You may know me as the publisher and editor of Voice of the River Valley, but by day I serve as the executive director of Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, a nationally known school of arts and crafts in the historic heart of Mineral Point. While I don’t consider myself an artist, I do gravitate toward the literary arts and have been enriched by the programming I’ve been exposed to over the last four years.
I host the public readings by our winter writers in residence December through March; I’m a member of the monthly Driftless Poets workshop; I’ve participated twice in the annual Writing Retreat; and I helped lead our successful although scaled-back NEA Big Read of Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” in 2020, which was the catalyst for Shake Rag Alley’s monthly Antiracism Book Club.
I’ve met many students who’ve told me, often with tears in their eyes, that their access to arts and crafts and community at Shake Rag Alley has changed their lives. Because of Shake Rag Alley’s NEA Big Read, I can relate.
We began researching the NEA Big Read grant in the fall of 2018 with community partners at the Mineral Point Public Library and school libraries. An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, the NEA Big Read aims to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the experience of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.
I often think back on those first meetings when our grant committee reviewed the more than 30 books we could have selected for Mineral Point’s Big Read. Classics like “Fahrenheit 451” and “Our Town” were on the list alongside contemporary treatments of war and immigration and two poetry collections by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. But our small group of white women kept coming back to Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” — a genre-defying work that, through poetry, essay, and art, lays bare moments of anti-Black racism that often surface in everyday encounters and, in far too many instances, can be fatal. Despite the homogeneity of our community, citizenship, the school librarians noted, is a concept our youngest readers are learning in elementary school. And inclusion and belonging — or not belonging — is something older youth and adults can relate to — especially in a small town that insists on assigning labels to those “from here” and “not from here.” Wisconsin is the least racially integrated of the 50 states and ranks 48th among states with the most racial progress, according to Wallet Hub. As documented on the University of Virginia’s Racial Dot Map, the largest concentration of Black residents in our predominantly white region is the men’s prison in Boscobel. Ultimately, our committee agreed, our community is representative of the audience that needed to read “Citizen” and come to terms with the systemic racism that persists in our country.
We submitted our application in January 2019 and were notified in March that we were one of 78 organizations nationwide being awarded an NEA Big Read grant for the 2019-20 program year. Because of a media embargo, we couldn’t announce this amazing news until June. By then the key components of our programming supported by our $15,000 grant were taking shape. Because of “Citizen’s” use of poetry and art to explore the impact words have on concepts of identity and inclusion, we scheduled our NEA Big Read for April 2020 to coincide with National Poetry Month — a perfect time to showcase the importance and accessibility of poetry as a way to communicate with each other. During April and continuing into May 2020, the NEA Big Read: Mineral Point program celebrating “Citizen” would feature a kickoff event and keynote session, numerous book discussions at regional libraries, a film series, school programs, art making, art conversations, and a poetry slam with open mic. Additional partners included the Multicultural Outreach Program, which exists to provide needed support to southwestern Wisconsin’s immigrant population, and the Mineral Point Opera House, which had agreed to waive its rental fees to co-host the film series and, most incredibly of all, the keynote session with Claudia Rankine in conversation with then-Wisconsin Poet Laureate Margaret Rozga. At every event, free copies of “Citizen” would be available.
Well, we all know what happened in March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and statewide quarantine turned all of our lives, and our NEA Big Read upside down. Knowing that we could not host Rankine at the Mineral Point Opera House for the program’s keynote session in April, we regretfully canceled our contract for her talk as well as the film series while we pondered how to move forward. (We were not yet as Zoom savvy as I like to think we are now.) Our library and school partners had to hit pause on the in-person programs they had planned with youth readers, while nearly everything else we had planned was scaled back and tentatively rescheduled for the fall.
And then May 25, 2020, happened. A Black man named George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes in broad daylight. A Black teenager’s cell phone footage of the horror went viral for the entire world to see. Just as the TV broadcast of the beating of voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama had been a turning point in 1965, George Floyd’s murder was a turning point for many Americans who could not believe what they were watching on their screens. Waves of social justice protests and violence broke out, and something in me snapped. For a year and a half I’d been immersing myself in the themes of “Citizen,” including the microaggressions that compound the trauma of racism, but nothing had prepared me for the terrible sadness and hopelessness I felt at this latest, but likely not last, murder of a Black citizen by a white police officer.
Thanks to Shake Rag Alley, I didn’t have to process this alone. When our country was in turmoil and so many white people were waking up to the ongoing realities of racism in our country and wondering how they could participate in the necessary changes we need to make, Shake Rag Alley provided a space where they could engage in ideas, words and art to help process the events of these times. Although we were still months from our rescheduled NEA Big Read, my colleague Jacquelyn Thomas with whom I co-wrote our grant suggested that we host a series of virtual community conversations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and as prelude to reading “Citizen” with our community. We held the first one on June 19 — Juneteenth — with a community activist who shared his experience growing up in Milwaukee and Fort Atkinson and living and working in Madison. Subsequent topics in July and August addressed local Black history; systemic racism and healthcare with Dr. Sarah Fox; systemic racism and K-12 education with a Madison-based middle-school teacher; and race and policing with Professor Michael Thornton. These 1.5-hour Zoom meetings gave participants a chance to learn about current events addressed in “Citizen.” Audio recordings with accompanying videos, links and data charts are still available on our website.
At the end of September, our rescheduled and mostly virtual NEA Big Read kicked off via Zoom and included a craft talk on writing about race and a lecture about James Baldwin; book discussions in Mineral Point and Platteville, including a seven-week virtual Shake Rag Alley Chapter Book Club; art-making opportunities for adults and youth; a keynote panel titled “Citizen Author and the American Story,” which featured five racially diverse authors; and the distribution of most of the 1,000 copies of “Citizen” that our grant had paid for.
Before the NEA Big Read had ended, the dozen or so members of the Shake Rag Alley Chapter Book Club had agreed we weren’t done reading and learning together. We invited suggestions from the group on book titles to read during the inaugural 2021 Antiracism Book Club, which continues this year. Each book club selection has been at turns illuminating, infuriating and devastating as I continue to come to terms with how much about our shared national history I do not know.
And why didn’t I know it? Why have I only begun in the past three years to be aware of the fear and trauma Black and brown citizens of my country have lived with for centuries? And now that I am unlearning and relearning this history, what am I going to do with this new knowledge? What is The Work I am going to do, as one of my book club peers puts it? While I continue what I think of as the re-education of Sara, I consider myself fortunate to have met many other people within the Shake Rag Alley community at the same point of unlearning and relearning. And it’s heartening to learn about other communities, including groups in Dodgeville, Monroe, Platteville, Spring Green, and Richland Center doing the work of advocacy for social justice.
If you’re finding yourself on the same journey of unlearning and relearning, or are eager to embark, join us at 6:30 p.m. the third Thursday of the month for the Antiracism Book Club. It’s free and virtual via Zoom, and you’ll find a full list of reading selections at www.ShakeRagAlley.org. And if you’d like a copy of “Citizen,” email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Lomasz Flesch is the executive director of Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, and editor and publisher of Voice of the River Valley. To contribute your voice to the Antiracism Open Mic, email email@example.com.