Black History Month: NJ Black Community Leaders Share Influential Books That Spoke To Them

A politician, a poet, a reverend, a teacher, an executive.

Each one grew up Black in New Jersey and relied on legacies their ancestors left to shape their understanding of their identity. Some of those essential lessons appeared in songs, poems and books.

In honor of Black History Month this February, we asked Black leaders to share literary works that helped shape their understanding of Black history. From a poem responding to the 9/11 attack, to a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., these works highlight their understanding of the Black experience.

Mo'Neke Singleton-Ragsdale, a lifelong Camden resident who is president-elect of the Camden County NAACP, works to advocate for public schools through Save Our Schools New Jersey.

She recommends “Camden After the Fall' by Howard Gillett, professor emeritus at Rutgers-Camden.

“I've seen the issues he covers in the book occur repetitively in Camden,” she says. “Unfortunately without solutions."

Here are other recommendations.

Sen. Troy Singleton

Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) represents more than 220,000 residents in New Jersey's 7th District. He's served as state senator since 2017 after six years in New Jersey's General Assembly. He brings to the Legislature a lifetime living in and serving New Jersey; Singleton comes from Willingboro and studied at Rowan University in Glassboro.

The Senator dedicates his legislative efforts on creating jobs, broadening educational opportunities for New Jersey youth and domestic violence prevention, among others, according to his official bio. 

Singleton also leads Realogy Insurance Agency alongside being a husband and father three. He's a past board member for several New Jersey organizations including the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County, New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the Burlington County Library Foundation.

'Invisible Man,' by Ralph Ellison

“This work speaks of the challenge of being seen but not truly being 'seen' as an African American and the masks that some are forced to wear. It's illustrative of the time when it was written and that so much has not changed today.”

'Native Son,' by Richard Wright

“A powerful novel that struck me with its detail on how Jim Crow affected Black society and its impact on those subjected to its overbearance.”

'The New Jim Crow,' by Michelle Alexander

“This has informed my thoughts on our nation's criminal justice system and why reform is critically necessary,. It also forced me to re-examine my thoughts on affirmative action and whether it has fostered real racial diversity or just lip service to the goal.”

Todd Evans

Todd Evans — a poet, spoken-word artist and playwright — hosts several ongoing open mics that welcome writers of all ages throughout New Jersey. Nearly a decade ago, he founded the Willingboro Open Mic that takes place at at the Willingboro Kennedy Center.

The author and actor founded the Don Evans Players theater group, named after his playwright father. With the Players, he offers programs that encourage youth to write, produce and act in their own shows. 

Evans also founded and hosts the Kenneth Rodgers Cultural Book Fair, also in Willingboro. He attended Morgan State University, a historically Black research school in Baltimore. 

'Home Is Where the Hatred Is,' by Gil Scott-Herron

"The song is about the struggles of an addict … I too struggled with addiction as Gil Scott did. His courage to write about it gave me courage. Courage is what is needed to survive today as a Black man in America."

'Somebody Blew Up America,' by Amiri Baraka

"Not that I did or didn't agree with every word but I admired his courage to tell the truth as he saw it. America, Black and white, needs this honesty or we will succumb to the lies of bigotry and oppression.

'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,' by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

"Every word of [Malcom X's] story and transformation gave me hope. Malcolm's change from criminal/junkie to leader made me want to aspire ... despite the odds. In a world of police brutality and blatant racism Black men need aspirations."

Tamar LaSure-Owens

Tamar LaSure-Owens teaches first grade at Leeds Avenue School in Pleasantville who and has worked to bring education on Black lives in her school system's curriculum. Last year, several teachers incorporated her lesson plans on Black history. She was responsible for the approval of the NAACP's Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics at Pleasantville High School. 

The Pleasantville Board of Education named LaSure-Owens as the district's first Visual and Performing Arts grant writer in 2015. Grants she wrote resulted in hiring a dance teacher and starting the district's first Visual and Performing Arts Steering Committee, among other accomplishments.

LaSure-Owens has received several awards for her teaching, including Leed Avenue School's Teacher of the Year for 2019-2020. The National Life Group awarded her the LifeChanger of the Year award, which recognizes K-12 educators who made a significant difference in students lives, in 2018. In 2015, she was the recipient of New Jersey Governor's Award for Arts Advocacy.

LaSure-Owens earned two Army Commendation medals and two Army Achievement medals during her time serving in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

'His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope,' by Jon Meacham

"I love and miss Congressman John Lewis! Such an icon and a person I admire. I enjoy sharing excerpts with my first grade students in regards to citizenship, voting rights, slavery, discrimination, Black Lives Matter, unity, importance of family, caring for each other and the power of hope."

'Teaching for Black Lives,' edited by Wayne Au, Dyan Watson and Jesse Hagopian

"My purpose to read and engage in conversation with community leaders and educators about this book is to strengthen my pedagogy as an educator in creating intentional practices that embrace students of color as well as understanding that [as Jamilah Pitts said] 'we all have a civic responsibility to be educated about Black Lives Matter and, as we learn, we must teach. 

'Me and White Supremacy,' by Layla Saad

"Educators and support staff from all across the state, of all ethnicities, meet monthly [as New Jersey Education Association Members of Color Initiative] to discuss, share and uplift each other as we review and comment on the book. Such rich and truthful conversations.

Willard Ashley, Sr.

Willard Ashley, Sr., a reverend and educator, worked at Riverside Church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan as a psychoanalyst for seven years during which the 9/11 attacks occurred. In that same building, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered many speeches including his famous anti-Vietnam War speech in 1967. 

The YWCA of Northern New Jersey honored Ashley last year with the Dr. Thomas Johnson Racial Justice Trailblazer Award as part of its 7th Annual Racial Justice Awards.

Ashley was the first African American Dean of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. He also presides over Unity with Diversity, a charitable think tank focused on diversity, race and racial inequalities. Currently, Ashley runs the Dr. Willard Ashley, Sr., LLC counseling practice in Montclair and serves as senior pastor of Abundant Joy Community Church, which he founded in Jersey City.

'The Mis-Education of the Negro,' by Carter G. Woodson

"Things that deal with the mind get my attention. On the back cover there's this quote, 'If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.' That just stayed with me. So many of the people that I know, successful people of color that went through the public school system, were told 'don't go to college, that's not your gift, get a vocation.' I'm not saying that having a vocation is a bad thing, but the mindset of educating you to do more service-oriented work as opposed to critical thinking … it's important that people are encouraged to think for themselves."

'Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?' by Martin Luther King, Jr. 

"That book and speech talks about a return to civility. It says 'I don't have to agree with you but be civil in my disagreement.' In [King's] own words, the book talks about the need for courage. I think that's lacking at the highest levels of government, at the lowest levels of just human interaction. The whole concept of 'if you see something, say something' is a call for courage — don't just be apathetic and indifferent."

I Think I Said Something: The Life, Legacy and Ministry of Rev. Dr. Frederick G. Sampson, II,' by Freda G. Sampson

 "[Rev. Sampson] was one of my mentors so I was ecstatic when his daughter put together a book about his life. The contemporary hook is that the sadness on my part that he didn't live long enough to see the first Black president and [Sampson's ] influence on him." [Sampson] would use art before it was popular. He would refer to art and poems and literature, he was a remarkable person in that regard. We need hope in this day and age ... [this book] was helpful for me in thinking through that."

John Harmon, Sr.

John Harmon, Sr. is the founder, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. He advocates for more 70,000 Black-owned businesses across the state and works to get more Black people on corporate boards or hired by corporations.

Before founding New Jersey's statewide chamber, he presided over the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce. He also established and chairs the New York State Black Chamber of Commerce, and was formerly chairman the Board for the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Earlier in life, Harmon worked in banking before he founded a trucking company, called Harmon Transfer Corp., in 1989. He also sat on the Economic Development Committee as part of Gov. Phil Murphy's transition team.

Harmon was recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for ten years of dedication and distinguished service for his work with African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, among many other awards and recognitions for Harmon himself and the chamber.

'The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,' selected by Coretta Scott King

"Although it was a long time ago when it was written, that book speaks to the current moment. He was talking about me in essence — a Black kid in American in an environment that was polarized by race and class. He was trying to say 'I've been advocating for a better life for you, now that you know all this what are you going to do?' What I took from King was I also have to be my brother's keeper in some way for the mission [the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey] is trying to institute. He told me not to be afraid, to speak truth to power."

Extraordinary Black Americans from Colonial to Contemporary Times,' by Susan Altman

"We hear that refrain 'Make America Great Again,' I'm saying America would not be great without the contributions of Blacks. These other two books gave me anecdotal examples [for the work that I do] ... don't look at Black business as charity. Don't look at supply diversity as charity. The perception is that Black businesses cannot provide value. This book gave me the impetus, the information, to push back on these perceptions."

'1,001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History,' by Jeffrey C. Stewart

"Reading this historical account of these inventors gives me the confidence that in 2021 we have businesses that their ancestors started and now they can complete this narrative … because we do that all the time effectively. [These books] gave me the confidence, gave me the evidence, has eliminated all excuses that Black people can't deliver on your expectations."

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