The first time award-winning author and poet Kwame Alexander visited Charleston was in 2003. Arriving at the MOJA Festival with a head full of poems, he delivered a presentation to a group of six- and seven-year-olds at the Dock Street Theatre and hosted a writing workshop for the kids. “The children ended up writing poems and publishing a book,” says Alexander. Really, it was just his way of giving back.
“My life as a writer and being inspired enough to want to write about what’s happening around me, to me, is linked directly to my interaction with young people, because I think they are my inspiration,” says Alexander. Now, almost a decade and a half later, he’ll headline the second annual Black Ink Book Festival, using another platform to continue to instill a love of reading into his audience, no matter the age.
Beginning his career in the ’90s, Alexander took a handful of jobs that embraced the written word. He was a creative writing teacher, a poet, and an independent book publisher, before releasing his first book in 1999, a love poem collection titled Crush. Throughout the next decade, Alexander put out the occasional book, like 2005’s Dancing Naked on the Floor, and in 2006 created the Book-in-a-Day program, which is a day long workshop that acts as a crash course for kindergarten through 12th grade students in writing and publishing.
Of course, his work in the creative writing field hasn’t gone unnoticed. Thanks to his 2014 novel The Crossover, which earned Kwame a Newbery Medal and a Coretta Scott King Award, the literary world has followed his career with a newfound vigor. Since then, he’s released Booked, The Playbook, and Solo, which he wrote with Mary Rand Hess, along with children’s books Animal Ark and Surf’s Up.
Many of Alexander’s works are thematically centered around family, a love of knowledge, and friendship, like his 2013 novel He Said, She Said, which follows the unlikely romance between high-school football star Omar “T-Diddy” Smalls and socially conscious humanitarian Claudia Clarke. The story sees the young adult genre collide with politics and, while it’s not a combination Alexander always utilizes, he sees much of his work as following a similar path. “I believe that I’ve always tried to use writing as, not just a tool for entertainment, but as a tool for activism and empowerment,” says Alexander.
In the midst of that, he still retains an emotional core to his work. Alexander’s novels are often written in verse, flowing and rhyming like an extended poem. This flow carries over into the poignant candor he speaks with. “The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child,” says Alexander. “So, if you want to create adults who are empathetic, who are connected to the world, who want to make the world a better place, who are sympathetic, who are good people, then that has to start when they are children.”
Alexander will be one of 50 plus authors featured at Black Ink, according to festival co-creator Steve Hoffius. The genres included have expanded this year, with sci-fi, politics, romance, poetry, inspirationals, and children’s books all on the roster. “Some [authors] are coming in from New Orleans, and California, and North Carolina, but the bulk of them are from within 50 miles,” says Hoffius. Herb Frazier and Bernard Edward Powers, two authors of the Mother Emanuel shooting account We Are Charleston, will be in attendance. After Alexander’s speech, there will be a panel discussion on a series of topics, including the role of black authors in violent political times.
“Coming down to the Black Ink Festival is an opportunity for me to continue in that tradition of being inspired by young people and hopefully offering something back to them,” says Alexander. The writing profession can easily become faceless, and that’s precisely why the author believes this is a special event. As he puts it, seeing “those words become electric, and come off the page and come onto the stage is an opportunity to get kids even more excited to read.”