What's in the book The Jelani Tree? Click here to find out more.
Find out about the Author, Caroline Brewer. Click here for more!
Nathalie Le Riche
For a special message from the Artist of the Jelani Tree, click here.
About this book
Love is the one word that sums up how this book came about. It began with the love that Jelani Manigaultís parents showered upon him from birth. It grew through the love he showered upon friends and family and strangers throughout his life. It continues now, in the aftermath of his passing, with the love that those same family members, friends, and strangers want to extend to him and others in his memory.
I guess you could say I was a stranger to Jelani. We never met face to face. We never heard each otherís voices. But I had known his mother, Carol, for several years. We met at the home of a mutual, cherished friend, Angeline Hall-Watts. Carol and I had a few things in common. We both lived in Teaneck and, like Jelani, had April birthdays. I found Carol to be one of the kindest and most compassionate people Iíve ever known. Her spirit was instantly endearing, and often she spoke adoringly of her only child, who was away at college. I had hoped to meet him soon.
Sitting in the back of the First Presbyterian Church of Teaneck during the early moments of Jelaniís memorial service, a steady trickling of tears rolled down my face. It was a very cold January morning in 2003. I remember that all the women on my bench -- women I knew, who also were Carolís friends and had watched Jelani grow up Ė all of these women were softly weeping.
I remember thinking, I wish I could halt these tears. I wish something could lift this sadness from our hearts, Carolís and Andrewís and the rest of the familyís hearts.
And then, Jelaniís cousin, Cassaundra Sledge, read Jelaniís obituary. It was awe-inspiring. His Aunt Lorraine shared in an essay humorous and smile-sparking memories. And then, one by one, Jelaniís friends from childhood, high school, and college rose to their feet, strode past the pews holding hundreds of mourners to the front of the church to tell their story of what Jelani meant to them. Jelani was love, they said. He was peace. He was joy, such a delight to be around. He was generous, and sensitive, and humble. He was kindness itself, and so very insightful. He was magnificent to see in action in athletics, and a soul-filled musician and artist. He was the best friend, the truest of friends, they all repeated, one by one.

And one by one, each story, on top of the recital of his amazing accomplishments, dried the cascade of tears that had been flooding that church. A gentle but powerful revolution began to take place as the sadness dissipated and a celebration of life took over.

And then, Mary Wade another dear friend of Carol’s and a minister, stood at the podium. Her message was from Galatians 5:22 -23, the fruits of the Spirit. Each fruit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance -- had already been identified in the stories told by Jelani’s friends. Mary had been moved to change her text to Galatians after hearing from every voice that spoke that day the truth of how Jelani lived.

After the service, every voice spoke also of wanting to do something to make sure that Jelani’s life was remembered as he lived it. No one was sure what. They were certain only that it ought to be something that represented Jelani’s 24 extraordinary years.

Later that evening, Angeline and I attended a Haitian play at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck. It was titled, The Magic Orange Tree. The play was quite interesting, not at all what Angeline and I had expected. But it, Mary’s sermon, and the voices that spoke so lovingly of Jelani traveled into my dreams that night. They awoke me with the idea for a children’s book titled, The Jelani Tree. I began to sketch it out early that Sunday morning.

I spoke to Carol about the book idea, and how it could possibly fund an institute. She embraced it right away. Mary Wade, too. We formed a committee and met by phone and in person for months. We decided that the JELANI (Justice, Equity, Love, and Awareness Now) Institute would be dedicated to encouraging children to develop their gifts and talents, as Jelani did. Its mission also is to educate the public and police about people experiencing emotional or mental distress, and to help all of us learn to not judge or fear people who “seem” different.

In May 2003, I met Nathalie Le Riche at a party in New York City. It was hosted at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar by my friend, and Sugar Bar Manager, Evens Anozine. Nathalie was showing her art, and nearly everyone at the party was hovered around, speaking about it in the most glowing terms. Eventually I got to see what the fuss was all about. I was blown away. Her work was so colorful and striking. When Nathalie discovered I was a children’s author, she commented that she had always wanted to illustrate a children’s book. We promised to stay in touch, and did.

Six months later, I asked Nathalie if she would like to illustrate the book. Right away, she said yes. I asked her her fee, and right away, she said there would be none. Over the next five months, Nathalie worked to produce a dozen gorgeous illustrations, worth thousands of dollars, for the book. She sent us the originals, with permission to use them in any way we saw fit to raise money for the institute.

So many people have offered their gifts and talents and money to make this book, and the work of the institute, possible. Some of you helped organize the two April 2004 fundraisers in Harlem and Teaneck. Some of you turned out by the hundreds that April to celebrate Jelani’s life and donate money to the institute. Some of you purchased books in advance. Samuel Brown gave us the use of his building and staff to hold the first fundraiser in Harlem. Perry and Gladys Rosenstein and Tim Blunk, of the Puffin Cultural Forum, allowed us to host the second fundraiser at their space in Teaneck. Julie Brown, Jennifer Arroyo, Lakshmi Natarajan, Kirk Mitchell, Jonathan Jungblut, Chantal Gamble, Christopher Mitton, Monique Manigault, Marcus Daniels, and Cassaundra Sledge worked tirelessly on various projects connected with the launching of the institute. Robbin Gordon-Cartier, a harpist, who teaches at the Cicely Tyson School of the Fine and Performing Arts in East Orange, NJ, is working with her students to compose music for the reading of the book. Jane Wuthrich, of Fort Wayne, who had not known Jelani, made a large, unsolicited donation to the project after hearing his story.

Hundreds of people have supported this project. We deeply appreciate you. We hope that all of you, and the new buyers and supporters of this book, will enjoy it and absorb some of the sweet essence that was Jelani.

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