Image: Vicente Manansala, Community, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org
At Books@Work, we believe in the transformative power of conversation. A good conversation offers “a hospitable environment for creative thought.” Interacting with each other on a deeper level helps to dismantle exclusionary cultures and biases. We all know it’s tough to have difficult conversations at work – but they are critical to conflict resolution and trust-building.
We use narratives – fiction, nonfiction, poems and plays – to kickstart these conversations. We write frequently about the benefits of these discussions. But what exactly does a conversation around a literary text look like in action?
We recently completed the third installment of a program with Cleveland police officers and members of the local community, adding police recruits to the mix. Two groups of participants read and discussed Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am,” in which a woman confronts a boy who tries to steal her purse. Scolding him, she “drags him up the street” to her house, where both reflect on the incident and eat dinner together.
The groups’ responses to the story demonstrate just how a piece of literature – published 60 years ago, no less – can be the perfect catalyst for conversation exactly when it’s needed most.
In a Plain Dealer piece about the event, Cleveland Police Captain Keith Sulzer of the Community Policing Unit shared the story’s resonance:
“The story that we read and talked about today was about empathy. It’s about learning somebody’s story before judging them and I think it’s a great lesson for the cadets. When you’re a policeman, you don’t always have to take someone to jail. You can learn their story, and you can help in a different way. That’s what community policing is about.”
Captain Sulzer’s reaction illustrates another important point: a story strikes each reader in its own unique way. For Sulzer, the main character in “Thank You, Ma’am” was a model for how to engage with the community in a productive and human way. For others in the room, the main character was a symbol of a bygone era where neighbors looked out for each other, and provided tough love when it was most helpful. For all assembled, the story encouraged pause and reflection on the role of strong adults in steering and shaping the community’s youth: cloaking high expectations in love and acceptance.
American writer and critic Edmund Wilson once said that “no two persons ever read the same book.” It’s for this reason that conversation rooted in a piece of literature is so productive. When multiple minds approach the same text and engage with other readings, those minds undergo a shift. Every reader’s reaction has value and impact – it’s why we stress the importance of inviting all voices to the table. “There’s amazing things that come from conversation,” continued Captain Sulzer. “Whenever we have a conversation with a person in the community who has a different perspective, or comes from a different aspect of life, it’s a positive thing for everyone.”
Today, we’re sharing Langston Hughes’s “Thank You, Ma’am” with you. As you read, consider your personal connection to the story. What resonates with you? How does the context of your background affect how you read the text?
What other rich conversations might the story spur?