Just before author Colson Whitehead took the stage as a part of the Mt. Lebanon Public Library Speakers Series, two juniors from Mt. Lebanon High School stepped to the podium to introduce him.
Kobe Brown and Zaire Dinkins, co-presidents of the Black Student Union at the high school, had been asked by the library to welcome Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” and the 2023 National Humanities medalist. They had also been part of a select group of students from the high school who had the chance to meet with the writer just before his talk, which took place on April 26 in the Mellon Middle School auditorium.
Whitehead, whose most notable works include The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys and Harlem Shuffle, spoke to members of the Black Student Union, plus a few other students and several faculty members, about his writing process and where he got his ideas, topics that he also discussed in his public address that followed.
“It was really nice to see Mr. Whitehead’s personality. He wasn’t all uptight, he made jokes and talked about comic books and stuff that I like,” said Dinkins, Florida Avenue.
“I think he’s important because he’s showing us Black excellence,” she continued, “exposing others to experiences they wouldn’t be able to get. And I think it’s important to share those experiences and educate others, because to me the biggest thing we’re fighting is ignorance.”
Whitehead took the time to converse with the students.
“He opened up the floor to have a discussion and let us ask questions and took a few photos with us,” said Brown, Summit Drive
Faculty sponsor Pete DiNardo was impressed with Whitehead’s rapport with the students.
“Colson was spectacular in the small as well as larger setting. His demeanor [with the kids] was as chill, kind and direct as his responses to the questions asked at the end of his talk. He nurtured students who were a little shy about asking a question, gave focused, authentic and deep answers to their questions and offered advice. My two co-sponsors, Art Robinson (parent) and Jocelyn Artinger (principal at Markham Elementary) were also impressed with his kindness in giving his time and wisdom to our students.”
Some of the discussion centered on Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead’s most recent book, which many of the students had read.
Dinkins had prepared questions and shared them beforehand with the other students who were present. “He had asked us how we wanted to lead the conversation, because he was open to doing whatever we wanted. When he talked about getting rejection letters, he told us, ‘Try again, don’t give up.’ His language has power and he had to learn that.”
Brown summed up a prevailing feeling among the group. “I thought it was really cool that the library reached out to us and invited us to that kind of an event.”