By Tahira Brooks, Black Books and Reviews
Two thousand eleven marked the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, interstate bus trips filled with civil rights activists organized to overturn racial segregation in the Deep South. Their story of courage and commitment has inspired a new generation of social activists who participated in commemorative rides. But who will share the story of African-American history to the generation to come?
Armed with Deserie Johnson’s (aka Sanjo Jendayi) new title, NyAshia’s Freedom Ride, we can all be skillful bearers of history. The main character, 7-year-old NyAshia takes her own Freedom Ride though time. Just as the original Freedom Riders learned that anything possible, so does she. However, NyAshia’s teachers are infinitely gentler, and include Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr. & President Barack Obama. More than a bedtime story, the book lays a foundation for a love of history.
No stranger to social activism, author Deserie Johnson is an accomplished D.C.-area spoken word artist whose words speak to gender equality, family, faith and artistry. A mother, grandmother, survivor & motivational speaker, she channels her experiences into creative works for the world. We caught up with Johnson in Largo, Maryland.
Q & A with Today’s Hot Writer
BB&R: As far as children’s books, did you have as any favorites as a kid? What about as a mother? What were your favorite books to read to your kids & why?
DJ: Aesop Fables, Cat in the Hat & Barbar the Elephant were some favorites. When I was 8, I read Native Son & The Bluest Eye. And I was always into biographies. Of course, I shared the same books with my children and I think it taught them a sense of self & history.
BB&R: What inspired NyAshia’s Freedom Ride? What sets it apart from other children’s books that are available?
DJ: Throughout my childhood, I was teased about my complexion, my nappy hair and my really bad acne. As a result, I had no self-worth. Even now, I mentor girls who don’t see themselves in a positive light. With the images in magazines, television, etcetera, well, there just are not enough positive images. So I wrote a book with some 10 years ago. I left it half-done and put it on the shelf. At the time it was expensive to publish and I just wasn’t ready.
Fast forward to late 2011, when I was rushed to the hospital with stroke-like symptoms. During my hospital stay, I had an epiphany: If I died, all my dreams would die with me. And benefit no one. I heard God tell me to empty myself of the things holding me back and of everything he put inside me. I poured all of that into another recent release, Girl Get Empty, a book written primarily to encourage women. But I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from men as well.
As soon as I got home I pulled NyAshia off the shelf and called Eman L. Faulkner, a talented artist and illustrator. And now…to see the manifestation of that struggle…well that was awesome. I cried when I got it. And to see my granddaughter hold it…
BB&R: Funny you should mention that. I noticed the book is dedicated to her. We all know children are the most honest critics. What does your granddaughter think of your children’s book?
DJ: She absolutely loves it, which is the best compliment in the world. She says, “Mommy, read me Nana’s book!”
BB&R: How long have you been writing and performing poetry? Can you tell us your first time on the mic?
DJ: My first performance was in 1995, at a youth event sponsored by WPGC. I performed a poem I created from a bunch of song titles from the era. It was a hit!
BB&R: You aren’t any stranger to published work and you have a spoken word CD that showcases your original poetry. Can you tell us a little more about your other works?
DJ: Well, you already are familiar with NyAshia’s Freedom Ride & Girl Get Empty. My first book, Black Butterfly…Soaring, is sold-out, but it is still available for digital download. And Listen2myheartspeak, a labor love, is my CD of original spoken word poetry set to music. All titles are available at my website,
About the Interviewer
Tahira Love Brooks is a spoken word artist and recipient of the 2012 Prince George’s County, MD “Forty Under 40″ Award. Brooks founded Creative Writing Alliance (CWA), to provide a platform for youth voices. CWA has performed in The National Youth Slam, the Kennedy Center, the Clarice Smith Center, Atlas Theatre, Source Theatre, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Jose, and Chicago.