On Aug. 30, 2023, award-winning author Kekla Magoon was INconversation with Kathy Burnette of Brain Lair Books at Louise E. Addicott & Yatish J. Joshi Performance Hall at Indiana University South Bend.
As we like to do at Indiana Authors Awards, we’ve recapped the conversation below with “5 Things We Learned.” Here are some moments that stood out to us:
1. Whose history? Reading stories about people experiencing big moments brings history alive for Kekla. She recalled not understanding why she was being bullied in school when she was taught that because of the Civil Rights Movement we were all supposed to be equal now. She went to the library looking for books that explained what happened between 1968 and 1998 and couldn’t find them. Kekla wrote Revolution in Our Time about the Black Panther Party partly because she didn’t have anything like it as a child. Her research unveiled another version of American history told through the lens of Blackness, which was very different from the history she was taught in school. She recalls wondering how could she just now be learning these things in her twenties. How could she be part of getting this history to the next generation earlier? What she learned made her imagine what her life would’ve been like if she were alive during the Civil Rights Movement. Who would she have been? What would she have done?
2. Looking for a mirror. Kekla spoke about growing up in a predominantly white rural community in Indiana as the biracial child of a Black father and white mother. She understood what it meant to be biracial, and in middle school she was bullied about her hair and skin. She was an enthusiastic young reader (and creative writer, though she didn’t recognize that at the time) and sought to see herself represented in the books she treasured. She vividly remembers the excitement of discovering Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor in the library. In that novel about a Black family in Mississippi, Kekla saw herself reflected on the book’s cover, which depicted Cassie Morgan, the story’s young protagonist. Finally! She was always looking for books with Black characters and by Black authors and didn’t often find them.
3. Doing the work. Kekla’s research process varies by book project and has changed considerably since she wrote The Rock and the River in 2006. She used to spend time going through archives and the collections of libraries in cities across the country. She went to the places that she saw in photos, like Montgomery, Ala. With her nonfiction books, like Revolution in Our Time, she worked to find the throughline, the narrative arc in the research. Kekla found that publishing a book about the Black Panther Party for younger readers was a tough prospect. When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 and the public conversation about systemic racism came back into mainstream conversation, it made publishing the book possible.
4. What can you do? When asked how best to support librarians and teachers, Kekla suggested that the most direct and effective way is to be involved in your communities: vote for school boards and your local representatives. These elections can be fraught, but they are important and impact what is taught and what can be learned. For those who are younger or who can’t vote, build relationships with people in the community who are doing this work. Show them support. The idea that we are too small to effect change is something that stops people from trying. Rosa Parks is known for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus. It was one action, but it also sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. The community banded together in protest. Each individual’s action was difficult and seemingly small, but together they made a difference!
5. You, too, can be a writer! You can start writing at any age and do it in concert with other things — it’s flexible like that! You can be a bricklayer and a writer. A teacher and a writer. You just need to do it. Sit down and write. Recognize that you don’t have to write everything you want to write in one sitting. Kekla tries to write one page a day. Double-spaced. 12-point font. Can you believe it takes less than a year to write a 200-page novel this way? You can even skip weekends! Don’t be afraid to take that little step. A rainstorm is nothing but a bunch of little raindrops together. Celebrate your words!