21 Sep

Q&A with Jonah Winter, author of Lillian’s Right to Vote

In this year of momentous anniversaries, I feel a strong affinity for Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Schwartz & Wade), the new picture book written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Shane W. Evans.

Lillian

bookcover-johnroylynch

The story that illustrator Don Tate and I tell in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch — published 150 years after the beginning of Reconstruction — has a lot in common with the one Shane and Jonah tell a half century after that essential piece of legislation. If Reconstruction’s potential for civil rights and social justice had been seen through, there would have been no need for the long, unfair, but ultimately uplifting struggle depicted in Lillian’s Right to Vote.

I also believe that understanding Reconstruction, understanding the fight for the right to vote, and understanding the resistance to each are essential for understanding America today. Jonah Winter has a lot to say on this topic, too. One of the subscribers to my Bartography Express newsletter (you can sign up here) will win a copy of Lillian’s Right to Vote. But in the meantime, here’s my chat with him.

Me: What drew you toward the story you tell in Lillian’s Right to Vote?

Jonah: I get the sense, from reading and listening to the news, that a lot of white Americans seem to be perpetually annoyed by African Americans (and “liberals”) who talk about racism, and the history of slavery and racism in this country. They seem to think that all of that bad stuff “happened in the past,” and that people should just “get over it,” “move on,” “stop complaining.”

People who advocate this point of view clearly just don’t “get” (much less want to “get”) what it must be like to be African American, to be a “black person” (meaning, a person with any visible African heritage…) every single minute of every single day, affected on a daily basis by racism (that makes them always potential victims of white police brutality, for instance), and carrying inside them an ever-present history of institutionalized (and less formal) racism in America — and not just inside them. It’s right there, on the surface, the skin, ever-present, an impediment to equal and respectful treatment.

For conservative white people, “history,” meaning American history here, is a thing to be proud of: our “Founding Fathers,” the “price they paid” for our “liberty,” our “freedom.” I remember a country song from the ’70s called “The Fightin’ Side of Me” that had the lines, “If you don’t love it, leave it/Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’.” There’s an inherent lack of empathy in that approach, to put it mildly!

[Readers, this is Chris, interjecting for a moment just to say that, much as I love Merle Haggard, and as much as I’m aware that his song “Okie from Muskogee” from the same period was at least partially intended as satire, the catchy jingoism in “The Fightin’ Side of Me” makes me uncomfortable. I believe that Jonah has put his finger on what most unnerves me about it. But I also think that the song gives a misleading sense of Haggard’s view of the world. Consider “Irma Jackson,” a third song of his from that era:

“There’s a mighty wall between us, standing high,” Haggard could clearly see. Anyway, back to Jonah.]

All that talk about “freedom” — how do they think that sounds to the ears of an African American? Freedom?! Have any of them stopped for even one moment to consider what our “proud” “history” must mean to someone whose ancestors were slaves, whose ancestors were oppressed in the Jim Crow south?

History is no abstraction. The hypocrisy of the slave-owning Founding Fathers, the despicable evil of slavery and Jim Crow — it’s with us every single minute of every single day. And for those who are African American, this is no choice. For the rest of us, it’s an issue of empathy. Certainly, for me as a writer, it’s an issue of empathy: Wanting myself to walk a mile in Lillian’s shoes — and wanting my readers to.

What turns me on as a writer is a structure that somehow embodies the story I want to tell. And honestly, the structure for this story “just came to me.” I had read a news item about a 100-year-old African American woman in Pittsburgh (whose first name was Lillian) who walked up a very steep hill to vote on Election Day in 2008.

She had grown up in the Jim Crow south. She knew what it was to be denied the right to vote. And on November 4th, 2008, after walking up a very steep hill, she voted for Barack Obama. All of a sudden I could picture a 32-page picture book about a 100-year-old African American woman walking up a hill to vote, seeing history on a split screen with the present moment — a story about someone for whom history informs and inspires every footstep.

It seemed like the perfect metaphor — and structure — for the idea I wanted to get across. And the ever-present history that she sees every moment is not entirely shameful — towards the end, there is the history of the people who courageously fought and died for civil rights and voting rights. It was the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which also prompted this story.

While I was writing it, though, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, rendering it basically meaningless, in terms of enforcing any of the laws against voter discrimination that states like Alabama and Texas are now so conveniently side-stepping.

[Chris here again, readers. For more about recent threats to voting rights, I urge you to get familiar with the Brennan Center for Justice. This illustration is from the Brennan Center’s website:

States With New Voting Restrictions Since the 2010 Election  Brennan Center for Justice

OK — back to my Q&A with Jonah.]

Am I angry? Yes, I am angry. Anger, too, was a motivation for this story.

Me: What kind of kid do you see Lillian’s Right to Vote appealing to the most?

Jonah: Appealing to? I don’t know about that.

I did in fact intend for this book to be read by all American children. I’m happy it came out in July (in anticipation of the August anniversary of the Voting Rights Act) rather than during African American History Month. I think that the topic and history of racism in America is something that all Americans share — regardless of skin color or cultural background. We’re all in this together.

Whether your ancestors were slaves or slaveowners (or both), whether your family has lots of money or no money, if you live in America, then the history of slavery, racism, and voting rights is YOUR history. Many picture books, even biographies, feature a child’s experience, because many editors (and authors, apparently) feel that this will make the book more “child-friendly.” My book features a 100-year-old woman.

What I’m asking my young readers to do is to empathize with someone whose experience is nothing like their own. Most children have grandparents; some even have great-grandparents — and hopefully this story will cause them to see those older people in a different light. Someone who’s lived that many years by default carries a whole lot of at least personal history around inside them — but public history, too.

My hope is that this book will engage children enough to make them start looking at the world differently, seeing how history is always with us, seeing older people as receptacles of history, and, in the case of white readers, empathizing with Americans who were not born with the privileges inherent in white skin, and for all readers, feeling pride in those Americans who should make us proud to be American by fighting for and actually achieving justice in the 1960s.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, I cared a whole lot about politics — and about justice and injustice. I suppose this book will probably appeal most to kids who care about things like that. But I hope that the stark historical facts I present throughout the book will grab the attention of all my readers, rile them up, make them start thinking, make them start questioning, and make them see that history is a living, breathing thing that we are creating every minute of every day.

History surrounds us.

We contain history.

We are history.