A new book is taking a unique approach to telling Black history stories to children.
The photos that come with the book depict kids recreating well-known poses of these icons. One of the kids is the grandson of co-author Rochelle Riley, who for many years was a columnist with the Detroit Free Press.
As part of Black History Month, WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Riley about “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed The World”.
SCOTT POHL: I wanted to begin by asking you about the idea behind this book. Where did the idea come from?
ROCHELLE RILEY: About four years ago, I was on Twitter, because I usually am, and saw these amazing photographs of this little girl dressed as iconic African American women: the makeup, the dress, the whole works, and they were showing up every day. And so I got enamored with them, thought they were great, and moved on. Well, the following Black History Month, they were there again. This time, I tracked down the person who was doing them, this amazing woman who lives outside of Seattle who literally decided to do this to teach her daughter about Black history and these famous women in Black history by having her embody them. I was just so inspired and really proud of what she did, and so I said well, you know what, I'd love for people to know more about these women. I think I'd like to write something to go with these pictures, and she said oh, I'm just stunned. She just wasn't sure, she was so humble and sweet. And I said, really? Let me let me talk to you about it.
So I got on a plane and I flew to Seattle, and I got in a car and I drove to Kent, and met with Christi Smith-Jones and talked to her about this over lunch. She finally agreed, okay, let's do it, and so I decided that I wanted to do that as the first of many books, because there's so many amazing African Americans who have done things to change the world. I said, well, we'll do this one with women, and then we'll do another one with men, and we'll do one with scientists and one with sports stars. She was so overwhelmed. She said, oh no, I don't want to do another one. I said if you're only going to do one, I don't know that we can just do girls. Could we also do men, famous African American men? She said yeah, but we'll have to find a boy. And I said, aha, I have a boy.
I flew to Dallas and I got my grandson, and we flew back to Seattle and got in a car and drove to Kent. For a whole four day weekend we did photoshoots, with my grandson being Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson and Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was an amazing photoshoot. We did a half an hour of shooting and a half an hour for him to play Fortnight, and that went on every day.
POHL: To my eye, there are two methods at work here to attract young readers, and I want to talk about both of them. First of all, the pictures that you've mentioned. I want to make sure our listeners get the idea here that you've taken famous photos of famous African Americans, and they're sitting side by side with the photos of the children who are reenacting those photos. I think that visual element will really appeal to kids.
RILEY: That is my hope. The reason we did this project and the reason I wanted to do it, which I explained to her, was it's so important for all children, particularly African American children, to know that they can be anything they want when they grow up and that everybody they know, every famous person, every important person, was once a child facing some type of decision that might change their lives. I thought by placing them in the shoes of these people when they were kids and then telling their life story would help them to understand them. Of course, seeing it also helps. Seeing my grandson as Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali or Frederick Douglass, who was his favorite because of the hair. It really made a difference. It made them want to know more about these people.
POHL: The second way I think this book should appeal to kids is how in each story, you quickly tell us something about the childhood of all of these historic figures. Here are a couple of examples. Aretha Franklin was pregnant at the age of 12. Stevie Wonder was born prematurely and had a condition that stunted the growth of his eyes. Kids can identify with facts like that about the childhood of these people.
RILEY: The main thing that I was looking for in my research was something that would give them a sense that you can overcome something. It can be something big or it can be a change in your life. Jackie Robinson would grow up to be the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Huge, huge history changer, world changer, but when he was a 16 year old high school student, he was a member of a gang. I'm hoping there might be some kid who's contemplating being in a gang who could say, you know what, Jackie Robinson left the gang, and look at what he was able to do. That was important, to find those moments, to find something that they could identify with. Muhammad Ali, when he was Cassius Clay, his bike was stolen when he was 12, and he decided he was going to beat up the person who took it. This officer who ran a boxing gym said well, if you want to beat somebody up, you better learn how to do it. He became singularly dedicated to that for the rest of his life, not beating up that kid who stole the bike, but just the idea of being a boxer. That's how it got started, so you never know where your life's path will start.
FROM THAT THEY LIVED
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington would grow up to be one of the most celebrated musicians and composers in history. He is considered one of the founding fathers of American jazz. But when Edward was 15 years old, he was serving sodas at the counter at the Poodle Dog Cafe and writing his first composition called “Soda Fountain Rag,” and he did it before learning to read or write music.
POHL: Historians have to do a lot of research when they're writing a book. But I wonder if with a project like this, a book for children, maybe you already knew most of the stories that are here. What was your research process like?
RILEY: Well, you'd be amazed. You know, we journalists think we know everything, and even though I have left the newsroom, I've still a journalist who thinks I'm a know-it-all. What I did was research the best books on each of these folks, and ordered them from Amazon. My once overflowing library? I now look like a hoarder. I would go through and find all of the things that I knew, and all of the things that I didn't know. It was amazing that there was still so many things that I did not know, and I loved that part of it.
Once I was finished with all of that, then I could figure out what that one moment was, something that this may be something that no one knew or some people might know, because they keep up with these things, but everybody doesn't. And that part was also really important to me because it's a book and you want people to learn something new from it. So, I was thrilled about that.
POHL: Tell me about releasing the book during Black History Month. There's almost certainly a connection there. Am I right?
RILEY: Oh, absolutely. I'm the columnist who ten years ago wrote a column that said we should do away with Black History Month. Some people read the headline and set their hair on fire until they read the second graph, which was my main point, because we should be teaching all of American history all year long, and if we don't teach the complete history, and we only teach about African Americans as posters all during February, then we're not really doing justice to the real American history. That's why we have racial conflict. That's why we have people who assume that African Americans are not as smart or as capable or as accomplished as anyone else.
I've since backed off from that, because Carter G. Woodson worked so hard to have a Negro History week that became Black History Month. Now I believe, okay, we'll have Black History Month and let's celebrate the heck out of it, but then let's keep it going all year. I make sure that I do Black History things all year round, but I'm getting Black History Month because that's when people are paying attention.