, vest, and cravat, with a brown overcoat with gold buttons. His head is turned to the side and he is gazing into the distance.
Photo credit: @ Joan Marcus

By Cherise T.

Fans of Hamilton know the impressive acting, singing, and dancing skills required to bring to life the musical’s complex characters. Hamilton showcases multiple musical genres, innovative choreography, and insightful portrayals of historical figures responsible for the founding of the United States. We are excited to share highlights from our conversation with one of the show’s remarkable stars whose work impacts the artistic content we will see in the future.

The photograph is of Hamilton star Pierre Jean Gonzalez, wearing a black shirt and facing the camera.
Photo credit: @ Ambe J. Photography

Growing up in the Bronx, Pierre Jean Gonzalez never saw himself represented in the television shows he watched. Today, he is starring in the national touring company of Hamilton, and is the co-founder of DominiRican Productions, whose “mission is to see People of Color on both sides of the camera.” The creation of the production company was part of his “pandemic journey” to “address issues of representation.” He feels grateful that “because of Hamilton, I’m able to use my status to help others.” 

What’s it like playing Alexander Hamilton? “Challenging” and “amazing.”

Is BIPOC casting in musical theater important and why? To summarize, it has changed Pierre’s life as well as the lives of other creative people and audience members.

How are opportunities for underrepresented and marginalized communities created? Case study: DominiRican Productions.

We examined these issues and took audience questions at our September 20 event at HCLS Central Branch. The evening featured a screening of DominiRican’s award-winning experimental short, release, directed by Pierre, featuring a poem and performance by Cedric Lieba Jr., the cofounder of DominiRican Productions, and Pierre’s fiancé. Explore their inspirational projects at https://dominiricanproductions.com.

The photograph depicts Pierre Jean Gonzalez looking at books from the HCLS Central Branch equity collection with instructor and research specialist Ash Baker.
Instructor and Research Specialist Ash B. highlights the HCLS Central Branch Equity Resource Collection for Pierre Jean Gonzalez.

The focus of Pierre’s biography surrounds his advocacy for Latinx and LGBTQ+ opportunities on stage, on screen, and behind the camera. He and Cedric used the pandemic’s constraint on their acting careers as a chance to construct a unique artistic venture highlighting original voices and fresh talent to viewers. Inspired in part by the musical heritage, humanity, and diverse casting of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in Hamilton, Pierre builds and supports projects that might otherwise never be produced. His dedication to inclusion and community is clear, and we were all motivated by his empowering message of kindness and empathy in art. Pierre shared his personal coming out story as well as guidance for all of us to live our truth, share our stories, and lift up those around us.

Pierre Jean Gonzalez is on the stage at HCLS Central Branch, speaking into a microphone in front of an audience.
Pierre Jean Gonzalez in conversation with Cherise Tasker, Instructor and Research Specialist, at HCLS Central Branch.

Howard County Library System was excited to host this talk with Hamilton star Pierre Jean Gonzalez. Although registration for this event filled almost immediately, please watch our Classes & Events page for daily updates on future presentations and interactive sessions: https://howardcounty.librarycalendar.com.

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.

Interview & Invitation: Join us at the Longest Table

A Black woman with short hair, wearing purple sunglasses, gestures while sitting at a table.

Laura Johnson works for the United Way of Central Maryland as Senior Vice President and Chief Acceleration Officer. She is also a member of the library’s Racial Equity Alliance and will be a host at the upcoming Longest Table event on Oct 1. She recently shared her experiences at the Longest Table.

How many years have you participated? 

Two to date. The first I attended was online during the pandemic with Daryl Davis. I previously had heard him on a podcast and was excited to see him as the featured speaker at the Longest Table.  He shares a riveting story about his journey as a musician and his quest to open hearts and minds with members of the Ku Klux Klan. At the Longest Table, I held onto his every word. To be at a virtual table with him and our community was a a profoundly memorable and moving experience.

What made you decide to do it for the first time?  

Beyond the opportunity to meet Daryl Davis, I really just love the idea. I love the name: The Longest Table, where anyone is welcome and anyone can have a seat. There’s a place for everyone. I love that we can make the “table” as long as we need to make it. 

Have you always been a host? 

I have been a host both years. This year, being a member of the Racial Equity Alliance, we’ve had the opportunity to contribute to the “menu” for conversation so I appreciated the invitation for input.  

I like to welcome people, to make sure that everyone feels like they belong and that they have a good experience. Hosting is in my DNA from growing up and having big holiday gatherings as well as coordinating major events in my professional line of work, I gain great enjoyment in connecting with others. Being a host for the Longest Table means creating space for sharing, laughing, and   elevating our common bonds; honoring our lived experiences.

What do you love about The Longest Table? 

There is something so inherently simple and impactful about breaking bread together. It’s like family dinner – where we laugh, cook, tell stories, debate, disagree sometimes, and just enjoy being with each other.  

Last year in person, in particular… It just did something amazing for my spirit after sheltering in place for so long. The weather was simply beautiful, with the sun shining on everyone’s faces. I felt a connection, being there in person, and I was not truly prepared for the deep conversations and feelings that they evoked. 

I love the experience! We are all so busy, and we don’t always stop to see people and connect – beyond “hey, how are you.” This event allows people to stop for a moment and connect for a moment in time – to SEE each other. 

I go back to Daryl Davis, who shared how as a child he was so miffed and confused about racism, after having been the target of a hateful act in a parade. He couldn’t understand the rationale of racism. His story of convincing several klansmen to hang up their hoods was so profound and his ability to find common ground, to help people evolve to a different understanding of our connectedness as humans inspired me. 

He was able to hear and be open to different perspectives, then he invited us to do the same. I heard such joy and heartbreak at last year’s event and appreciated the opportunity to be present. 

What does the Longest Table have to do with racial equity? 

We all come from different places and lived experiences, so this provides a respectful and safe access point to build common ground. It also pushes us to acknowledge the internal work we need to do to heal, to speak up, to do something that builds a community where we all have a “seat at the table.” The incidences of hate in Howard County may not always make the evening news but they’re lurking here in this community. We also know there are so many inequities and disparate outcomes across education, housing, health etc.

Howard County is an amazing place to live, work, and play – but we have much more work to do. 

What advice would you have for someone considering coming for the first time? 

Listen with an open heart. 

Find joy and share joy – however that shows up. There’s something joyous in breaking bread with neighbors. 

Take the experience to heart and see what part carries on into our everyday lives. What are the next steps to make Howard County a better place?

Tell us a little about yourself?  

I am the new kid on the block at the United Way of Central Maryland, which is a sponsor of the Longest Table. I have a new position responsible for looking at how to accelerate impact. The task is to stop admiring the problem and find ways to take best practices and create something different. I like to think about how, with Covid, we marshaled the best science and funding to make vaccinations a reality as quickly as possible. I have hope that we can apply a similar type of strategy to social issues. 

The United Way is an organization that truly has a heart. I work with real people who are truly compassionate and want to help people live their best lives. People truly care. 

I am also honored to represent the local chapter of the NAACP. I have held positions on the executive committee as the past education chair for Howard County’s NAACP, and been state co-chair of education committee – Maryland State conference (MSC  NAACP). Although it’s technically a volunteer opportunity, it’s an everyday commitment. I believe, though, that no price is too high when you’re fighting for what is right and just. 

Do you have any favorite memories or thoughts about the Library? 

I come from a family of readers and educators, and the library was always a summer escape. The library is such an anchor for any community. Our library system here in Howard County is one of the most progressive and modern systems that I’ve seen in terms of engagement with community and non-traditional thinking about spaces. There are all those tools in the DIY Center at Elkridge, and sound studios, and, of course, events like the Longest Table. 

The library has such beautiful spaces! And, they are true community spaces. 

There's a place at our table for you! The longest table. Text accompanied by three circle photos: a mother and daughter, two

Please join us for dinner and conversation beginning at 5 pm at the Longest Table on October 1 at Howard Community College. Tickets are on sale now for the rain or shine event, with an indoor space available in case of inclement weather.