The 2022 Walter Awards & Symposium will be held on Thursday, June 23 at 10:30 AM, both in-person and via livestream. For event details, go here. We previously revealed the cover for this book here.
By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
Thank you, Kekla, for taking the time to do this interview. Congratulations on being a Walter Honor winner in the Teen Category for Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party Promise to the People.
As I read your book, I was moved by how you brought light to a movement and really made me think introspectively about how important it is to dig deeper into history, and to study it from different perspectives, which is something I advocate for as an educator.
What motivated you to write Revolution in Our Time and why focus on the Black Panther promise?
I started researching the Black Panther Party over a decade ago, when I first learned that one of the organization’s key initiatives in the early 1970s was hosting a Free Breakfast for School Children program in over 40 cities around the country. This information didn’t jive with my snapshot impression of the Black Panthers: Black men with guns and berets. That was all I knew about them, and it was a woefully incomplete picture. I’d studied the civil rights movement as a teen, but never learned anything about the Panthers, who were educators, activists, and organizers on a global scale—they published a weekly newspaper, fed people, opened health clinics, fought for tenants’ rights, founded schools, and so much more. The Party’s true and complicated history fascinated me and drove me to learn everything I could about it. I wrote the book because I wanted other people—specifically young teens—to have much easier access to this history that took me years to find, interpret, and understand.
The book’s subtitle, “The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People,” encapsulates both the Panthers’ aims with their work and my aims with the book. The Panthers engaged in community organizing as a way to assure Black people that they had power and could use it to take care of each other and themselves, and I wrote this book to help ensure that the legacy of that work is carried forward. In other words, the Panthers’ promise is ongoing, we just have to choose to live into it in our own time.
In your book you mentioned that you came across an archival video “with former civil rights movement leaders who were looking back in the early 2000s at their own words and convictions of the 1960s. They declared in retrospect that the biggest mistake of the civil rights era was to believe that all the problems could be solved in their lifetime, and they failed to train the next generation to take up the mantle in the necessary ways to maintain the struggle.”
Bearing this in mind, what does it mean to be revolutionary in our time today?
At core, being revolutionary means actively seeking change, seeking social transformation. It means standing up for what you believe in, staying informed, and participating in our democracy through voting and activism; it means protest and organizing. People younger than me get to decide what the specifics of that organizing truly look like in this landscape, but in so doing they need to understand that they are not inventing the wheel. My goal is to give them as much information as possible about how we got here, what we’re up against, and what has been tried in the past, and encourage their belief in their own power to help determine our collective future.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
It’s good and important to write about historical figures, to keep our history alive. Accuracy is paramount, which means making sure that facts are represented as well and clearly as possible, but also trying to understand the narratives, the stories, that bring the facts to life and help explain why and how things happened the way they did, and why and how historical people made the choices they did. The ethics become more complicated when writing about people who’ve done things of historical importance in the past and are still living. The obligation to tell history accurately is bigger than telling a historical person’s story in a way that would make them happy or that they’d approve of, because sometimes a new perspective on history is needed in order to achieve full truth and accuracy. It’s complicated, but a worthwhile thing to pursue.
As Huey P. Newton once said, “The revolution has always been in the hands of the young.” The most widely known revolutionaries like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were both assassinated at the age of thirty-nine, which may seem old, but as mentioned in your book, “the world regarded these men as young upstarts, shaking the foundation of society because they weren’t “grown” enough to know better.”
Given your extensive research and the lessons learned from the Black Panther Party, what would your advice be to our younger generation?
Don’t wait until you’re older to be part of a movement for change. Do the small things you can do right now, today, from your own home or community or classroom, and make your voice heard.
The Walter Dean Myers Award recognizes authors whose works feature diverse main characters and address diversity in a meaningful way. Reflecting back at when you first started your journey of writing Revolution in Our Time, did you foresee what your book would be like today? What are some lessons you learned as a writer along the way?
I hoped and imagined that the book would be something similar to what it is—large and colorful, with many archival photos and sidebars included—but I didn’t always know if that would be possible within the landscape of publishing. I started the book over a decade ago, which means I was writing about and studying Black history and civil rights history several years before the Black Lives Matter movement took hold and conversations about police brutality and systemic racism had become central to nationwide debate once again. When I started, many people thought I was strictly writing about history, and while *I* could see the connections between the Black Panthers’ work and the challenges we still face today in Black communities, it felt like swimming upstream to try to explain those connections to people more broadly. But then the conversation changed, and the book came out in a moment when many people are paying attention to these issues and craving more context for our contemporary situation—context that Revolution in Our Time provides.
I learned many things in the course of the research and writing process, but one of the most important was simply to persevere against the odds and go after what was important to me, even if I couldn’t see the endgame. I couldn’t have predicted the waterfall of awards and recognition the book has received—I just wanted to write it and see it published so it could exist in the world. It’s amazing and powerful to me, knowing that the book exceeded my aims for it.
What is a question you hope you were asked more often about the book?
Hmm. The questions that come up most often are pretty good ones, about my inspiration and research and the hoped-for impact of the book. The thing that’s difficult is to answer any of these questions fully given how long the process was on my end. So, it’s not really a matter of wanting new or different questions to be asked, but I sometimes leave an event wishing I could have shared even more about my experience of the last decade, because it feels bigger than what could be contained in the book.
How long did it take you to research for Revolution in Our Time, and when did you feel you had done enough to write your book? What kept you motivated?
I started researching the Black Panther Party in 2003, while writing my what would become my debut novel, The Rock and the River, and its companion, Fire in the Streets. Those novels came out in 2009 and 2012, and thereafter I began researching the Party in more detail, with an eye toward writing a non-fiction book. So, that’s either ten or twenty years of doing research, depending on how you count it! My best estimate is that I spent about three to four years’ worth of time in the last decade doing focused research for this book and writing it. Within the same decade, I also wrote several novels and focused on other projects, but this book simmered on the back burner all the while.
Being the recipient of many awards and honors such as the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, four Coretta Scott King Honors, the Walter Award Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and being a finalist for the National Book Award, what advice would you give yourself as a starting author, and what goals have you set for yourself for the future?
Awards are very unpredictable, as is the landscape of publishing overall. As a new writer, I certainly hoped and aspired to win an award someday, but even back then I understood that it couldn’t be the reason I wrote. My advice to new authors is to first follow your passion and write the things you care about; focus on the things you want to say in the world. Chasing external validation, whether from the publishing industry, or awards, or colleagues, or readers, is a slippery slope. I certainly couldn’t have predicted the amazing critical reception my books would enjoy, and that the list of awards would be so long, and yet it feels even truer to me now that the motivation for the work must come from within the writer. The work must have meaning to YOU, or you will never be truly satisfied. My goal is to continue to challenge myself creatively and explore issues I care about, even if it means venturing to new genres and formats that my audience doesn’t expect from me, and even if it means being uncertain of how the work will be received. Learning to trust your own voice and vision amid all the noise of the world around you is one of the biggest challenges we face as writers.
What was your first novel, which you wrote in high school, about? Was that when you set your sights on becoming a writer?
The novel I wrote in high school was a mystery/thriller, about eighty pages long. I wrote it shortly before graduating, as a bit of a lark, because at the time I had no intention of becoming a writer, and no sense at all that becoming an author would be part of my life path. Looking back, I know that writing is something that comforts me in times of uncertainty, like staring down the big change of leaving home and going to college. I didn’t get started on writing as a career until after I graduated college, when once again, things were in flux and I found myself turning to the page.
What author do you look up to as an inspiration and why?
Right now, I’m working my way through all the Octavia Butler books that I haven’t yet read. Kindred was part of the inspiration for a middle grade fantasy novel I’ve been working on this past year. In learning more about Butler, I’m continually inspired by her confidence, determination, and belief in her own voice and vision, even when the world and the industry threw up roadblocks and continually demanded that she explain herself within the context of “the establishment.”
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Hmm. I love this question, and yet I can’t think of a great way to illustrate it. In some ways, perhaps I’ve always known the power of language? I learned to read early and always loved being swept away by a story. I can recall as a young child, in moments when I’d be frustrated with something and crying or otherwise struggling to express it, my mom would say “Use your words,” as a way to help me get unstuck, and maybe I’ve just kept doing that.
Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to share with the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
Nothing comes to mind. I’m so excited to be a Walter Award Honoree, and to have the opportunity to share more about my work! Thanks.
Kekla Magoon‘s young adult novel The Rock and the River, which won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award, was the first mainstream novel for young people to feature the Black Panther Party. She is the Margaret A. Edwards Award-winning author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including Fire in the Streets and How It Went Down. She is also the coauthor, with Ilyasah Shabazz, of X: A Novel, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and received an NAACP Image Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Kekla Magoon grew up in Indiana and now lives in Vermont, where she serves on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi is an international educator who is passionate about inclusive education. She has taught various age groups from primary all the way up to Grade 12. She is a trained teacher in Special Education, English as an Additional Language, Geography, Science, and an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Teacher. Yasmine strives to advocate for inclusive practices, promotes and supports diversity, and speaks up for injustices no matter how small they may be. She’s a Canadian at heart, born in London, England, but a global traveler who has lived in the Middle East and the US. She currently resides in Switzerland.