In honor of Black History Month this year, Delaware’s Wilmington Public Library is holding a Special Speaker series named after Maya Angelou’s poem, “And Still I Rise.” The Wilmington Public Library is hosting several important guests throughout February, making it a destination for those in the area looking to attend Black History Month events.
The library will host seven speakers throughout February. Those speakers include novelist and professor Jesmyn Ward; comedian, content creator, and host Amanda Seals; poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez; hip-hop artist Talib Kweli; attorney Benjamin Crump; Misty Copeland, the first Black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater; actor and author Courtney B. Vance; and psychologist and author Dr. Robin L. Smith.
Events such as these are nothing new to the Wilmington Public Library, which has won awards for its Speaker Series. In the past, other events have had a notable impact on the community, like inspiring those to go back to school with a full-ride scholarship despite personal obstacles, promoting local businesses, and giving the community an opportunity to connect with renowned and inspiring individuals from many walks of life. With this Speaker Series, each public figure helps highlight and connect the community to what’s happening in the world.
To learn more about the Speaker Series and how it impacts the community, I connected with library director Jamar Rahming.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador: Who is this event intended for, and how was the idea for the event conceived?
Jamar Rahming: The thing with Still I Rise is that we want this series to inspire our community. We are in an urban setting. Wilmington is 70 percent Black, a predominantly Black working-class urban community. With this event, we hope to inspire our community, preserve our culture, and provide a cosmopolitan experience for a constituency that seldom leaves the city limits of Wilmington. We want to bring the world to Wilmington.
How do you think this will impact the community?
Usually, what happens is that the person comes in, and we have a moderated conversation with them, and then they do a book signing. We hope to inspire and encourage people to read because our nation has a crisis. The average American reads at a 5th-grade level, and the majority of our children are not reading at grade level. We are one or two generations away from having an illiterate society. We are striving to derail that, and by bringing in prominent people who have written books, we could inspire and encourage people to nurture their intellectual wellness and literacy.
Why did you choose the speakers and presenters who will be featured?
We don’t do anything haphazard. Everything we do is with a strategy. If you look at our lineup, you can see how diverse it is. We have a literary illuminator, ballet dancer, actor, comedian, living legend, poet, attorney, rapper, and psychologist. So we strive for diversity, and with Black History Month, we strive to tell the whole narrative of the African American experience because when people think of Black history, they think of Rosa Parks or the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. and hardship and struggle. But our narrative is so much more expansive than that.
We wanted our speaker series to give a complete narrative of the African American experience by highlighting people from various fields. Also, if you look at African American people, we have tapped into just about everything. There’s nothing that we have not done. We have been presidents, Supreme Court justices, mechanics, and morticians. Looking at Black people, you can understand every dimension of American history. So what our series does is build bridges by tapping into the interior of the African American experience. We are also building bridges and hoping that our bridge building can derail some of the polarization that we are experiencing.
What’s the background of the library’s Black History Month Series?
This is our third Black History Month Speaker Series. We started three years ago. We began with LeVar Burton, he was our very first. Then we had Nikki Giovanni, Phylicia Rashad Angela Davis, Ernest Green from Little Rock Nine, and Slick Rick. It keeps growing and getting larger each year. What it has done is enhance the visibility and viability of the library, increase our daily foot traffic, and help us solidify our brand.
The library won a national medal in 2022 [because of our Speaker Series]. We got an award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and that’s the highest honor a public library can receive in the nation. We are the first to ever do this except for Oprah Winfrey.
What was the reason and meaning behind the name of the event?
Still I Rise is inspired by the poem by Maya Angelou. I think it captures the essence of everything we are seeking to accomplish by offering the Speaker Series. We want to highlight the perseverance and fortitude of people of African descent. We want to inspire and encourage our people to achieve their goals and successfully navigate the vicissitudes of life, and we believe we rise as a community by opportunities.
So we are creating opportunities for our community to enhance their intellectual capacity to expand their world views. We hope to build a community in a time of history when people are enslaved to a digital eco chamber. Then, as a public library, we are a citadel of intellectual freedom, so we are offering a variety of people coming and a variety of viewpoints. Talib Kweli and Amanda Seales have been very vocal about their social justice and political stances. So we are exposing our people to different world views. We have Ben Crump, a social justice lawyer and a proponent in the Black Lives Matter movement, so again, we are fulfilling our role as a citadel of intellectual freedom and creating a space where various viewpoints are highlighted and exposed.
Why is the event important to the community?
For you to be connected with people that you see on television or people that you listen to, people that you see at the box office — for you to be within close proximity with them I mean, that is definitely monumental. Things like music, pop culture, and film are things that shape our culture. Those are things that we all relish and love and enjoy. You want to get somebody really excited, ask them what their favorite movie, music, or food is. I mean, you can never go wrong anywhere by creating a venue that brings in people that are part of the arts, humanities, food, and pop culture of the community.
How has the local community contributed to this Black History Month event?
We only invite and bring people here that we think that the community will come out and see. The majority of our speakers are Black and brown people because that whats our community consists of. So yes, everything that we do here is community driven and community focused. We booked Amanda Seales because we profiled her social media pages and discovered that a high volume of her followers were here in the greater Philadelphia area and the Wilmington area, so we knew that if we invited her here, this would be something that would engage and stimulate our community.
How does the event aim to inspire and educate younger generations about Black history?
We are inspiring our community just by virtue of proximity. The fact is that in a small working-class urban city, you can walk into your public library and sit face-to-face with Sonia Sanchez, who started the Black Arts movement.
We had the American rapper and actor Common here, and if you live in the city of Wilmington, you get in line to come to your public library, you’re going to get a chance to get a book and a book signed and meet Common. So inspiration comes by virtue of proximity and by virtue of this being a free and open event to the community.
Are there specific educational components or resources associated with the event?
Sure, absolutely. It bridges the gap because in the school systems, there has been a focus on STEM education, and we have forgotten about the arts and the humanities. It’s the arts and humanities that help us to learn about one another. Once we learn about one another, we are more inclined to say that we have more in common than differences.
Most of us want the same things out of life, and when you find that most of us have more in common than different, that helps with us maintaining a civil society. So we are standing in the gap because arts and humanities are not taught in schools. In working-class Black communities, our people don’t have the luxury of paying $100 or more for a Broadway production or going to see somebody speak, but the library meets that community need. They can come to their public library for free and have a cosmopolitan, culturally rich experience.
How does the event celebrate Black History Month?
All the people coming in are African American, and they have all made some kind of valuable contributions to our history and our culture and they’ve all been leading figures and excelled in their field. You look at Benjamin Crump and his track record for winning cases. He’s the Johnnie Cochran of the 21st century. Look at Misty Copeland. She is a trailblazer. She was the very first Black woman to have a residency at the American Ballet Theater.
You look at Sonia Sanchez. She is 90 years old, and she started the Black arts movement. She made it mainstream for Black people to speak in the vernacular to appreciate our mode of expression, and if it weren’t for Sonia, we would not have hip-hop or rap. You look at Jesmyn Ward. She has won a National Book Award. I mean, how many Black people have won the National Book Award, especially when they are writing books about poor people and rural Mississippi? All the people we have are Black and all trailblazers, and they’ve made a distinctive and valuable contribution to our culture and history.