Carole Boston Weatherford wrote her first poem in first grade. She dictated it to her mother on the way home from elementary school in Baltimore.
Her father, a high school printing teacher, printed the poem on an index card. She continued writing poems, and her father used them for typewriting exercises in his classes. Weatherford was in elementary school during the height of the civil rights movement, but she encountered very few black characters or people of color in the children’s books she read growing up.
Now the author of more than 50 books for children and young adults, Weatherford writes stories that fill in some of the many gaps she saw in the books from her childhood. Her books often depict the stories of African American leaders, explorers and artists, many of whose stories are seldom told. They also navigate ugly pieces of American history like slavery, the 1963 Birmingham bombing and police brutality against black communities.
She puts an intentional spotlight on the arts, and incorporates her love of jazz and her passion for artists like Billie Holiday into her work. Weatherford keeps her finger on the pulse of young peoples’ interests as a professor of English at Fayetteville State University. Host Frank Stasio talks with Weatherford about her childhood in Maryland, her growth as a writer and the themes of history, race and music that thread their way through her literature.
Carole Boston Weatherford’s Story In Her Own Words
Chapter 1: Family History and Growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s
My dad's family on both sides is from the eastern shore of Maryland. In fact, his mother's family hailed from the same plantation that Frederick Douglass was at for a while, Wye House plantation on the eastern shore. So my family goes back — I've actually checked the plantation records —my family goes back to at least 1781.
It was a very insular world. I wanted for nothing. So, you know, I'm not going to say it's the good old days, because yes, there was discrimination. But downtown was open … black people could try on clothes and sit at lunch counters. And the places that we couldn't go, my parents didn't take me.”
Chapter 2: Poetry Calls After College
I didn't know anybody who was, you know, who was making money as an author. In fact, I'd never met any real live authors at that point.
But as luck would have it, I was in the dentist’s office one afternoon. And I opened a magazine, a city magazine called Metropolitan Magazine. And there was a poem in it that I had sent the magazine, and they hadn't told me they were going to publish it. But I was so surprised, and of course I took the magazine home with me.
Chapter 3: Her Literary Debut, Juneteenth Jamboree
My first approach — as is what it usually is — is to resort to my first literary language, which is poetry. So my first approach was to write it as a rhyming story, which the editor didn’t like. I put it in prose, and the premise is that a girl has returned to her parents’ hometown. The family is kicking off the summer at this Juneteenth festival, which is a foreign concept to this girl who has moved from out of state. And so the girl is learning about Juneteenth, along with the young readers.
Chapter 4: Kids as Vessels for Social Justice Stories
Kids have a much more absolute sense of justice than adults do. They know right from wrong. They're taught to know ... the difference between black and white. But they are not hardwired to be biased. That is taught. Kids know right from wrong, and they find wrong offensive. The younger they are, the more offended they are by injustice. So that's why I write for kids.
Chapter 5: An Everlasting Love for Billie Holiday
She's my muse. When I first decided that I wanted to write about her, I had conversations with some people, and I got some reservations about writing about it. So I just set it aside, until I went to the Great Blacks In Wax Museum, which is in Baltimore, and came face-to-face with Billie Holiday’s wax figure.
I'm standing there, and a girl walks up and says: Ooh, Billie Holiday. ... I said: What grade are you in? And she said: I'm in eighth grade. And I said: And you're familiar with Billie Holiday? And she said: Yes, she could sing. And the girl walked off, and I'm still looking at this wax figure eye to eye. And it's almost as if she said: I told you to write my book. And I did.
I thought that people knew, okay, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit.” She was an alcoholic. She was a drug addict. She died at 44. You know, her life story had been sensationalized. But I wanted readers to know Billie Holiday as I thought she might want to be known when she was young. She was against lynching. And she was not afraid to record that song. So she was, you know, she was a brave woman and an outspoken woman, certainly at a time when it could have damaged her career.
Check Out Carole Boston Weatherford’s Writing With These Titles:
Please note: This conversation originally aired June 8, 2020.