Presenter of the National Book Awards

t’ai freedom ford, Poet and educator, interviewed about BookUp LGBTQ

When it came time to select an instructor for BookUp’s inaugural LGBTQ program, t’ai freedom ford was a natural choice. A Cave Canem fellow, New York City public school teacher, and generous poet, her love of education and reading is palpable. BookUp LGBTQ was created so that young queer readers can be paired with writers and stories that reflect their lives. t’ai freedom ford took time to answer a few questions about how she became a teacher, the books that have influenced her, and why BookUp LGBTQ matters.

t'ai freedom ford author photo

Courtney Gillette: You’re an accomplished writer and a high school English teacher. What drew you to teaching?
t’ai freedom ford: I've always loved school, teachers, just being in the school building was a thrill to me. When I was younger, I would mistakenly get dressed for school on a Saturday, only to find my sister in the living room watching cartoons. And I knew, at age 7, that I wanted to be a teacher. I did a lot of stuff in between that and didn't actually become a teacher until I was 30. I was answering phones at an ad agency and I thought, what the hell am I doing? I'm supposed to be teaching. So I applied to the NYC Teaching Fellows and became a teacher that fall.

CG: Teachers are some of the hardest working people I know. What is it about BookUp LGBTQ that would inspire you to teach on Friday afternoons after teaching full time? 

I’m so excited about having the time and space to talk to young people about gorgeous language and imagery and their emotional investment in the book.

– t’ai freedom ford

TFF: First, I love the demographic focus. I think the assumption is that young queer kids would rather be death-dropping and flipping through fashion magazines than reading. So, I love that BookUp sees the need to acknowledge young queer readers. Also, when I teach literature, everything that we talk about involves deep analysis of themes and archetypes and literary criticism and other common core related stuff. Bah! I’m so excited about having the time and space to talk to young people about gorgeous language and imagery and their emotional investment in the book.

CG: How do your English students surprise you as readers?
TFF: My students never cease to surprise me or bring new insight to the ways in which we view literature. I'll teach the same book 3 years in a row and each year I'll learn a hundred new things about that book because of my students. Because they are so much more in touch with popular culture, they often make some super interesting connections that'll have me Googling during my prep periods.

CG: You began performing as a spoken word artist and rapper when you were a teenager. What was it like to discover poetry at that age? 
TFF: For me, hip-hop was all poetry. Yes, in school we learned about Poe and Angelou, but the energy of hip-hop and its lyricism really cracked something open inside of me. I was able to find my voice through writing rhymes and rapping and it was very empowering as a girl because there were so few female rappers doing it professionally and in my little rap world.

CG: What role has reading played in your life?  How has it changed or stayed the same since you were a kid?
TFF: Man, when I was a kid, I couldn't stop reading. I would take a shopping cart to the library and check out like 15-20 books at a time. I LOVED to read. I was this brown girl living in the projects who discovered that I could escape via books and my imagination. Now, as I've gotten older, I find that I don't have the time (or make the time) to read as much as I would like. I tend to only read the books I assign to my students. These days, because I am a writer, I think I read books a lot differently. It's less about escaping reality and more about reveling in the language.

CG: Are there books that were important to you in becoming a writer? in becoming a teacher? in coming out?

Sapphire's American Dreams gutted me as a reader, but as I writer I said, Oh! You can write about stuff like that?!

– t’ai freedom ford

TFF: I think I've always been a writer because I've always written. But there are definitely books that made me excited about writing and books that made me want to write. In high school, I fell in love with Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar. I don't think that I had read anything like it at the time. And then, around the same time, I read Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, which is such a beautifully magical book. I knew that I wanted to write like that.
When I read Morrison's The Bluest Eye, I knew that I would teach that book when I became a teacher because I thought every brown girl needed to read it. To date, I believe I've taught that book 9 of the 12 years I've been teaching.
As far as coming out was concerned, there wasn't any particular book per se. At least, not until college when I discovered Audre Lorde. BUT there was one book that definitely gave me permission to come out and speak out about sexual abuse. Sapphire's American Dreams gutted me as a reader, but as I writer I said, Oh! You can write about stuff like that?!

CG: Any titles you look forward to reading with the BookUp LGBTQ students?
TFF: I'm really open to what the students will choose to read and am looking forward to getting to read purely for reading's sake.

CG: Is there a moment from your teaching career that stands out to you?
TFF: My first year as a teacher I taught ninth graders. We read excerpts from memoirs and then they drafted their own memoir chapters. There was one student who wrote about visiting her father in jail and I remember giving her some suggestions to bring the scene to life. Then, we had a publishing party and an author's reading. The student read the chapter she had revised and the entire class was in tears. It was such a moving moment. As a new teacher, it was definitely confirmation of why I was there—to nurture the voices of young people.
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher, Cave Canem Fellow and Pushcart Prize nominee. She received her MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Ivy, The Brooklyn Review, Bronx Biannual and Kweli. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Sinister Wisdom, No, Dear, The African American Review, Vinyl, Muzzle, Poetry and others. Her work has also been featured in several anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. In 2012 and 2013, she completed two multi-city tours as a part of a queer women of color literary salon, The Revival. In 2014, she was the winner of The Feminist Wire’s inaugural poetry contest judged by Evie Shocklee and is a 2015 Center for Fiction Fellow. She is the winner of the 2015 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize from A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO). Her first poetry collection, “how to get over” is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.
Courtney Gillette is Program Assistant for the National Book Foundation.