Why History? by Kekla Magoon
When I was young, I would probably have told you I don’t like reading non-fiction. I also would have told you I thought history was boring…and then rushed home and devoured my copy Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry or Across Five Aprils. There was such a disconnect in my mind about what history was and could be, and about the fact that the second syllable in “history” is “story.” Somewhere in the midst of all the classroom lessons, tests, and textbooks, my young mind settled on and internalized a faulty truth: that history was not relevant to me.
With that as a backdrop, it took me a while to find my way toward loving history, in any form—fiction or non. I majored in history in college, largely because those were the classes I liked best, because the professors were exceptional storytellers. They made the history they taught come alive. I distinctly remember my surprise, in the weeks before I had to make the (seemingly) all-important decision of what major to declare, that I kept being drawn to this subject I was still convinced I hated. Why? Why history? I resisted it for quite a while. And then finally, it dawned on me: it was about the stories. I thought back to my shelf full of Ann Rinaldi novels and the like, and it was, as they say, an “a-ha!” moment.
I continue to love historical fiction above all, because it teases my mind in a particular way to imagine myself living in a different place and time, facing a differently-complicated world, and trying to be someone who matters in it. I believe historical fiction can be deeply illuminating, and empathy-inspiring, and powerful, and perhaps most importantly, a gateway to understanding significant truths about our collective past. Sometimes, being whisked away into a historical adventure is the exact vibe a reader needs, but then sometimes, once those shattering truths take hold, it becomes necessary to dig deep into the troubled and gritty facts of our past in a less-escapist way. Essentially, that is how I came to write Revolution in Our Time.
My debut novel and its companion were about about teens in the Black Panther Party, and I loved exploring the richness of the Panthers in fiction. But after The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets came out, everywhere I went, it seemed, folks who were reading, sharing, or teaching the books wanted to know what non-fiction resources I would recommend for young readers to learn more about the Black Panthers. This question hit me hard with two divergent feelings: first, I was thrilled that people were so engaged by my narratives that they wanted more, but second, I had no idea what to say in response.
A lot had been written about the Panthers for the adult market: memoirs, academic histories, several striking photo essays—but none of it was extremely accessible for a teen audience. I found myself at a loss for Panther-specific texts to recommend to the readers of my fiction. There was only one choice. The powers that be in the universe of story had spoken. If it didn’t exist, I had to write it. But how? I’d never aspired to write nonfiction. I’d made my peace with history through fiction but, this was a different task entirely.
Thus began a years-long journey of research, growth and learning. Starting in the spring of 2012, I visited Oakland, the Panthers’ birthplace, and walked the streets and dove into the archives. I drove through the South, visiting civil rights movement landmarks that I’d only ever read about in history books. Over the years, I popped into libraries, museums, historical societies, archives, any place around the country that I thought might give me a greater glimpse into the heart of this narrative. I met former Panthers, many of whom have found ways to continue the work they began in the movement. Their stories are powerful, sometimes shocking, always compelling, and ever relevant to the work that still needs to be done in our nation.
Through this research and writing process, history has come alive for me more than ever before, and my greatest aspiration for this book is that it helps bring it to life for others. My hope is that this story of past generations of activists will inspire, empower, and remind these young activists to move forward with the confidence that they are carrying on a powerful tradition. History is not only relevant to teens today, but they can–and will–be a part of making it.
Kekla Magoon’s young adult novel The Rock and the River, which won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award, was the first mainstream novel for young people to feature the Black Panther Party. She is the Margaret A. Edwards Award-winning author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including Fire in the Streets and How It Went Down. She is also the coauthor, with Ilyasah Shabazz, of X: A Novel, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and received an NAACP Image Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Kekla Magoon grew up in Indiana and now lives in Vermont, where she serves on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Revolution in Our Time is also a 2021 National Book Award Finalist! Look for it on sale now, and download a detailed teachers’ guide written by the director of diversity and equity at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul, to use the book in your classroom: https://candlewick.com/book_files/1536214183.btg.1.pdf