Interview w/ Kenneth Braswell

I came across “Daddy There’s a Noise Outside” in 2017 while reading the Multicultural Children’s Book Day blog and was immediately inspired by the story. After following Kenneth’s work I learn about his writing and work to raise awareness about the importance of literacy. With initiatives such as Real Dad’s Read and Fathers Incorporated he is engaging many Black fathers and families too. Well we had a great conversation, so this is a condensed version of it. Enjoy.

 

1. Please introduce yourself.

My name is Kenneth Braswell. I am the CEO of Fathers Incorporated.

Photo: Atlanta Fatherhood Network

2. Whats Fathers Incorporated about?

My organization is charged with providing professional development and capacity building for social service agencies across the country and providing direct delivery service to fathers. Our mission is to elevate the conversation of fatherhood to become more actively involved in the lives of their children, to impact healthy child outcomes and family outcomes of the families that they love and that surround them. We’re based here in Atlanta, Georgia.

Photo: David Fenton

2. The book talks about protest or civil disobedience, what was your first experience with that?

Growing up in Brooklyn. I went to P.S. 221 in Crown Heights. We used to have a lot of fire drills. But also, there was a lot of unrest going on then around the country, particularly in Brooklyn. I distinctly remember we used to always have to go across the street, and we would be facing the building so we could kind of see everything that was going on, if it was a fire or anything else.

I remember seeing on the top of the roof these people with black leather jackets and Tams and guns in their hands. As a little kid you’re looking at it like, “Wow, that’s the Army.” You’re like, “That’s some segment of the Army that’s up there and something is going on with them.” And I didn’t know until I got a little older that it was the Black Panthers that were in our community protesting someone that was killed in Crown Heights by the police from Precinct 71, which was notorious for their engagement with Blacks in that community back then.

Later on in life I was kind of like, “Whoa. I had no idea that these brothers and sisters were moving at that level,” because we kind of knew who they were, but we didn’t know who they were. Those were the same brothers and sisters that was feeding kids sandwiches in the park in the summertime. They would come with their black t-shirts, army fatigue pants, and their boots. To us, they would just be dudes in the community that was handing out. I had no idea of the significance of who they really were.

When I would hear the term sometimes like, “Oh, your uncle was in the movement,” you didn’t know what that meant. You thought like, “First of all, what is a movement? And then what movement are we talking about?” Then when you would hear someone in your community that was arrested for robbing a supermarket or robbing something big in the community, they were like, “Yeah, they’re trying to get money for the movement.” It was like, “What are y’all talking about?”

3. Kenneth, you mention in the book that it was written after protests for Freddie Gray who was killed by Baltimore PD. Was that the main spark for creating the story?

My son, ironically has become my muse. I was in Baltimore for a conference with the Black World’s 21st, a Pan-African organization doing a lot of work around reparations.They pulled me into the conversation to talk about how we mobilize men and fathers. I was just really trying to see how we can put some systemic things in place, deal with traumatic slave syndrome, and all of those other kinds of things that impact men these days that we dismiss as part of our psyche.

So we were down there on the same day that the indictments were supposed to come down for the officers who killed Freddie Gray. My friend David and I are right in the mix of what they called ground zero, where he was murdered. It was a hotbed in Baltimore. The national guard, troopers, and military was out there. There was a bunch of angry concerned Black folks with high levels of anxiety that day. We were on those corners not knowing what was going to happen. Those indictments could have went another way and all hell would have broken loose. I mean, there were tanks in downtown Baltimore! It was crazy!

My wife was watching it on CNN and we happen to be standing next to them interviewing people. They asked “Do you guys mind being interviewed?” And I was like, “David, you go ahead and do it. You live here.” My wife and son saw me on CNN. My son asked “Why is daddy there with all of those police? What’s going on?” And my wife said to him, “Wait till your dad comes home. He’ll tell you why he was there.”

Fast forward. A couple of days later I get home. I wasn’t even in the door two seconds, before he goes, “Daddy, why were you with all those police? What were you doing?” I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m just walking in the door!” And I realized that I had an answer for him, but I did not have a six-year-old answer that would help him understand why I was there without telling him what was going on. I decided to talk to him about protests, not necessarily about Freddie Gray. But, we had a conversation about Martin Luther King, the Marches, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. I started walking through all these things and explaining what protesting meant and he got it. Then my friend David said, “you should write a children’s book about that”.

4. Has there been a welcoming or resistant attitude to the book?

No, never a resistant attitude. It’s still my most popular book today. And now that stimulated me to write other books. I now have four! I have no idea how people find out about this book either. I don’t promote it, I don’t move it, it just moves.

We did two things though. The book is family centered, right? There’s a dad in it. And the other thing is, we added a parent teacher guide to help discussion with children. When I was doing book readings at an elementary school, I remember teachers and some people saying “little kids will not understand what you’re talking about.” And I’m like, “That’s not true. My son who was six years old understood it. And so will any six year old if you present it to them in the right way.”

Going into those schools and talking to these children was inspiring for me and it was enlightening for me how much our children know about the world that we don’t expect them to.

They don’t just know Dr. King, they have a sense about who he was, what he meant, and what it was he was trying to do. They don’t see him just as a holiday even though social context is, from a social context perspective, that’s all we’re pushing. I have a dream, but somewhere in their little psyches with respect to what they’re hearing, they understand that he was more than that.

5. What was the process like to create this story?

At first I told my friend “I don’t know how to write no children’s book!” He said, “Man, it’s easy. I’m going to send you a template. You just go down the template and you write it, and illustrate it and you get it done.” And so, on a plane flight from LA to Atlanta I used this template and I wrote it.

One of the biggest struggles I had with the book was that Black Lives Matter was such a hot topic at the time and it was polarizing. I struggled with making any reference to Black Lives Matter in the text. But because they were walking across the street and they were looking at protesters, I wanted to kind of illustrate what they were looking at. So the illustrator Julie Anderson put somebody with a sign that said Black Lives Matter. I didn’t make it the forefront of the story but I wanted to give reference to what they were dealing with and what these children were seeing.

Because what this reminded me of was me looking on top of that building and seeing those Panthers. Like at this age, I’m seeing this, I’m not really understanding it. I don’t know what I’m in the midst of. I don’t know where I am in time but something is there that I have a curiosity about and I’m not necessarily sure if I’m ever going to learn what that is. And then from the parents’ perspective, it is, they are absorbing where they are, everything that’s going on.

 

6. I noticed that you founded the organization Fathers Incorporated and an initiative called Real Dads Read. What made you decide to start this organization and how does the topic of the book fit in? 

Wow, that’s a lot. So Fatherhood Incorporated was birthed out of my own struggles and challenges with the mother of my youngest daughter. Particularly around custody. Her and I found ourselves in the courtroom watching government tell us what to do with our child. And you know, I was blessed in a sense that we didn’t have major issues. We just weren’t getting along. We were moving into different directions but it wasn’t clean. So there was still a little drama in there. At the time I was already doing non profit work with the Urban League, NAACP, The Boys Club, and the YMCA. I was just that community dude. If anything was moving, I was on it.

I decided that I really wanted to peel off and do specific work around men, helping them get their acts together, and supporting them fulfilling their desires. The Real Dads Read program was birthed when we tried to figure out how can we connect with fathers on the ground. We began to start working with them to provide deeper services. And we knew that dads show up in the barbershop, and at their children’s schools.

We began something that would allow us to create partners and get us closer to men. We started with barber shops and Real Dads Read, by putting libraries in barbershops throughout Atlanta. We started with a grant from the Annie Casey Foundation that allowed us to put 25 in barbershops. We got a second grant from the Walton Family Foundation that allowed us to add another 25, that got us to 50 barbershops. So from a programmatic perspective, whenever I want to provide services, or I want to move men, I can use those partners in barbershops or schools to get attached to the men to provide services for them.

6. How does it feel to be an author now? And have you seen any other children’s books that break down similar topics so kids can understand?

It’s interesting because now that I’m in this space, I have challenges when people call me an author. Because I’m like, that’s not what I do. I create tools for my work. And so, they’re like, “yeah, but it’s a book”. And I’m like, “yeah”. But they’re like, “No, you’re an author!” And I’m like, “Okay. Haha”.

But I’ve now somewhat embraced that title because I am a storyteller. I love to create stories, and to make complex things plain, not only for children, but for people in general. And so, now that I’m in this space, I’m paying more attention to publishing, authorship, and who’s writing what. I pay attention to who’s getting the big publishing contracts, and who’s not. Who is doing great work on the ground? Who’s moving work through school systems? Who’s moving great work through communities versus who’s just out there selling books?

And it’s really been somewhat enlightening to me because I think that there’s even, I don’t know if it’s research, but a survey out there, that’s saying that now the percentage of books that are written by African American authors has risen over the last three years. And so, there are definitely more black folks writing children’s books than ever before. The question is, are there more Black folks getting large publishing contracts to publish those books? And I think that there’s a kind of twofold thing going on where many people in my space, they’re not even, I know cats that aren’t even looking for a publisher no more. Their thing is I’m moving my own book. So, they start out looking for a publisher or looking to publish their own books. My thing with them, and with respect to what I’ve learned about my books is that it’s easier to move your work when it’s attached to a work, right?

8. Lastly, where can folks find you all in person and online? And will we see any more children’s books from you?

So, the best way to get in touch with me always is Google, and so you type in Kenneth Braswell, Father’s Incorporated, “Daddy There’s a Noise Outside”. You type in, “Daddy, I’m Feeling Blue”. You type in daddy’s family tree, you type in, my last one was “Daddy, can I cry?”. I’m going to pop up all over the place in there. You’ll be able to find our Facebook page, which is Father’s Incorporated, our Instagram, which is Father’s Incorporated as well. My Twitter, which is Fathers Incorporated, and you’ll find all my personal handles, whether it is Kenneth Braswell or in Twitter is the backwards way Braswell Kenneth, and then you can also go to our website at fathersincorporated.com or give us a call at the office at (770) 804-9800.