Carole Boston Weatherford is the award-winning author of more than 30 books, including Becoming Billie Holiday, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, and Birmingham, 1963.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
At an all-black elementary school in Baltimore, my teachers celebrated my gifts and exposed me to my literary forbears, most notably Langston Hughes. As I memorized Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,” I learned that equality means having a seat “at the table when company comes”
In 1968, the year King was slain, I entered an exclusive private school as one of only four blacks in the seventh grade. For an eighth grade assignment on the Harlem Renaissance, I wrote a research paper about Hughes’s contemporary, Countee Cullen. I identified with Cullen’s poem, “Incident,” which is set in Baltimore, my birthplace. After reading my paper, my English teacher asked if I had written it myself. Unable to prove plagiarism, but convinced that an African-American product of public schools could not possibly write an “A” paper, the teacher gave me a “B.” Just as Cullen’s young narrator remembered nothing of his Baltimore visit except having been called a “nigger,” that “B” in eighth grade English stands out in my private school experience. I did not aspire to be a writer then, but, in retrospect, I suppose I already was one. I was born to do this work, and I take my charge seriously.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
My personal experience coupled with my knowledge of the history of African descendants in the Americas compels me to act as a "race woman." For me, that means studying African-American history and culture, documenting the past, and setting the record straight. Thus, I mine the past for family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles. My books not only confront hatred and inequities—such as slavery and segregation—but also show how ordinary people persevered and overcame. My work, which sometimes blurs the lines between poetry, biography, nonfiction, and historical fiction, aims to nudge young people toward justice and to lend them strength from the struggle.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Two generations after the Civil Rights Movement, memories of the Jim Crow era are fading. Without context for the movement, young people fail to fathom segregation’s brutality and inhumanity and the incredible sacrifices made to win equality. Nevertheless, the artificial construct of race persists in its power to provoke skin color prejudice. Add to that the historic marginalization of people of color. These factors make children’s and young adult books about the freedom struggle all the more vital. We must appeal to young readers’ sense of justice.
Through my books, young readers can encounter such socially relevant figures as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, polar explorer Matthew Henson, vocalist Billie Holiday, track star Jesse Owens, and championship race car driver Wendell Scott. Readers experience vicariously such events as the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins and the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
When I share my poems and stories with children, they sometimes ask “Why were African Americans treated so unfairly?” and “Did that really happen?” Today’s children are appalled—and rightly so—that segregation was the status quo. To them, racism is not just cruel; it’s crazy. If only grown-ups were so wise.
Carole Boston Weatherford is a professor at Fayetteville State University.