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Hope of CMU’s MLK Writing Awards is that talk about race lasts past MLK Day

January20/ 2012

“Part of what we’re doing is giving them permission to tell their own truth,” Jim Daniels says about the high-school students who write about race and related issues for the annual MLK Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University, which also includes CMU students. Daniels, Baker Professor of English, founded and directs the contest, which just announced and posted some of the winners.

Even though race hovers in the consciousness of everyone, “sometimes kids are hesitant to approach the subject because it becomes so tense and loaded so quickly,” he says. The program began in 1997, when Daniels edited a poetry anthology for adults about race. “I thought it would be really interesting to get young people to do the same thing.”

It’s hard to say what’s trending in young people’s thoughts about the subject today. “Sometimes it’s disappointing in terms of things continuing to be an issue – African-American kids getting followed around in stores,” for instance, he says. But now there are kids from an even wider background considering the impact of ethnicity on their lives. “There are more kids writing from a mixed-race background, which I find interesting and in some cases heartening. I think they are more open about writing about it than before Obama was elected.”

This year’s winners include a Japanese student writing about internment camps, a white kid — the daughter of a minister — writing about growing up alongside black people, and a Jewish kid questioning how he is supposed to, versus how he does, view Palestinians.

“One of the dangers of this” focus on race for only one day in January every year, Daniels concludes, “is that you think about it one day and forget about it the next. One way or another, we hope the discussion continues past Martin Luther King Day.”

Writer: Marty Levine

Source: Jim Daniels, Carnegie Mellon University