Every time Derrick Barnes stands in front of a group of schoolchildren, he realizes that he isn’t just speaking to his target audience as an author of children’s books — he’s looking into the faces of future writers, artists, and poets.
Inspiring future writers and scholars
“I do as many school visits as I can across the country,” he says. “Seeing me – a black, male author – validates their hopes and dreams of being a writer or professor. I take my social responsibility seriously. I understand that just having them see me makes a difference in their lives, especially the boys who keep journals and write but don’t share it with their friends.”
We Could Be Brothers
His latest book, We Could Be Brothers, tells the story of two 13-year-old African-American boys from very different backgrounds who, over the course of several days, engage in a dialogue about life. Derrick’s goal was to reflect the diversity of the black community — to remind readers that not all black boys fit the stereotypes seen in popular entertainment.
Novels about the African-American experience
Growing up, Derrick didn’t dream of becoming a writer, but he’s published eight successful books for children and continues to write works that reflect the African-American experience. That success has opened the door to speak to young people about the importance of dreaming big and becoming difference makers.
“They don’t have to be writers or authors or artists, but to see people from multiple careers gives them options and gives them hope,” he says.
Derrick’s growth as a writer
A native of Kansas City, Mo., Derrick earned an undergraduate degree in 1999 from Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. He returned to his hometown after graduating, and later that year, he was hired as the first African-American staff copywriter at Hallmark Cards.
Derrick considers his three-year stint at the Kansas City-based company his “graduate school.” At Hallmark, he was surrounded by writers, poets, painters, and other artists. He grew as an author, discovering his literary voice, and he also grew as a man.
Derrick found inspiration in men who valued their families
“I came from a single-parent household. I didn’t have a lot of role models or male influences in my life,” he says. “Being around these guys, who had centered their whole lives and careers around their families, was a great influence.”
Finding his way through New Orleans
Many of the lessons Derrick learned from his role models were reinforced when he and his young family moved to New Orleans in 2003. For starters, he had a tough time finding a job. “There wasn’t a lot of work for ex-greeting card writers in New Orleans; that was my only work experience,” he says between laughs. So, he worked any kind of job he could find, from a substitute teacher to off-shore work and from the graveyard shift at an emergency room to a secretary.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast two years later, Derrick and his family escaped and spent time in other parts of Louisiana before returning to Kansas City, which has been their home ever since.
“That experience really helped shape who I am as a man and a father,” recalls Derrick, who is now the father of three sons, with a fourth child on the way. “You really don’t realize how much your family needs you until you’re in a dire situation like that, with no resources.”
Derrick believes in Visible Men’s mission
The absence of many strong male role models growing up is one of the reasons Derrick feels such passion for Visible Men’s vision of highlighting the stories of successful black men across the nation.
“There are so many black boys who just don’t have access to real-life, loving, supportive, strong men in their lives; they don’t really see that example,” he says. “We need more examples, which is why I’m such an advocate of groups like Visible Men.”
Visible Men encourages you to read Derrick’s books
Derrick’s perspective and attitude ring true for Neil Phillips, Founder and Executive Director of Visible Men. “One of my many personal goals for Visible Men is to profile exceptional black male authors like Derrick on a regular basis. We will create a Visible Men book club where books written by or about African-American boys and men are profiled and then sold in the Visible Men Store” Phillips says.
“Most first-time black authors will tell you that getting a book published is a monumental accomplishment. African-American youth desperately need to experience the power of great books both as an educational tool and as a recreational, and joyful pastime. I congratulate Derrick, and I’m thrilled to include a copy of his book, We Could Be Brothers in the success kit given to each student who completes our afterschool inVision Project. I encourage other parents, educators and advocates to support Derrick, an exceptional Visible Man, father, and role model by purchasing his books.
Become a difference maker
As he continues to write and share his stories, Derrick’s work will encourage young people — especially black boys — to become “difference makers.”
“In order to be a difference maker, you have to have your mind set on being a better you,” Derrick says. “Surround yourself with positive people. Always seek new information and knowledge; stay well-read. Stay up on current events. Read every chance you can get. It all starts with figuring out what you want to be, what kind of man you see yourself being, challenging yourself, and seeing the world as being a lot bigger than your environment or neighborhood or city. You’ve got to dream big and challenge yourself.”