2016 Read-In (March 23-24, 2016)

Leaving Atlanta
by Tayari Jones

In her critically acclaimed debut, Tayari Jones explores the tragedy of the Atlanta Child Murders through the eyes of three unforgettable children. Like all kids across the city, fifth-grade classmates Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison were discovering that back-to-school now meant special safety lessons, indoor recess, and being thrown into a world their parents couldn't comprehend, one in which the everyday challenges of growing up were coupled with constant fear—and the news of the murders of one's peers.

Movingly detailed and quietly heartbreaking, Leaving Atlanta shimmers with the piercing, ineffable quality of childhood. It is the hurts and little wins we all went through, the slow and all-too-sudden changes, and the forces that swept us into adulthood and forever shaped our lives.

In [the author's] Own Words

I was almost nine years old when the bodies of fourteen-year-old Edward Smith and thirteen-year-old Alfred Adams were discovered in Atlanta, beginning the official investigation of what became known as "The Atlanta Child Murders." Over the course of the next two years, at least twenty more African American children were murdered. Two of them were students at my elementary school. People often ask me if my childhood was stolen. I tell them no, but I don't think that they believe me. Maybe after reading Leaving Atlanta, they will. I wrote this novel to make a record of how life was for those of us who were too young to understand the complicated social and political landscape of Atlanta, the "city too busy to hate." Those of us on the playground didn't know that in 1979 Atlanta was the only city in the country that could boast of having a black mayor, police chief, and school board president. We had no idea that we were the heirs of the civil rights movements. When children's bodies were found strewn in wooded areas, creeks, and dumpsters, most of us had no knowledge of the history of lynching in the American south. What we knew were the things that mattered to us as children. Like all other children, we worried that we wouldn't be accepted by our peers, we fretted that our parents might divorce, but we also worried that a faceless predator might murder us. During my freshman year at Spelman College, an eight-year-old boy didn't show up as scheduled for tutoring. I panicked, scouring the campus, shouting his name and asking everyone if they had seen a little boy with jug-ears. Some people simply indicated that they hadn't seen him but others put down their notebooks, abandoned their boyfriends and helped me look. I soon realized something about everyone who helped me-- the young women who looked under bushes, placed desperate calls to public safety, and retraced the route from the bus stop to the campus gates. We were all Atlanta natives. We remembered.

Teaching Resources:

Reader's Guide to Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

MostlyFiction Book Reviews: We Love to Read!

About the Read-In

Author Leanne Howe speaks with a student at the 2010 Read-In.

Author Leanne Howe speaks with a student at the 2010 Read-In.

In 1988 the Department of English and Foreign Languages initiated the Hampton University Read-In. Its purpose was to offer all segments of the Hampton family an opportunity to focus on one particular book for study and discussion. Beginning with Hampton alumnus Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, we have read works by African American authors such as Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men, Octavia Butler's Kindred, Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, Jewell Parker Rhodes' Douglass' Women, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and LeAnne Howe, The Miko Kings.

At this point it is fair to say that the annual Read-In is a Hampton tradition. However, it is also plays a significant role in the instructional program. Each spring, for example, most English 101-102 classes read and write about whatever novel has been selected. Many upper-division English courses do as well. However, works are chosen with specific regard to their relevance to other disciplines as well. Usually instructors in History, Political Science, Sociology and other areas also use the work in a wide range of courses. Students and instructors write and deliver papers at the mini-conference held in conjunction with the climactic event, which has almost always been an appearance by the author. Aspiring student writers have the experience of attending a master class and interacting with a famed writer, and the Hampton community as a whole has the chance to read the work, think and talk about it, and then experience its author reading and discussing it himself or herself. In sum, then, the Read-In is a closely integrated event designed to be intellectually meaningful to the entire Hampton family.