As a shy child growing up in Harlem, New York City, Ja’Nai Harris ’16 used writing as a way to express her big ideas and feelings. She’d even write letters to her mother when they got into an argument to make sure her points were conveyed. Writing was her safe space, creative outlet, and a means of expression that became central to her life and has grown over time.
When Harris was accepted to Gettysburg College on a full financial aid package, she knew she’d major in English because of her deep love of writing. On campus, she enrolled in multiple Africana studies courses and delved deeply into literature from authors of color in order to learn more about her own background as a Black-Latina woman.
“I was inspired by my professors and their passion for knowledge at Gettysburg, particularly those in Africana Studies,” Harris said. “Gettysburg made me a lifelong learner and a critical thinker—skills that I now try to impart to my students as an elementary school teacher.”
For the past three years, Harris has taught elementary school students in the Bronx at a school that serves predominately Latino and Black students. She said she made this choice intentionally: “I wanted my students to know that somebody who looks like them cares enough to come into this field and dedicate themselves to them.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and learning went remote, Harris found herself wanting to connect more deeply with her students, deliver more “joy,” and provide something special for them to show the beauty and richness of their backgrounds and histories. She decided to write an ABC-themed children’s book that is a “celebration and acknowledgement of Black and Brown excellence.”
“ABCs That Look Like You & Me” is a love letter to her elementary school students, she said, with every letter of the alphabet used as an opportunity to highlight a person of color who is an activist, artist, politician, musician, or other noteworthy and inspirational figure. The pages include Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, and Quincy Jones, record producer, song writer, and artist, among its 26 features.
“My second-graders are so passionate about learning, knowledge, and knowing more about their cultures and histories as Black and Brown children,” said Harris, who noted that there aren’t nearly enough books that feature characters of color or that celebrate Black and Latino history. “I wanted to help feed that curiosity and hunger to know more.”
Not only did Harris pen a book during a pandemic, she also gave birth to her daughter, which added another layer of meaning to her authorship.
“I want my daughter to know that when she dreams of all the things she can become as an adult, that there are people who look like us who have left footprints for us to follow,” Harris said. “She will be able to see herself in their stories and know her own story is valuable.”
Harris did in-depth research on each figure featured in the book but was inspired to include certain individuals as a result of her classes and experiences at Gettysburg. For example, Harris participated in a Gettysburg service trip to the Dominican Republic. While there, she visited a museum that honored the Mirabal sisters. She learned about the brave, outspoken sisters—Patria, Minerva, María Teresa, and Adela “Dedé”—and their roles in the resistance against dictator Rafael Trujillo who had seized power in a military coup in the 1930s. As retaliation for their resistance activities, all experienced imprisonment and three of the sisters were assassinated in 1960. That visit left a lasting impression on Harris.
“The Mirabel sisters are examples of bravery and fearlessness and demonstrate that Latina women can stand up and have a powerful voice, even in the midst of violence and tragedy,” said Harris, whose own voice has grown louder and stronger over the years. “Including Latinas in the book was really important to me as a woman who is Puerto Rican as well as Black.”
Another luminary featured in the book is James Baldwin, an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist who explored issues of race, class, and sexuality in his works. It was in English Prof. McKinley Melton’s “African American Biographies” class that Harris originally fell in love with Baldwin and began learning about other Black Americans who changed the world. She credits Melton with sparking something special in her.
“I call him Uncle Melton,” she said. “When my daughter was born, he gifted her so many wonderful books for her library. He is an important person in my life. To this day, Prof. Melton is my unofficial mentor.”
This fall, Harris is leaving the classroom to become an assistant principal at a school in her hometown of Harlem. While her days are filled with supporting and mentoring young people of color, she still carries her notebook to write down her thoughts and feelings. She thinks there may be more inspirational children’s books to write in her future and those notes will be her guide.
By Katelyn Silva
Photos courtesy of Ja’Nai Harris ’16