By Wynne Kontos
In the video, Javan Howard stands in front of the room and asks us to repeat the words, “My voice will change the world.” The video was recorded last fall, when Howard helped teach a training session for incoming teaching artists and education associates at Teachers & Writers Collaborative. So I recognize him when, on a rainy day in February, we meet to discuss his body of work.
At 30, Javan “Jay” Howard, has amassed an impressive resume as an educator, poet, and activist. Currently teaching all ages in six programs throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and author of the recently released poetry collection, America Is Me, America Is NOT Me, he is also developing his own nonprofit.
A self-expressed “quiet kid” who grew up in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood of the Bronx, he says he was “scared to share himself.” Howard is indeed soft-spoken, but he’s direct. His poetry is commanding, and the words speak from the page, much as I had witnessed during his teaching. That former fear of self-expression motivates his work now.
“I felt like my voice was always overshadowed by somebody. So I started to write,” Howard says. A seventh-grade Harlem Renaissance project introduced him to the poetry of Langston Hughes, and he spent the next two weeks in the library absorbing Hughes’ language. Howard says in school, he felt more comfortable speaking out in math or science subjects, but English and drama opened him up to the world of performance and expression. In high school, he re-wrote Shakespeare’s entire play, Romeo and Juliet, as a rap.
Of his current poetry writing, Howard says he has a “scattered brain,” often piecing things together. Using a set of six notebooks, combined with his phone and tablet, Howard does most of his writing “in transition.”
“Because I’m always on my way to somewhere, I like to use that time to write. I like to people watch, to be in spaces where I can observe what’s going on around me. My writing responds to the world around me, so I have to be in the world.”
His movement through the city does not go unnoticed by creatives around him. Jordan Dann, the education director at Teachers & Writers, says, “Jay embodies the defining image of a teaching artist…he is always on a train or in a classroom, traveling to the outskirts of all of New York City’s different boroughs to bring passion and creativity to the city’s youth.”
For Howard, the intersection between his writing and teaching is concerned with the consciousness of being. “You have to be conscious of who you are. The world always challenges you, so why not challenge the world through your writing?” Howard’s poems include the titles “Breakin’ Black Myths,” “Kool Aid,” “America is Me, America Is NOT Me”; and his lesson plans are also focused on confronting stereotypes, defining identity, and identifying bias.
The question of what it means to be an American citizen has been present in Howard’s head for the past several years, prior to the policies of the current administration or ongoing government actions, though he’s aware that these things impact him and his students at every level. “I try to use my workshops as a creative place, but also as a place for conversation,” Howard says. He’s turned to social media as a way of creating new and innovative ways for his students to talk openly about controversial topics or questions of identity. Hashtags—single words and sentences with the pound sign, #, in front of them—allow for any comments posted using said hashtag to be viewed in a single space on a variety of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Using hashtags has created new opportunities for Howard and his students to communicate. “Using the hashtag #ifnotmethenwho, we asked students to think about their individual relationship with the world. What can you do that no one else can? Reminding them that no one else can be you.”
Helping students confront their identity and the issues behind it, is something Howard began to learn young. His experiences at Dickinson College, a predominantly white institution, forced him to consider what it means to be Black in America, “A lot,” Howard adds. When he arrived on campus in 2005, a drive-by incident where he was called the N word, and later a Confederate flag “welcoming” visitors on an environmental studies field trip, forced him to admit that he didn’t feel welcome in the environment where he was supposed to feel included.
Yet despite these hate crimes, Howard went on to help found the Africana Studies Department at Dickinson, and was the second student to graduate with the degree. Of his desire to continually effect change he says, “I have this longing to be recognized just by who I am. Being in the classroom now, I’m more aware of where my students are coming from. I’m teaching where I come from in the Bronx and in Brooklyn and Queens, where students are challenged in their own communities about who they are. A lot of students feel that once they leave the Bronx and they move to Manhattan it’s a new world, but it’s not a new world. How do we negotiate our identities? How does the world see us? It’s a conversation that everybody has at some point in their life.”
When I ask about the state of education in New York, Howard says, “I respect teachers so much. They have a hard job. Limited resources a lot of times, with limited learning environments.” Growing up in the era of No Child Left Behind, Howard understands even more how teachers are under near constant pressure to teach to standards. “As a teaching artist, I have the space to go above and beyond the general classroom setting. Maybe use the Common Core standards or some of the literary themes, but come from a different angle and approach.”
Some of those angles include writers, musicians, and influencers Howard introduces to his students. Figures like Lucille Clifton, Lauryn Hill, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Spike Lee, and LeBron James all make appearances in his poetry and lesson plans. “Any artist that does these multiple things well, I’m more drawn to their work,” Howard says.
Howard’s own nonprofit, which is scheduled to begin a pilot program within the next several months, will take all the strongest aspects of his focus on identity and self-expression, with a heavy influence on community membership and education. “It’s built around three words: Dream, Imagine, Evolve, so DIE, do you live or do you die?” Howard explains. “You can’t be silent, people are always trying to tell you who you are, but you should be the one to have that voice.”
As we make small talk, Howard and I discuss which of his poems is his favorite to perform, (“‘A Spike Lee Joint, But Your Life is Not a Movie’, the rhythm that it carries, the momentum I get when reading works for me.”), and his first influencer (Tupac, but he’s quick to specify The Notorious B.I.G. as his favorite rapper). I ask him to sign his book for me. Before we shake hands, before he walks back out into the rain on his way to yet another mentorship meeting, this is what he writes in the front cover: “…I can’t help but want my love for words to spread across the world. As a writer, I know you want to change the world one word at a time. Keep striving to do what you love. The world is waiting.”
For more about Javan Howard’s teaching, see his “Who I Am” lesson plan.
About the Author:
Wynne Kontos, a 2017–2018 T&W editorial associate, is a Licensed Masters social worker. She recently received her MFA in fiction from The New School. Her writing is featured in Love Sick: Growing Up with a Parent Who Has Cancer, Moonlit Wing, and The Inquisitive Eater with interviews in Brooklyn Magazine, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Critical Mass, The New School Blog, and the One Story blog. She has performed her work with the writing collective Lost Lit and at the 25 East Gallery in Manhattan. She lives and works in New York City.