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African American Girls Book Club teaches pride, self-esteem and Black history

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Enjoying tour of Paul Laurence Dunbar home, are, from left in front row, tour guide LaVerne Sci, Amber Brown with daughter Aanyah Johnson, Layla Walton, Feleesha Phillips with daughters Daija and Madison. In back row, from left, are Cheryl Parker with daughters Cecilia and Lena, Jenell Walton, Patricia and Ryann Weems and Kyla Woods with daughter Ava Burns. Photo provided

The Seba Girls Book Club traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to tour the home of late 19th and early 20th century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The book club members read Dunbar’s famous poem “Sympathy,” about a caged bird singing, in preparation for the visit to the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial.

“The poem tells us how Black people felt after slavery. They were free, but they still felt trapped,” said 8-year-old Ryann Harris after reading the poem.

Book Club co-founder Jenell Walton says traveling to the historic site helped the girls connect to Dunbar’s life and accomplishments in a tangible way.

Seba Girls Book Club founders Jenell and Layla Walton. Photo provided

“When my daughter and I started the book club last year, we would read the book of the month and meet at the public library to discuss the story. The idea came to me to build field trips into some of our club meetings to bring the discussion to life. They love it,” said Walton.

When former manager of the historic site LaVerne Sci heard about the book club scheduling the visit, she decided she had to come out of retirement to personally give the girls a tour of Dunbar’s restored home. Sci dressed in period costume and started the tour with a brief video of Dunbar’s life. He was one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. Dunbar was a voice for equality for African Americans.

“I shared with them the essence of the many contributions that they are profiting from and enjoying coming through the next generation. I want them to be aware of the price that has been paid for their freedom, their creativity and their ability to explore and develop in any way that they choose too,” Sci said after teaching rules of etiquette during a surprise tea party she prepared for the girls.

The book club members are made up of mostly fourth grade girls including Layla Walton, Daija and Madison Phillips, Ryann Harris, Ana Smith, Ava Burns, Cecilia and Lena Parker, Aanyah Johnson and Sania Washington. Co-founder, Layla Walton, loves to read. She helps her mother choose the book of the month and says she enjoys reading books with main characters that look like her and her family.

“One of my favorite books we read is called Keena Ford and the Field-Trip Mix-Up. Keena is so funny. She cut off one of her pony tails by accident. And, she got into all kinds of trouble on the field-trip,” said 9-year-old Layla Walton.

The book club’s name “Seba” is an Egyptian word which means moral teacher.

“There are so many negative influences in the world today. It’s surrounding them on the internet, television and even with some of their playmates. My hope is that the book club will give Layla and her friends the courage to stand-up for what’s right, to love themselves and help them make healthy decisions throughout their life,” Walton said.

The girls will sometimes write a summary about the book of the month to discuss during the meetings. After reading “The Great Migration” about how African Americans fled north to escape the segregated south, 9-year-old Daija Phillips drew a picture of her interpretation of their experience.

“I think “The Great Migration” book is totally fine because people wanted to find a better life for themselves. I learned people traveled because where they lived was not a good place for them to live during that time in history,” Phillips explained.

Book club mom Kyla Woods was really excited when she was approached to join the group with her daughter Ava.

“Ava has always loved to read and when Jenell told me about Seba Girls Book Club, I knew it would be a transformative experience for her and the girls. It is so important to submerge our children in education with cultural context and encourage them to embrace our history,’’ Woods said.

The book club meets monthly at the Public Library. Walton encourages others to start their own book club, including fathers or mentors of young boys.

“The library has just about every notable book available in multiple copies, so there’s no cost in getting started. Just pick out your first book and start reading. It’s that simple.” Walton said.

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