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NEA Big Read: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

The Center’s Big Read initiative, running from March to June 2021, focuses on the National Book Award-winning novel A Lesson Before Dying by the renowned Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, who passed away on November 5, 2019. The multidisciplinary initiative includes free online reading discussion groups, workshops for young writers, a flash fiction writing contest for teens, and public events with authors and scholars. The Big Read initiative is made possible through a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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National Teen Storyteller Contest

We are so pleased to announce the winners of our Summer 2021 National Teen Storyteller Contest, presented in partnership with the student-led and founded Decameron Project! We invited creative writers to share a short story responding to themes of social justice and the criminal justice system.

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About Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines

1933 - 2019

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Ernest J. Gaines

1933 - 2019

The author of ten books of fiction, Ernest J. Gaines was the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, National Medal of the Art, Chavalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, and a National Books Critics Circle Award winner. His brilliant portrayals of race, community, and culture in rural south Louisiana—in particular of both dispiriting and triumphal experiences of Black personhood—made him a greatly respected and beloved world-renowned author.

Featured Guests & Instructors

  • Jenn Baker_Credit Gaby Deimeke 2

    Jennifer Baker

    Jennifer Baker

    Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and contributing editor to Electric Literature. In 2017, she was awarded a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship & a Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant (as well as their award for Artistic Excellence) for nonfiction literature. Her essay “What We Aren’t (or the Ongoing Divide)” published in Kweli Journal was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018. Jennifer is also the editor of the short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster (2018).

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    Leon Addison Brown

    Leon Addison Brown

    Leon Addison Brown is an actor, best known for A Walk Among the Tombstones, Music of the Heart, Mo’ Better Blues, and True Blood. Other film credits include Lincoln, Whirlygirl, Hamlet, and The Associate. Theatre credits include his Broadway debut as Adam in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (Booth Theatre), Buster in Misery (Broadhurst Theatre), Ludie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (Stephen Sondheim Theatre), and Ron/Bailiff/Luke/Tommy/Others in On the Waterfront (Brooks Atkinson Theatre); and Off-Broadway, as Nukain in The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek and Simon Hanabe in The Train Driver (Romulus Linney Courtyard), Sylvester Malone/Jackson Hall in The Orphans’ Home Cycle Part III/I and Hambone in Two Trains Running (Peter Norton Space), Mickey in The Day the Bronx Died (American Jewish Theatre), Man in Chair/Scab #3 in The Lights (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater), and part of the Ensemble in The Alexander Plays…Suzanne In Stages (Public Theater).

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    Gabriel Bump

    Gabriel Bump

    Gabriel Bump grew up in South Shore, Chicago. He is the author of Everywhere You Don’t Belong. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Slam magazine, the Huffington Post, Springhouse Journal, and other publications. He was awarded the 2016 Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award for Fiction. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He lives in Buffalo, New York.

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    Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

    Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

    Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, educator, and storyteller who lives in Astoria, Queens. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Human Parts, Marie Claire, and Hippocampus magazine, among others. Her most recent play, a superhero comedy, All I Want Is One More Meanwhile… made its Midwest premiere at Otherworld Theatre in Chicago. Combining her love for narrative nonfiction and theater, Kelly Jean created No, YOU Tell It! a storytelling series dedicated to performing true-life tales with a twist. Learn more and listen to the podcast at noyoutellit.com.

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    Dr. David N. Khey

    Dr. David N. Khey

    Dr. David N. Khey has focused his research on a few areas in criminology, criminal justice, and forensic science. In particular, he is currently investigating drug policy, control, and evidence-based criminal justice programming, including reentry services. Born and raised in South Florida during the late 1970s and early 80s, drug policy and enforcement quickly piqued his interest. In this topical area, Dr. Khey has presented research on drug and alcohol use/abuse and provided policy analysis to local and state officials in Florida. A highlight of this work includes an invitation to address the Governor’s Office Drug Policy Advisory Council in 2007. Dr. Khey is an active member of the American Society of Criminology, American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and Southern Criminal Justice Association. He excels in bridging personality differences across law enforcement, social workers, academics, pharmacists, faith leaders, and laypersons and has aided in bringing strong personalities together and aligning them to tackle common aims.

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    Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee

    Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee

    Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee, Co-Executive Director, oversees the policy, advocacy and training agenda at CNHJH. Kyung-Ji is nationally recognized for her expertise in campaign strategy development, youth justice advocacy and dynamic training design for system and community stakeholders on culture change, racial disparity and leadership growth. She serves on the Advisory Board of the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY), a project of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and the Steering Committee of the New York City Task Force on Racial Disparity in the Juvenile Justice System. She has been featured in a range of publications, including Utne Reader (Top 30 Visionaries under 30), Village Voice, The Source (Top 10 Artists, Albums, & Political Players of the Year), The KoreAm Magazine, Gotham Gazette, New York Sun, and Brooklyn Free Press, among others. She received her BA from the University of Chicago where she worked with Michelle Obama and Pamela Bozeman to launch a public service community summer internship program for University of Chicago students.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Jordan J. Richardson

    Jordan J. Richardson

    Jordan J. Richardson is the Library Specialist II in Ernest J. Gaines Center. Mr. Richardson assists in archiving, giving class and Center tours, research appointments, and social media campaigns. He received his MA degree in Public History from UL Lafayette. He comes to the center after two internships at Vermilionville Living History—working as the registrar intern in the Curatorial Department. He also worked at Edith Garland Dupré Library as the Graduate Assistant for Research & Instruction where he was awarded the 2017 Outstanding Educator Award where he was part of Bringing Life to Your Library Services with 360˚ Virtual Tours presentation at the Louis Users Annual Conference in Baton Rouge, LA. His areas of study are Interpreting Difficult History through digital platforms as well as Antebellum Southern History through Reconstruction.

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    Rev. David Telfort

    Rev. David Telfort

    The Reverend David F. Telfort is the eighth installed pastor of the Lafayette Ave. Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He is the youngest called pastor and the first of African descent in the church’s 162-year history. David has served LAPC since the summer of 2017. The Brooklyn native studied Urban Environmental Policy at Occidental College. It was there he sensed a call to serve people in both the local church and the public sphere through community organizing. David earned his Masters of Divinity from Yale University’s School of Divinity where he further explored the connection between faith and our socio-political realities. He believes our systems and society should work for all people. He brings into every room he enters the presence of his Afro-Caribbean ancestors, leaning on them to do God’s will.

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    Stephanie Powell Watts

    Stephanie Powell Watts

    Stephanie Powell Watts won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for her debut story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need (2012), also named one of 2013’s Best Summer Reads by O: The Oprah Magazine. Her short fiction has been included in two volumes of the Best New Stories from the South anthology and honored with a Pushcart Prize. Born in the foothills of North Carolina, with a PhD from the University of Missouri and a BA from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she now lives with her husband and son in Pennsylvania where she is an associate professor at Lehigh University.

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    Crystal Wilkinson

    Crystal Wilkinson

    Crystal Wilkinson, a USA Artist Fellow, is the award-winning author of The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence), Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. Nominated for the John Dos Passos Award, the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and others. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and her short stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently in the Kenyon Review, STORY, Agni Literary Journal, Emergence, Oxford American, and Southern Cultures. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky where she is Associate Professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program.

  • Cheylon Woods

    Cheylon Woods

    Cheylon Woods

    Cheylon Woods is the Assistant Professor and Archivist/Head of Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She received her Masters In Library Science from LSU, her MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University, and her bachelors in History and Political Science from Louisiana Tech University. In 2011 she was awarded an IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Studies) fellowship through HistoryMarkers (oral history archive based out of Chicago) where she was assigned to work as an Archivist at the Alabama State Department of Archives and History, where she actively worked with communities and prominent figures in the region to fill in information gaps related to African American history in the state of Alabama. Mrs. Woods is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Society of American Archivists, Louisiana Library Association, and Association of the Study of African American Life and History. She has presented at annual meetings for the Society of American Archivists and worked on numerous public programs for the Alabama Department of Archives and History specializing in preservation and displaying historical documents and artifacts.

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    Jacqueline Woodson

    Jacqueline Woodson

    Jacqueline Woodson is the recipient of a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship, the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the 2018 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, and she was the 2018–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Her New York Times bestselling memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award, as well as the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, and the NAACP Image Award. She also wrote the adult books Red at the Bone, a New York Times bestseller, and Another Brooklyn, a 2016 National Book Award finalist. Her dozens of books for young readers include Before the Ever After, New York Times bestsellers The Day You Begin and Harbor Me, Newbery Honor winners Feathers, Show Way, and After Tupac and D Foster, and the picture book Each Kindness, which won the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

Our Partners

  • Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church - Zach Cihlar
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  • The Decameron Project