On the second floor of the Student Center, Javaka Steptoe warms up the audience—roughly 100 fifth graders who came from P.S. 119 just a few blocks from the college—with a brief introduction to the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“He was colorful and even kind of sloppy,” says Steptoe, the author and illustrator of a book released this fall, The Radiant Child: The Story of Young Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016). “He was doing all these things the art world wasn’t doing. And guess what? Everyone loved him.”
Steptoe is quite the hit himself on this day, finding an impish audience among the students who respond to his keen presentation of the story of a boy whose beginnings were much like their own. Basquiat, born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, grew up in Brooklyn and first made a name for himself as a graffiti artist before taking the formal art world by storm in the 1980s. Steptoe said he was inspired to write about him in order to introduce the wunderkind to a new generation.
“The biggest lesson I hope they take away is to be focused and follow their dreams,” Steptoe said after the performance, in which he invited the students to reflect on how they might use the arts and their imaginations as mediums for self-expression.
That’s a skill that Steptoe—a Brooklyn-based artist who is the recipient of the Coretta Scott King illustrator award, among other accolades—came by honestly. He’s a patrician of the children’s literary world, the progeny of the late John Steptoe, who wrote groundbreaking children’s books in the 1970s and 1980s that encouraged black children to find pride in their heritage. He is best known for the book, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Scholastic Books, 1989), which has now been adapted to a play that will be performed at the college next spring in conjunction with an exhibit of the elder Steptoe’s original artwork.
“These type of events provide an opportunity to deepen our relationships with our neighborhood schools, to give back to the community from which our students come, and to share an enriching cultural experience,” said April Whatley Bedford, the dean of the School of Education and a children’s literature expert.
Trina Yearwood, an adjunct assistant professor and currently the accreditation manager in the School of Education, coordinated the event. She said that the gathering was an opportunity to “inspire P.S. 119’s 5th graders to believe in themselves and work toward their goals (a message in the book), and to highlight the success of an artist who shares the same culture of origin as many of the students.”
“We are in a unique position within the School of Education in that our students who come to us, primarily from the public schools of New York City, are preparing to be education professionals who will go back and teach in the same school system in which they were previously students,” Bedford said. “This cyclical relationship provides many opportunities for us to be both rooted in and responsive to the needs of our local schools.”
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