kYmberly Keeton Wants Your Stories for the Black COVID-19 Index

And at the Austin African American Book Festival 2020, she'll tell you why

kYmberly Keeton
kYmberly Keeton

Whose stories matter?

That may seem a secondary consideration in these days when lives are literally on the line and more get taken every week, but the way those lives survive and are carried on through the present and into the future is in the stories that are told and collected and preserved. Celebrating and sharing the stories of Black lives – proclaiming that their stories matter – has always been the mission of the Austin African American Book Festival, and it continues to fulfill that mission in 2020, even when it's been forced online by the coronavirus pandemic.

The format may be virtual, but in this 14th incarnation being held Saturday, June 27 – titled "We Wear the Mask: Surviving Oppression in the 21st Century" – the AAABF will still bring to Austin notable authors with stories we need to hear. This year, that's Dr. Damon Tweedy, author of the 2015 memoir Black Man in a White Coat, who can tell his own story about confronting race and racism in the medical profession; and Isabel Wilkerson, who, in her 2010 history The Warmth of Other Suns, told the stories of three African Americans who separately left the South in the Great Migration and Second Great Migration. And from our own ranks will be Dr. Mark Cunningham, an Austin film scholar who will speak to the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar, this country's first great Black poet and one of its greatest poets ever, full stop; and kYmberly Keeton, the local archivist and activist just named one of the "50 Movers and Shakers – People Shaping the Future of Libraries" by Library Journal, who is interested in the stories of, well, everyone who's Black.

To clarify, that "everyone" doesn't mean people in the past, though that would be a natural assumption given Keeton's position as the Austin History Center's African American Community Archivist and Librarian and her role in organizing and launching Growing Your Roots, the four-day statewide African American genealogy conference earlier this year. But in this case, Keeton is all about the present – specifically about African Americans living through this same pandemic that's sending the AAABF to Zoom this year. She believes their stories matter, and she's collecting them for the Black COVID-19 Index, an independent project she initiated to gather stories, images, audio, and video created by African Americans in response to the coronavirus and these times.

The idea for the index came to Keeton after a friend showed her a list of similar repositories back in February. Of the nearly 60 such entities listed, none of them were for Black people. "It was very, very alarming to see that," Keeton says. "I wanted to make sure that there was a repository for people of color. As far as African American people, I wanted them to have something to contribute their work to and know that it was being taken care of, with care, with love, and [know] that their voices need to be heard, regardless of what region you're in, whether you're in China, in the continent of Africa, wherever you are in the world, there is an entity for you to be able to express yourself."

Keeton had already been building an online African American digital art library for years, so she established the Index under the banner of ART | library deco ("sweet as the moment when art went 'Pop'") and began soliciting submissions in April. That happens to be the month in which National Library Week is celebrated, so Keeton also wanted to be sure that Tracie D. Hall, the executive director of the American Library Association, was aware of what she was doing. She sent Hall the call for submissions in a Facebook message that said, "I would like you to look at this and tell me what you think about it." What she thought was that it was a project worth endorsing, and before National Library Week was out, Hall had posted the call and a shout-out to Keeton on her Facebook page alongside a PSA that Seth Meyers had made in support of libraries. The national attention gave the Index a huge boost. "It's been shared like a hundred times on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram," Keeton says. "The response has been great."

That led Dr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones to Keeton's door. The founder of the AAABF wanted Keeton to make a presentation about the Black COVID-19 Index at the 2020 festival. Keeton agreed to. "I felt it was very important," she says. And she felt it was important to do more than simply explain what the Index is. She wanted to use that space to help people create work that could be added to the Index. So her session on Saturday will not only discuss the importance of valuing and preserving our stories but also guide participants in setting down their personal stories through a creative writing workshop. And those taking part will be invited to submit their work to the Black COVID-19 Index. Submissions will be archived online, but some will also be published next February. "My idea from the jump was to make sure there was something to publish for Black History Month 2021," Keeton says. She already publishes a journal every year from visual art, literature, and other material in ART | library deco. For this year, though, "I wanted to make sure that there was a publication that comes out from the African American community specifically about this pandemic and the work that was created in it."

Because Black stories matter.

Austin African American Book Festival 2020 – We Wear the Mask: Surviving Oppression in the 21st Century

Saturday, June 27, 10am-2pm

The festival is free, but attendees must register in order to receive the Zoom codes for each session. To register, visit

10am: On Call With Dr. Tweedy

Damon Tweedy, author of Black Man in a White Coat, discusses the high stakes of racial bias in health care and how Black patients can navigate the difficult terrain of race and medicine.

11am: The Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson, author of the forthcoming book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, draws on her acclaimed work The Warmth of Other Suns, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, to discuss the mass movement of African Americans out of the South in the 20th century and its impact.

Noon: We Wear the Mask: The Voice of Paul Laurence Dunbar

As this year's festival falls on the birth anniversary of celebrated poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, Austin Community College professor Dr. Mark Cunningham examines Dunbar's life, poetry, and relevance in our current racial climate.

1pm: The Black COVID-19 Index: Valuing and Preserving Our Stories

Librarian and archivist kYmberly Keeton leads a creative writing workshop to help participants chronicle their unique experiences during the coronavirus pandemic. Their stories, images, audio, and video can be submitted to the Black COVID-19 Index to be published and archived.

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Austin African American Book Festival, kYmberly keeton, Austin History Center, ART, library deco, Black COVID-19 Index, AAABF, Black Lives Matter

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