Transcript from an interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes

Everybody is my kin

Well, when I was a very young child, my mother abandoned the family. And so, I had the honor and pleasure of having a wonderful grandmother raise me. And Grandmother took care of a whole household of little kids. And she cooked and she cleaned, but she told wonderful stories. And I didn’t know it then, but I think she was training me to be a writer, that she was teaching me the African-American oral storytelling tradition.

And she was also teaching me values about how to live in the world and one of the most important ones was she would say, “Jewell, child, there’s nobody better than you and you’re no better than anybody else. We’re all a mixed blood stew.” And that sense of belonging to all of humanity, everybody is my kin, has really sustained me throughout my life. So, I was very lucky to have Grandmother.

Becoming a writer

Oh, this is a story that I wrote in the third grade and I illustrated it too and I still have it in my little treasure chest. And it was a horror story where horrible things happened to this little girl, but the big climactic moment came at the end where she would scream “Ahhhh!” And it was so funny because the teachers encouraged me to go to all the other classrooms and tell the story. I read my story and I was so hooked on being an author. I was so hooked on having that combination of me sharing something that I had written with an audience.

But, unfortunately, because I had never read any books written about people of color or by people of color, I didn’t actually know that it was a career. So, I quickly forgot about it and it wasn’t until I was a junior in college when I saw a book by Gayl Jones called Corregidora that I went, “Black women write books!” And I switched my major the very next day to English and began in earnest to become a writer and to fulfill the promise of The Last Scream.

Reading and writing African American voices

You know, actually, when I was coming of age, in terms of the academic market, African-American Studies and Women’s Studies were just entering into the canon. So, talking about Zora Neale Hurston and Adrienne Rich, you know, just all these wonderful voices that we were studying that had been suppressed either in past times or contemporary times being moved to the foreground really changed everything.

I don’t think that there was a particular book that really made me feel as though I saw me, but I did get involved in a cookbook, wanting to write a story that was out of my imagination. And I found out about this woman named Marie Leveau and she was a Voodoo Queen in New Orleans. So, from a Junior in college until I was age 30, I was writing this novel. And this novel was about a young woman of color who learns who she is, learns that she has spiritual, intellectual power, and can make miraculous things happen.

And, as I was nearing the end of the book, I made my husband get out of bed because I was getting ready to finish it. So, I said, “You got to come and witness this.” Because it was at that moment that I think I had taken me and my heritage and culture and poured it into a book. And that’s when I grew up from being Jewell to Jewell Parker Rhodes. And it didn’t matter whether that book got published. It did and it’s been very successful. It was more of that effort of having taken that journey and finally writing a story that said, “All women, particularly women of color, can make miracles.”

Writing for children

Oh, I always wanted to write for children, always, because when I was a kid, books saved my life. But I felt that they were the most blessed audience. You couldn’t cheat them in any way. You couldn’t patronize them in any way. You had to be the best to give it to a child. And I had the opportunity of reading some of the very best stories written by children’s book authors.

So, I would write my adult novels practicing and I would speak to my agent and say, “I’m going to write a children’s book one day.” And they’d say, “Whenever you’re ready, Jewell. Whenever you’re ready.” And I didn’t get the call until the day that Hurricane Katrina hit. And that day I had an adult novel being published about New Orleans. And I went to New Orleans two weeks afterwards and I saw this beloved city that I had been writing about since I was 19 years old. And all of a sudden, it was then that I knew the call had come.

I can’t write not unless I get this call. I can’t write not unless I hear this voice. And when I heard Lanesha’s voice, it came out of a dream, I knew I was on my way. And I felt, “Wow, it took you 30 years to get here, girl, but you made it.”

So, me, I am having the best writing career of my life because I’m trying to write books that last and that children can appreciate and that can open up conversations with their parents and in the classrooms. And it seems as though my books are doing that and I’m so happy.

Finding strength and perseverance through books

Because my mother abandoned me, I always felt that I had done something wrong, that I was the cause of why the parents divorced. We were also very, very, very poor. You know, Grandmother trying to figure out how one piece of meat could fit and stretch to 10 people in the household, you know. And there were rats in the neighborhood. There were assaults. There was eventually the crack habit. There were all kinds of horrible things that went awry.

But in a book, I could see a different way of living. I knew about other vistas and I knew also that there were girls, heroines, who went out and changed the world. And even though they didn’t look like me, because they were human characters of course we still empathized and connected.

You know, I like to say Heidi was my soul sister and I love Jo in Little Women. You know, that they still connected and I think that they gave me the strength to get educated. I’m the first in the family to go to college. They gave me the strength to persevere. They gave me the strength to set my imagination alight so that I could share and maybe give that gift back to the world.

So, having great books written by writers and a grandmother who told wondrous stories, I was set.

Inspiration for Ghost Boys

Well, Ghost Boys — well, sometimes I get the call and it just comes out of my soul. But I also have this editor named Alvina Ling at Little Brown who sometimes will drop an idea in my head. So, she thought maybe I should write about young men of color being assaulted because of racism or racial bias. And I immediately said, “No, no way.” She brought it up because she had heard of some of the incidents that happened in my family with me raising a black son.

But by putting that note inside of my soul, it grew and grew and grew and I kept thinking about it. And then finally, one day I said, “Ghosts. I can write it if I can add ghosts.” And it was only years later that Alvina told me she was really worried that I had thought about ghosts.

But all of a sudden, Emmett Till, as well as the contemporary murders of young black men came together as a whole. And it makes sense because when I was a child, that was when Emmett Till was murdered and I remember seeing pictures of his casket. I remember the grownups talking about it in ways that maybe a contemporary parent might not talk about it right now to a young child.

So, my life had been bracketed by Emmet Till and later the assault of Rodney King and the L.A. riots when Evan was two. And then, as he grew older and became a teenager, the world became even more harsh and more set against him. And I started experiencing worry of, “Evan, be safe. Evan, be careful of police. Evan, come home.”

And when I am with fifth graders and sixth graders and seventh graders, I feel as though I’m with the generation that’s going to change everything. I see their love. I see their empathy, their compassion for one another. And I hope my book reminds them don’t judge on externals. Remember what you were like when you were fifth graders. So, by the time they become voting citizens, by the time they move into the world as adults, they are maybe going to help us eradicate that sensibility that just because you’re a person of color, someone feels they need to call the police on you.

Bearing witness

And so many more souls that have been murdered because of racism and bias than we know. That’s why the history of lynching in Mississippi is also so important. The history of the African-American Museum, ghosts that exist in the world still. Now that’s rooted in one of my African-American traditions that says “Every goodbye ain’t gone.” That there’s a deep-rooted belief in the spiritual world and that the spirits’ presence is still accessible to us, you know. But it’s also rooted in the idea that as a living person, I have a responsibility to bear witness to the tragedies and the pain and the people that have been lost.

So, in that sense, there’s that idea that I use the ghosts as an army encouraging me as a writer, encouraging students reading the book to bear witness because when we bear witness, we cauterize pain. When we bear witness, we remind ourselves of the universal humanity.

So, ghosts are not some crazy thing in my life. I remember when I was a little kid knowing that there were ghosts and spirits in this universe. And a lot of great cultural traditions believe in that as well. My ancestors, my grandmother who’s been dead for 30 years is still with me. And if I live my life knowing that there are young souls that we’ve lost who are ghosts wandering the world, who didn’t have an opportunity to live their life, it puts more a burden on me to live a better life and to give all I can so that the world changes and bears witness.

For Ghost Boys, I did not know the book was going to end in spoken word poetry. I did not. But I think that message, you know, that only the living can make the change, so live and make it better, really resonates. And I love to ask students, “Is there anybody in here who’s not living?” And they’ll go, “No.” “So, what does that mean? Live,” I'll shout, “and make it better.” You know, and that whole idea of bear witness, my tale is told. Don’t let me or anybody else tell this tale again.

Kids understand that everybody has a story. Everybody deserves their story to be heard and that they have the power to make sure that some stories of hurt, abuse, murder can never be told again because of racial bias.

The challenge of writing Ghost Boys

Hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. When I first wrote it, I had 25 pages and I said, “That’s it, I’m done. All done.” And my editor said, “I think it’s a little short.” But then I would be off for five or six weeks and I would be reading all kinds of books regarding discrimination and incarceration, you know, prejudice. And then I’d dive back in and I’d write some more. And then I would just have a heartbreak or I’d find out somebody else has died recently, somebody else has been murdered as an innocent and then I’d stop writing again.

So, it was in fits and starts. So, a lot of things weren’t layered in until later, like Carlos, the young man who gives the gun to Jerome. It was a year and a half before Carlos ever appeared. So, I started with Jerome, Emmett, then came Sarah and the police officer, then came Carlos. But it was hard. And, you know, honestly, I still haven’t quite recovered.

It was so important for me to get it right. So important that no child be stereotyped within that book, whether Hispanic, white or black. No stereotypes, but love, compassion, affirmation. And I wanted everyone to feel as though they could be the change. So, this is a book for every child of every ethnic heritage in the entire world.

And I swear to you, if we hadn’t gotten it right, if I hadn’t felt in my soul that I had given it everything I possibly could have given it and that I had made that line of truth and love, it never would have been published. So, sometimes I think I get scared that I might not be able to write another book after this one because I think I did get it right.

But it took a whole lifetime of living, loving, having the grandparent that I had, having the hardships that I’ve had to get to that place that said, “You know what? Always we rise. Life and love rise.”

Talking with children and adults about Ghost Boys

Oh, it’s wondrous to talk to young people. They give so much back and they are so loving and so hopeful. But I met one young man who said, “You know, it’s not just because of me that I feel this prejudice and discrimination. You mean, this has been going on for a while?” And I was like, “Yes.” And to be able to say, “No, it’s not you. It’s part of an historical pattern.”

I think we forget that in not talking about racism, there are so many stories or misinformation that children receive. And so, if I can stop one child from thinking that something is wrong with them and to see the pattern of the story of, you know, racism and bias, then that is a very, very good thing.

I even met an adult who is 26 who had never heard of Emmett Till and it was like, “Oh, my gosh, you’re a parent now. You need to know this in order to share it with your child.” So, I like that impact of children all of a sudden feeling, “Hey, this is not a “no” to me, but this is a “yes” to me. And the problem lies in our country, in our system, it lies elsewhere, not in who I am as a person of color.” I think that’s cool. Everyone should know that.

I hope everyone gets a chance to read it. I guess authors say that. But if it stopped one family’s generation, their lifeline, from truly eradicating racial bias or bias in general towards anything -- religion, gender, whatever — think about the ripple effect of that in making the world an even better place. So, I know I’ve tried to do that with my children. They’re trying to do that with their children. And so on and so forth. So, just give me a few bloodlines, a few histories of people who as they move through this world will bring about change by their own example of treating people respectfully.

Adults are really interesting because I think adults feel like what I felt. They cry because adults are much more aware of, “Oh, it hasn’t gotten better.” We have the memories of Martin Luther King being murdered. We have the memories of civil rights and riots and other people that we can name and maybe even visualize who have been murdered.

So, very often adults will say, “I cried, I cried. I cried.” But the children are “Tell me more.” And they have a kind of objectivity outside of history, but given history, they can somehow then move forward and make a difference. That they don’t have to sort of like cauterize this pain, that they can instead say, “That’s not right. I’m going to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

And I think that’s a wonderful space because then you also have the child healing the parent and the parent looking at their child and saying, “You know, yeah. My girl’s going to change the world. She’s going to do it differently.” I think that’s nice.

Healing through books

Well, books have been healing my soul. I think the fact that children of color and non-color can see a place for themselves in my books is healing them and reminding them that they are very special because they have power and they can be the change, and that I as an adult believe in them. And so, that opens up all kinds of wondrous possibilities.

So, maybe they don’t have as much healing as I do as an adult, but they were learning the capacity that they can actually bring healing to others, which is a very interesting thing.

For Ghost Boys, I did not know the book was going to end in spoken word poetry. I did not. But I think that message, you know, that only the living can make the change, so live and make it better, really resonates. And I love to ask students, “Is there anybody in here who’s not living?” And they’ll go, “No.” “So, what does that mean? Live,” I'll shout, “and make it better.” You know, and that whole idea of bear witness, my tale is told. Don’t let me or anybody else tell this tale again.

Kids understand that everybody has a story. Everybody deserves their story to be heard and that they have the power to make sure that some stories of hurt, abuse, murder can never be told again because of racial bias.

Mixed blood stew

I love the Day of the Dead because living in California, you know, it’s such an amazing cultural heritage. And also, I knew that African slaves were also in Mexico City, you know. And so, the blending and the mixed blood stew my grandmother talked about, the mestizos, the natives, the African slaves, they all would have got along just fine because they all believe that the living are still alive, that you can honor them, and that they have access that you can sort of like connect with in terms of whether it’s one day or every day of your life.

So, I love the idea that Carlos for the Day of the Dead connected with Jerome’s grandmother and it showed that, yes, that they were unified on a spiritual plane, even though their cultural heritages were very, very different.

Shedding bias

Sometimes people will say, “Why did you have Sarah see the ghosts?” As if because she was white somehow she should have been left out of it and that’s not what culture and tradition and heritage are about. There are wondrous things of our humanity that we can share and teach and learn from each other. So, Sarah learns an important truth about how she’s going now decide to live her life. How she’s not going to be like her dad and have bias. How she’s going to be a civil rights advocate or somebody that’s going to be teaching her children, “Judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”

Well, Sarah, I wanted her on a technical level to sort of humanize the dad. But I also felt that I had met a lot of Sarah’s in schools, a lot of young white men and women and girls and actually they’re all from other ethnic heritage, whether it be Irish or Italian or Polish or Armenian, who knows, who had these really wondrous open-hearted souls.

And so, I’ve seen Sarah’s and seen their power. But I wanted to give children who may not have the same beliefs as their parents permission to differ from their parents’ ideas. So, it was very important for Sarah to say, “Dad, you were wrong. Dad, I’m not going to have that bias within me. And Dad, I still love you. Will you help me with my project?”

To me, that was the revelation. I actually thought Jerome, when he finally got Sarah to say, “Yes, I’m going to help everybody remember your name,” that Jerome would go away. And he wouldn’t leave and I couldn’t figure out “Why aren’t you leaving, Jerome?” And finally, Jerome says to Sarah, “Sarah, life is too short. You’ve got to make peace with your dad.” And when she’s able to then do that, Jerome is happy, she’s happier.

But she also has this image that “I can disagree with my dad, not be like my dad, but still love my dad.” That’s a very important thing to know, particularly if maybe you were raised in a home that has biases for different reasons.

It’s about letting our children lead their own lives, not a secondhand life just adopting what somebody has told them you should believe in. But critically thinking about “Who do I want to be in the world?”

And that’s why reading, writing, critical thinking is so important and they should be strengthened. No, you don’t need to be exactly like your parents. Your experience of the world is different. So, love them and make your own choices.

Inviting in reluctant readers

I’ve had a lot of kids and parents reach out to me saying that their children had never finished a book before until they read one of my books. And I actually think my secret weapon is writing in the African-American oral tradition.

When I write, I’m actually thinking of a voice that I hear. I’m actually thinking of someone telling the story. And I think there are ways in which it makes it immediate and intimate and compelling.

I also think that I have to balance that idea of ideas, keep them complex, all the things that I would write for adults: issues of race, class, gender, religious discrimination. I’m still writing them for children, just trying the appropriate way in order to tell that really substantive material for kids. And then encapsulate it in a plot, a story that makes it exciting and entertaining.

So, I think kids almost feel when they read my stories that they’re being read to, they’re being soothed, they’re not being patronized, and they’re being entertained. Which I don’t think I would have necessarily known to do all of that if I had just started out writing children’s books. So, I’m very happy.

But reluctant readers — you know, when you have a reluctant reader, say, an eighth grader who can read Ninth Ward, you know, about Hurricane Katrina. And the language is very simple, so it’s very readable, but the ideas are not. So, they feel as though they have still read a substantive, complex book.

And then in some cases you can have a third-grader who can say, “Oh, I can read this book.” And they can because the language is very simple, but they might then need the teacher to help them go deeper and deeper into the book.

So, somehow or another, I had this like big space where I can get this big audience and they can find enrichment, depending upon their grade level. But writing books particularly for older kids who are having trouble with reading that still interest them intellectually and emotionally, that’s very important. And I think my books do that.

We need diverse books

We need diverse books because we need to have more compassion and more empathy. We need to be able to see everybody’s picture within a book. We need to hear everyone’s story to reaffirm over and over and over again that we are all kin, we are all the mixed blood stew, we are all one. So, loving others as you would love yourself is the golden rule. And I think literature, books, particularly diverse books, reinforce that.

Jewell Parker Rhodes reads an excerpt from Ghost Boys

Hello. My name is Jewell Parker Rhodes and I’m the author of Ghost Boys. Emmett appears by my side. “You’re remembered. We all are.”

One by one the ghost crew appears. “I’m at home with the whist [sic] of boys filling the cemetery. Will the murders stop?”

“One day. Got to believe, Jerome. You’ve got to believe.”

Emmett looks like an old man, even older since I’ve known him. His wariness scares me. Though a ghost, will sadness make me older and older?

I look around. I realize Ghost Boys, thousands of Ghost Boys are trying to change the world. That’s why we haven’t said goodbye, why we aren’t really gone.

“Emmett, each of us has someone who sees them. Don’t we? Someone to talk to.”

Emmett nods, “Sometimes more than one. Only the living can make the change. Who’d you talk to? Who saw you?”

“Thurgood, Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer at my killer’s trial. He won lots of civil rights battles, became a judge. Sarah is going to do good, I’d say, confident. Carlos and Kim too. Time to go.”

“Where?”

“Wandering till next time. Got to help the dead speak. Ghost Boys stick together, I say firmly. At least until there aren’t any more murders,” answers Emmett. “Until skin color doesn’t matter, only friendship, kindness, understanding, peace. That’s my wish too.”

"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox