January 09

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Collecting Stories, Creating Voices by Carole Boston Weatherford

I am a nerd. At age ten, with hopes of becoming a librarian, I organized my personal library—complete with homemade book pockets and circulation cards.

If more proof of nerdiness is needed, I have over the years collected stamps, music, cans and tins, vintage apparel, fabric—I once designed clothes—nick knacks (African, Asian and grape motifs), antique furniture, jewelry, ephemera, prints and photographs.

I also collect stories. My latest spotlights Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a book collector of the Harlem Renaissance. His collection formed the basis of what is now the Harlem-based Schomburg Center, a New York Public Library branch and a world-renowned repository of books, manuscripts, art and artifacts from the African Diaspora.

I was drawn to Schomburg at first because illustrator Eric Velasquez drew me into the project, but later because I connected with a slight that Schomburg suffered as a boy.

When Schomburg was in fifth grade, his teacher told him that African descendants had no history worth noting. That lie launched Schomburg into a lifelong quest to set history straight by documenting African descendants’ countless contributions to civilization.

In eighth grade, I too experienced a slight from a teacher. At an exclusive private school in 1969, my class read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” during a unit on the Harlem Renaissance. The poem’s eight-year-old narrator reveals that a white boy called him “nigger” during a trip to Baltimore—my birthplace.

I was so moved by the poem that I did my research paper on Cullen. However, rather than giving me a much-deserved “A” for the paper, my English teacher gave me a “B,” atop the comment: “Did you write this?” That grade reflected his low expectation of me as an African American student who had transferred from public to private school. I vowed from then on to use my voice to enlighten, empower and uplift.

Ironically, that sometimes means not projecting my voice, but rather channeling and conjuring my subjects. I first noticed this while writing Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People. I started out researching images—at the Schomburg Center, Library of Congress and Moorland-Spingarn Research Center—to accompany existing poems. But so many images spoke to me that I collected those too and ended up writing new poems about subjects whose stories begged to be heard.

I can be as superstitious as I am nerdy. To recreate historically marginalized voices, I invite ancestral spirits to speak to and through me. This was not a conscious process until publication of Becoming Billie Holiday (illustrated by Floyd Cooper), the young adult verse novel that the late jazz icon, my muse, prodded me to write. Lady Day whispered in my ear as I researched and hummed in the background as I wrote.

My first draft of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (illustrated by Ekua Holmes) nailed the voting rights activists’ dialect even though I purposefully postponed listening to her recorded speeches. Months after writing Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (illustrated by Kadir Nelson) and The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights (illustrated by Tim Ladwig), I sensed another hand at work—perhaps that of God, whom I had enlisted as narrator.

I had similar experiences with other biographies and verse novels. I had completed and titled the verse novel You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (illustrated by my son Jeffery Weatherford) when I learned that Eleanor Roosevelt actually said, “You can fly,” after a plane ride with the Tuskegee flight instructor. Could I have channeled the former first lady as narrator?

As you can see, the narrator’s identity is not always clear to me. For Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane (illustrated by Sean Qualls), a riff on the legendary saxophonist’s childhood, could the third-person narrator be my great aunt, Terah, Trane’s third grade teacher? Perhaps another late aunt—Helen—spoke to me through Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America (illustrated by Jamie Christoph). After all, she knew Parks during the 1940s, the setting for the partial biography.

My latest book, Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You (illustrated by James Ransome), reads like a litany led by a black preacher. I believe that Dr. King would approve of the book’s imperatives, among them: “Set your sights on the mountaintop. Climb a little higher every day.”

To “hear” my own voice, check out In Your Hands, an African American mother’s prayer for her son. The text, inspired by Black Lives Matter and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, hits close to home for me.

 

Carole Boston Weatherford is the author of many children’s books, including Caldecott Honor winner Moses; Coretta Scott King Honor winner Becoming Billie Holiday; NAACP Image Award winner Gordon Parks; Carter G. Woodson Award winner The Sound That Jazz Makes; Caldecott Honor and Robert F. Sibert Honor winner Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer; I, Matthew Henson; and Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive. She is also the recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature. Carole lives in North Carolina and teaches at Fayetteville State University.