Taking America Back

In a foreword to We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden, Nic Stone (Dear Martin) writes of her Indian American high school US history teacher, a Mr. Tripathi and how remarkable it was that he, an immigrant, was teaching US History in one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools in the state of Georgia. Yet they never talked about the fact that they were the only two brown-skinned people in that classroom. It wasn’t something you did, back then.

IMG_3372.jpgWe Are Not Yet Equal is all about talking plainly of what has remained unmentionable for too many years. It’s a YA adaptation of Emory University professor Carol Anderson’s White Rage in which she laid out the patterns of advancement and retreat from ideals of equality and away from the deep injustices of centuries of slavery.

The Anderson and Bolden adaptation employs historical narrative to shed light on the measures taken for generations by white people, from assaults upon progressive policy to the most utterly absurd legal contortions, to keep Black resolve from succeeding and Black aspirations from being realized. The book pulls no punches—accounts of Mary Turner’s 1918 lynching in Georgia and Ossian Sweet’s 1925 ordeal when trying to move into a white neighborhood in Detroit (and his subsequent suicide in 1960) are just a couple of examples. They’re unflinching in both their clarity and their compassion toward the victims of these crimes.

Some young readers may be shocked to learn that Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th amendment until 2013. That narratives of white innocence were rampant in the Nixon election campaign! That lack of equal access to education held back American technological advancement. And so much more.

The book ends on the fringes of the present time with Dylan Roof’s murder of nine black people in Emmanuel AME Church and Donald Trump’s 2015 electoral promise to “take America back.” It urges us to imagine a different future, one that really looks forward, takes the opportunity to defuse white rage.

 

 

Dangerous Words: Reflections on Dave the Potter

I was at Kindling Words East earlier this year. KW is that wonderful organization that brings writers and illustrators and editors together to speak in community about the work we love. And I got to listen to Bryan Collier talk about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave–a book that earned him the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His presentation, weaving his own artist’s journey into the story of how the art for this book came to be, left many in the audience misty-eyed.

9780316107310The genius of the text of Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill, lies in its unwavering focus on the clay and the pots and the man who made them. Understandable to children, it nonetheless paints a picture of that most pernicious institution of American history–chattel slavery. Dave’s hands are dry and caked, his fingers chapped, the work unending, with the massive jar threatening to collapse, if not for the attention and skill of the man at the wheel. And yet, more than the massive pots, more than the life of the potter even, was a drive in Dave to add a final touch.

…before the jar
completely hardened,
Dave picked up a stick
and wrote to let us know
that he was here.

I wonder where
is all my relation–
friendship to all
and, every nation

This background from the New York Times review of the book:

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

The text of the book is clear and simple, while the art is rich, deep, and moody, opening up the history to spiritual dimensions, bringing into the reader’s heart the wide sweep of imagination that led Dave to reflect on his own scattered family and yet settle on friendship, extended far out of his reach, to “every nation.” What a tribute to the triumph of love over hate.

This book is an incredible dance of words and images–the words of a white scholar who has devoted the work of his life to the study of African American history, and the art of an African American illustrator who felt that history in his heart and brought it to the page.

Let ‘Er Buck: Congratulations, Vaunda Nelson!

“Ask any cowpoke…”

It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a fellowship of readers who get to see a gifted writer’s work in progress.  This cowpoke’ll tell you, boy howdy, did she ever learn from Vaunda Micheaux Nelson! Over several months, Vaun shared versions of Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion with our writing group, in which I am the long-distance member who Skypes across time-zones and borders.

We read and loved and questioned the text. Over and over. We quibbled over words and sequence, over where the story began, where it should end. We watched in admiration as the story grew stronger, took root, grew into itself as its subject grew into himself.

And in the end, here is that beautiful book. Let ‘Er Buck tells the story of African American cowboy George Fletcher. In brief, voiced text, it reveals layers of history, while raising questions about meanness and generosity, about competition and what it means to win.

Leterbucksamplepage.jpg

Interior page, Let ‘Er Buck. Image source:  http://vaundanelson.com

Look at this sample page. Young George’s playful determination is captured in the rousing illustration by 2018 Caldecott honoree, Gordon C. James.  Here are the words that point to this soaring image: “It was plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.”

The facing page, not shown here, picks up the rest of the text in an unpredictable manner, and seems to foreshadow what’s yet to come with the turn of the page. Those illustration choices raise questions of their own–why one action and not another? Grist for a whole discussion on picture book text and how emotional tone can be employed to invite illustration rather than to dictate its specifics.

More about Nelson’s beautiful new picture book on her beautiful new web site.

Poetry and Claiming Voice

IMG_1335.JPGIn Vermont this January, when author-illustrator Don Tate signed a copy of his beautiful picture book for me, he wrote, “Love words.” I always have. For many of us it was words and their power that drew us to the uncertain and often unpredictable vocation of a writer. And no form distills words better than poetry.

In times of crisis, poetry gives us a way to claim voice, assert ourselves, protest injustice; it enables us to “live in the along,” as Gwendolyn Brooks put it. It helps us maintain a kind of necessary conviction that we will, in the end, be right, even if that juster, kinder end seems deeply endangered at the moment.

Don talked to us in workshop about how he went about the work of creating this glorious picture book about poet George Moses Horton. What a story this is! Here’s an excerpt from the entry on Horton on the University of North Carolina’s web site, Documenting the American South:

By the time he was twenty, George Moses Horton had begun visiting the campus of The University of North Carolina….There he sold students acrostics on the names of their sweethearts at twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five cents. For several decades he “bought his time” from his masters through the sale of his poems and through the wages collected as a campus laborer.

Horton loved words. That’s where it all began.

I was especially fascinated by how Don has integrated the poet’s experience of words into the design of his book.

img_1337Here is the preacher’s soaring rhetoric.

 

 

 

 

 

img_1339Here are the alphabets floating into the boy’s understanding, as he’s drawn irresistibly to the empowering skill of reading, a skill forbidden to his people.

There are lessons in this book that arise organically from its story and fall gently upon the mind. They arise from love and family and community, and from a boy’s deep, abiding desire to know the written word. A compelling story, brought to the page with a loving hand.

Thank you, Don Tate and Peachtree Publishers.