Woman of Our Time: Jacqueline Woodson’s Gift of Art and Activism

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woodsonBy Bernice Elizabeth Green
Christmas Day found us in the lobby of the Bam Harvey Theatre asking a young mother why she brought her young (almost seven-year-old) son to the premiere of the two-hour “Selma.” It was an academic question. We wanted her to share her thoughts with us, and with our readers.
We quickly learned that she was once a member of – unknown to her and most of our no-longer-secret–Women of Our Time list. We had yearned to connect with the Brooklyn-based award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson for more than 10 years … since the Von King Park Family Book Fair.
The prolific Ms. Woodson, mother of two, is the 2014 National Book Award winner for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. And up until a controversy surrounding comments made at the November ceremony, she was best known for her multiaward-winning 30 children and youth books.
At that moment, she was miles away from the controversy surrounding comments by NBA event host Daniel Handler (known by his pen name Lemony Snicket), who took a stab at humor and unwittingly hit the hard seed of racism. In introducing her, he mentioned that Woodson had an allergy to watermelon.
Handler apologized for his joke and donated $110,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.
Some days before Christmas, Woodson, in a New York Times op-ed, wrote: “By making light of that deep and troubled history, [Handler] showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all,” she wrote in her New York Times op-ed. “His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”
“To know that we African-Americans came here enslaved to work until we died but didn’t die, and instead grew up to become doctors and teachers, architects and presidents — how can these children not carry this history with them for those many moments when someone will attempt to make light of it, or want them to forget the depth and amazingness of their journey?”
And it’s a journey, Woodson as a mom wants her son to know about … even at the tender age of six, nearly the same age as Woodson in spring 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Following is a Q&A with Woodson, who graciously shared her thoughts on “Selma” and why she brought her son to see it.

OTP: Why was it important to you to take your son to see “Selma”? Why should parents not wait to expose their children to their history and their culture?
JW: I think, as we can see by the events going on today, that history repeats itself and it’s important for our children to be armed with the tools they’ll need for their survival. Knowing their history is one of the many tools. “Selma” gives a context to the work we have done and continue to do. I wanted my children (we took both our nearly seven-year-old son and nearly 13-year-old daughter) to see the strength of Black people and the commitment of white allies. I wanted them to understand why the Civil Rights Movement needed to happen and continues to need to happen. Also, we talk a lot about how it was important to support movies made by people of color. We talked a lot about how hard it is for directors who are Black and female to get their work to the screen so when it gets there, we need to pay to see it.

OTP: What stories did your parents share with you growing up in both the rural South and urban Brooklyn? And what advice can you give to parents who may feel their personal stories are not worthwhile?
JW:
I talk a lot about this in “Brown Girl Dreaming”, which is a memoir about growing up in both the North and the South during the Sixties and Seventies and becoming a writer. There were lots of stories — and they very much inspired that book but also inspire me as a parent.
As long as there is hope in the story, the story is worth telling. Even the hardest stories are made lighter by the fact that we survived and are here to tell it.
Coming from the South, we have so many similar stories: the relative who ended up doing time, the relative who had to leave in the cover of night because he hurt a white man, the relative who was part of the Great Migration but didn’t thrive in the new place — or did. “Brown Girl Dreaming” explores a lot of these stories and yes, books are an amazing tool in helping us remember our own stories and see the importance of those stories.
We have a rich and deep history. I think it’s vital that our children know the nuance of that history and that we have no shame around it. When I wrote “Visiting Day” — about a girl whose dad was in prison– I got some flack from people who didn’t think (it) should have been a picture book. But given the prison system and the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated, I knew it was important that their children see themselves in literature to know that *their* story is not a shameful one, that they’re not alone in this journey, that they matter. It’s not our only story but it’s one of them.
So yes, some stories aren’t the happiest of stories but they’re still important — they still speak to a people who came here not meant to survive but survived anyway.

OTP: Several years ago, my husband and I experienced a boycott on books by our nieces and nephews who were “tired” of us gifting books for Christmas. We retreated and regretfully gave them “things” we thought they would like. How does a parent … or aunt or uncle … inspire a child to love to learn, to be curious, as you were, about life, about words and their meanings, beyond the material and the stuff?
JW:
I always give a book and a toy. I make sure that it’s a book they’ll love!! It takes a little research and knowing the child. But there are SO many great books and authors out there and one of the first questions I’ll ask kids I meet is, “What are you reading”?
Even if it’s a comic book, I’ll talk to them about what they love in it, what’s “boring”, etc. There are a lot of great graphic novels, memoirs and nonfiction books for kids who like comics. My daughter had to read a nonfiction book and was complaining and complaining. I found a graphic nonfiction book about Margaret Sanger and she loved it!
It’s a slippery slope because if kids are given books they don’t love, they’ll come to believe they “don’t like to read”.
OTP: How did you prepare your child for this film, and what were the questions he asked afterwards, or what did he say about the film afterwards.
JW:
My son fell asleep. My daughter had a hard time with the southern accents at first but her ears adjusted. We talked as I said about the importance of all aspects of the movie. We did a double feature – (the film) “Selma” then “Annie”. We talked about the commitment to seeing movies with people of color in them.
The kids were most concerned with the bombing. We researched the story a little more and talked about Christopher Paul Curtis’ book “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963”. We had done this book as a family read a few years ago (reading it out loud to the kids each night then discussing the chapters) and the kids made the connection.
We talked about fact versus fiction and realistic fiction. I think that’s where the kids are right now. We weren’t afraid of the movie being too much for them because kids compartmentalize – they take in what they can when they can.
My daughter talked about King and how she didn’t know he had died so young. We discussed Coretta Scott King and they made the connection to the award and the importance of that award.

OTP: What did you learn about ’63 — the year of your birth — that you did not know before?
JW:
I’ve been researching it forever (for “Brown Girl Dreaming”) so there was little I didn’t know. It’s all in the book.

OTP: Do you covet the Coretta Scott King Award more than ever?
JW:
I’ve received the Coretta Scott King Award (for Miracle’s Boys) and three Coretta Scott King Honor Awards, so we’ve been to the ceremony many times. I’m very proud to have received this award as many times as I have and glad that the kids understand the significance of it.
OTP: How do your parents feel about how you, their onetime Brown Girl Dreaming, is now a Black Woman Activating/working the dream?
JW: My mom passed away suddenly when she was 69. This was the impetus for writing “Brown Girl Dreaming”. My dad lives in Ohio and is stunned and proud that I’ve written 30 books and have won so many awards. My family was excited about the National Book Award and I keep hearing from relative after relative about my Op-Ed in the New York Times.

OTP: Your thoughts on “Selma”?
JW:
I thought the film was very powerful and amazing. It made me really proud. I want to see it again. The film was amazing, from the cast to Ava DuVernay’s great directing. I am sure you will meet her, if you have not already.
Brief on Brown Girl Dreaming
“Brown Girl Dreaming” (Paulsen/Penguin 2014) is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir about growing up in a loving family in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. She was born in 1963 in Ohio to a Southern mother and a Northern father whose grandparents were free men during slave times. The Woodsons were doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Readers can refer to the Woodson-Irby family tree — their birth and death dates — at the front of the book and handsome family snapshots in the back.

Ms. Woodson, in the voice of her youth, writes, “Sometimes, I don’t know the words for things, how to write down the feeling of knowing that every dying person leaves something behind”.
For more information:
jacquelinewoodson.com
twitter: @jackiewoodson
tumblr: jacquelinewoodson

The following Op-Ed by Jacqueline Woodson appeared in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times on November 28, 2014

The Pain of the Watermelon Joke

By JACQUELINE WOODSON

As a child in South Carolina, I spent summers like so many children — sitting on my grandparents back porch with my siblings, spitting watermelon seeds into the garden or, even worse, swallowing them and trembling as my older brother and sister spoke of the vine that was probably already growing in my belly.

It was the late ’60s and early ’70s, and even though Jim Crow was supposed to be far behind us, we spent our days in the all-Black community called Nicholtown in a still-segregated South.

One year we bought a watermelon off the back of a man’s pickup truck and placed it in our garden. As my grandfather snapped pictures from his box camera, we laughed about how we’d fool my mother, who was in New York, by telling her we’d grown it ourselves. I still have the photo of me in a pale pink dress, beribboned and smiling, sitting on that melon.

But by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit.

I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of Black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched Black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.

In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking Black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than.

Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.

In the midst of observing the world and coming to consciousness, I was becoming a writer, and what I wanted to put on the page were the stories of people who looked like me. I was a child on a mission — to change the face of literature and erase stereotypes. Forever. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was dreaming of the Pulitzer Prize. By the time I was 45, I had won just about every award one could win for young people’s literature. Just this month, I received the National Book Award in the Young Adult category for my memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming.”

As I walked away from the stage to a standing ovation after my acceptance speech, it was the last place in the world I thought I’d hear the watermelon joke — directed by the M.C., Daniel Handler, at me. “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon,” he said. “Just let that sink in your mind.” Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being Black.

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In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.

“Brown Girl Dreaming” is the story of my family, moving from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and ends with me as a child of the ’70s. It is steeped in the history of not only my family but of America. As African-Americans, we were given this history daily as weapons against our stories’ being erased in the world or, even worse, delivered to us offhandedly in the form of humor.

As I interviewed relatives in both Ohio and Greenville, S.C., I began to piece together the story of my mother’s life, my grandparents’ lives and the lives of cousins, aunts and uncles. These stories, and the stories I had heard throughout my childhood, were told with the hope that I would carry on this family history and American history, so that those coming after me could walk through the world as armed as I am.

Mr. Handler’s watermelon comment was made at a time of change. We Need Diverse Books, a grass-roots organization committed to diversifying all children’s literature, had only months before stormed the BookCon conference because of its all-white panels. The world of publishing has been getting shaken like a pecan tree and called to the floor because of its lack of diversity in the workplace. At this year’s National Book Awards, many of the books featured nonwhite protagonists, and three of the 20 finalists were people of color. One of those brown finalists (me!), in the very first category, Young People’s Literature, had just won.

Just let that sink in your mind.

I would have written “Brown Girl Dreaming” if no one had ever wanted to buy it, if it went nowhere but inside a desk drawer that my own children pulled out one day to find a tool for survival, a symbol of how strong we are and how much we’ve come through. Their great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Their great-grandfather, Hope, and great-grandmother, Grace, raised one of the few black families in Nelsonville, Ohio, and saw five children through college. Their grandmother’s school in Greenville, Sterling High, was set on fire and burned to the ground.

To know that we African-Americans came here enslaved to work until we died but didn’t die, and instead grew up to become doctors and teachers, architects and presidents — how can these children not carry this history with them for those many moments when someone will attempt to make light of it, or want them to forget the depth and amazingness of their journey?

How could I come from such a past and not know that I am on a mission, too?

This mission is what’s been passed down to me — to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people — and all people — a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.

(Note to readers: inquire about Ms. Woodson’s books at local bookstores including, in Brooklyn, Barnes & Noble on Court Street nr. Atlantic and Greenlight, 686 Fulton Street in Brooklyn, and in Manhattan, Teacher’s College Bookstore, 1224 Amsterdam Ave, Bank Street Bookstore, 2879 Broadway. Tell them Our Time Press sent you.)

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