University of South Carolina

English professor shares message of FREADOM

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-5400

Ask Dianne Johnson about her favorite T-shirt, and she’ll pull out the red one emblazoned with “FREADOM” in large, bold print across the front. It’s her message for children everywhere.

A USC English professor n the College of Arts and Sciences and children’s author who often speaks to and performs for area children, Johnson says reading leads to discovery, possibilities and, of course, freedom.

“I like to talk with children about various kinds of freedom they might have if they master their reading. We talk about this in the context of slavery and freedom, that it is their responsibility as descendants of enslaved people, and as citizens, to become good readers and to master various kinds of literacy,” Johnson says. “They are excited about reading, writing and telling their own stories.”

This month Johnson is sharing that message and her story books with nearly 2,000 third-grade students at Richland One schools. It’s part of the City of Columbia’s fourth annual Together We Can Read initiative, a collaboration that also includes the Richland County Public Library, Richland One School District and Columbia Museum of Art.

All Around Town
All Around Town

Her book, “All Around Town: The Photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts,” published by Henry Holt (now MacMillan) in 1998, was chosen as this year’s book. It tells the story of an African-American photographer who captured life in Columbia’s African-American community during the 1920s and 1930s.

Wearing her signature red “FREADOM” shirt, Johnson has done more than 35 presentations at the museum, where an exhibit of Robert’s photography is on display.

“I’ve always loved photography and thought it would be wonderful to make a book that would introduce young people to his legacy. I love sharing it and the other books I have created that are based on my reactions to some of kind of visual stimulus such as photos or my dolls,” Johnson says.

A quiet person, Johnson lights up when she steps before the children, energized by their smiles as she shares stories and reads her books.

“I want the children to hear the music in the words, to enjoy and appreciate words for words’ sake, for their beauty and for their utility. I want to share my love of language,” she says. “Sometimes I ask them to close their eyes as I read so that they might lose themselves in the sound, not taking in anything through sight. Sometimes I ask them to join in call-and-response or dance. I want them to see that they can, and must bring, my poems alive. I want them to know that the reader has a responsibility to interact with the writing.”

Sitting Pretty
Sitting Pretty

Using dolls that she has collected since she was a child, Johnson dramatizes poems from her book, “Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls.” One of her favorite dolls is a topsy-turvy doll that reveals a different doll depending on how the skirt is turned. She uses it to tell the story of two girls -- Katie who is white and Cassie who is black.

“This doll inspired me to think about slavery. I imagined the white doll as the child of a slave owner and the black doll as an enslaved child,” Johnson says. “I wrote ‘Katie lives in the big house. Cassie lives in the cabin out back. Katie picks flowers. Cassie totes cotton in a heavy, heavy sack. Katie wants a doll for Christmas. Cassie really, really wants to learn how to read. Katie is free as a bird. Cassie can only dream.’”

Johnson says art provides a forum for discussing serious subjects. “Children can discuss very serious issues. Sometimes we don’t give them enough credit,” she says.

Hair Dance
Hair Dance

She also presents her book, “Hair Dance,” in which she celebrates African-American hair and hairstyles, a source of identity, self-expression and pride in the black community and a subject of curiosity in other cultures. The book is a long single poem with photos by artist Kelly Johnson (no relation). Children beam when Johnson tells them that she prefers to call her own dreadlocks “lovelocks.”

The Together We Can Read initiative will end Feb. 23, and every Richland One third-grader will receive a signed copy of “All Around Town.” Giving the books is an important connection for Johnson, who grew up in a military family and lived in many states as well as Germany and Iran before settling in Columbia. She attended Dent Middle School and graduated from Spring Valley High School before going on to Princeton and Yale universities, where she earned degrees in English and creative writing, Afro-American and American studies.

“It is thrilling for me to say to the children that I am part of this community,” Johnson says. “There is nothing like telling a child that I am the person who wrote the words in the book she is looking at. There is nothing like seeing a child realize that he can grow up to see his name on a book just as I have because we are part of the same ‘family.’”

Johnson says the whirlwind of activity from the Together We Can Read initiative only reaffirms her love for children’s literature.

“I love being a children’s author and getting hugs from children and letters from children after my talks,” Johnson says. “My most treasured letter says, ‘Dear Dinah Johnson, You had made my heart sing!’”

Johnson is working on several projecting, including her first book for young adults.

All Around Town: The Photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts

  • Feb. 23: City of Columbia celebrates its "Together We Can Read" initiative 
  • 2,000 copies of USC English professor Dianne Johnson's book is distributed to third-grade students in Richland One District Schools
  • Exhibit: "Our Time, Our Place: Photographs of the Black South by Richard Samuel Roberts" is on display at the Columbia Museum of Art

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Posted: 02/23/12 @ 11:30 AM | Updated: 03/12/12 @ 5:47 PM | Permalink