New York Times bestselling author Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez inspires CI 

New York Times bestselling author Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez inspires CI 

Photo courtesy of CSUCI Communication and Public Relations

By Destiny Caster

On April 11, CI hosted its 18th annual Campus Reading Celebration with New York Times bestselling author Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez in the John Spoor Broome Plaza. The event included student speakers Jessica Perez and Shayonna Huley, recognition of the Campus Reading Celebration Taskforce from professor and co-chair of the English program Dr. Kim Vose, a speech by President Richard Yao, a reading of selected passages from “Take My Hand” and discussion with Perkins-Valdez.

Perkins-Valdez is a writer and associate professor of the Literature Department at American University. She has written three books: “Take My Hand” (2022), “Balm” (2016) and “Wench” (2011).  “Take My Hand” is inspired by true events that happened in the 1970s. The book follows a Black nurse by the name of Civil Townsend, who has “big plans to make a difference, especially in her African American community … where she intends to help women make their own choices for their lives and bodies.”  

During Townsend’s first week of the job, she encounters her first two patients, India and Erica Williams, just eleven and thirteen years old living in an old, one-room cabin. Townsend grapples with the injustice African Americans face with the medical system as the two girls go through the unthinkable.

Student speaker and senior health science major, Jessica Perez introduced the event and the proceeding speakers. While reflecting on the history of the Camarillo State Hospital, Perez spoke about the themes in Perkins-Valdez’s novel and said, “I resonated with Dr. Perkins Valdez’s call for attention to our historic healthcare disparities. As an inspiring healthcare leader, I feel empowered to keep having these critical conversations in order to prevent history from repeating itself.”  

Regarding the history of the Campus Reading Celebration, Vose stated, “This annual signature event on our campus is, to the best of my knowledge, the oldest continuing event on our campus except for our convocation.” Over the past 18 years, the annual Campus Reading Celebration featured books that spoke about pressing issues such as Charles Fisherman’s “Big Thirst” and Roxanne Gay’s “Hunger,” with Perkins-Valdez’s “Take My Hand” joining the list this year.

Many of the event speakers acknowledged how much work went into planning and coordinating the Campus Reading Celebration. Vose discussed how, at one point in the past, the Campus Reading Celebration Taskforce consisted of 20 faculty members, but this year there were only seven.

She added, “We don’t often make visible the hidden labor that goes into planning an event like this, but this year we had such a tiny crew that overcame so many obstacles to bring this event to life.” The committee was also chaired solely by assistant professors and took an entire year to plan.  

During President Yao’s speech, he stated, “Today is the first day of Black Maternal Health Week recognized every year from April 11th to the 17th, to bring attention to the racial disparities that exist for pregnant women. And according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), ‘black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, due to variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias.’”  

He went on to share a quotation a woman named Grace Lynn, whose husband was killed in World War II, who stated, “The freedom to read, which is protected by the First Amendment, is our essential right and duty of our democracy. And even so, it is continually under attack by both the public and private groups who think they hold the truth.”  

The quotation refers to the banning of books that is currently happening in parts of the United States. Then President Yao quoted Lynn again, “Banning books and burning books are the same. Both are done for the same reason: fear of knowledge. Fear is not freedom. Fear is not liberty. Fear is control.” With that, President Yao, thanked Perkins-Valdez for writing about a story that needed to be told, and thanked all those who worked hard to make the event possible. 

Following President Yao, junior political science major Shayonna Huley provided background on Perkins-Valadez and welcomed her to the stage. Huley stated, “I personally fell in love with this novel. Civil’s passion for not only her own achievements, but also her community reminds me of my own. ‘Take My Hand’ highlighted to me the individual value of contributing impacts towards people of all groups.”

Perkins-Valdez then took the stage to discuss her book and her inspiration for writing it.  “I was curious about these two little girls that I had seen in archival footage, in documentaries and in on YouTube,” Perkins-Valdez stated. The story of the two little girls involved a Supreme Court case surrounding medical malpractice upon Black women, and served as inspiration her novel. “I wanted to know more about the story, and so I just began digging. … And it never starts out as a book. It always just starts out with, like, following my nose and curiosity.”  

She found media coverage on the two girls and the Supreme Court Case, Relf v. Weinberger. Their story was in every major newspaper, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Time Magazine, but there was not a book that talked about the two girls and their story until Perkins-Valdez. She reached out to the lawyer on the case, Joseph Levin, who was 28 years old at the time, and the social worker, Jessie Bly, to speak about their experiences with the girls and the case.  

Perkins-Valdez then took the opportunity to read two excerpts from “Take My Hand.” Afterward, a question-and-answer session between the audience and author was held, and the event concluded with a book signing. Perkins-Valdez said, “(My) hope is that just me being here and standing here before you will inspire y’all, because I know y’all have got stories to tell. I know that there’s somebody in here, there are somebodies in here with some stories to tell, and if you don’t tell them, who will?”