Mocha Girls Read is taking time out to chat with published authors. We have asked HonMag PR to help us get in contact with authors and see if they would be willing to sit down and chat with us. But this Sunday we are going to chat with the author of our Book of the Month.
This morning we are pouring cups of tea and sitting down to chat with author Jill Watts.
Who is Jill Watts?
Jill Watts is a Professor of History at California State University San Marcos. Her most recent book is The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. She is also the author of Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, and God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. She was selected the Brakebill Distinguished Professor in 2017 and has served as the Chair of the Department of History and Director of the Film Studies Program. She was raised in San Diego and lives in Temecula, California.
Welcome, Jill. Thank you so much for joining us today and I am so thrilled you are here. We have a few questions we would love to ask you. The rules are simple. You MUST answer 10 questions. You can pass at any time and we will pull another question but you must answer 10 of them. OK! Here we go.
MGR: Let’s get started. For your first question what was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
JW: My mom and grandmothers loved to read and write. They all read to us. I can remember not being able to read before I started school. I used to pretend I could read, and I would spend (what seemed like) hours looking at all books we had. I would also use crayon to write what I thought were letters and words all over everything—walls, toys, furniture, and even books, including the ones that belonged to the grown-ups. That got me into a little bit of trouble. So early on I came to understand that just the act of writing had a powerful effect. I was so excited when I started school and started learning to read and write.
MGR: What is your favorite childhood book, Jill?
Go Dog Go. I loved that book and still do. There is nothing better than “A dog party! A big dog party!”
MGR: I loved his other book, Are You My Mother? What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
JW: I am a historian and historical works require research based in what is called primary sources. Primary sources are first-hand accounts and/or contemporary documents that provide pieces of the past that historians use to reassemble what happened. Historical research is like detective work—you carefully sift through evidence to reconstruct the story as accurately as possible. Traditionally, historical research required trips to the library and archives, but it now also includes careful work in digitalized documents that are increasingly available online. For The Black Cabinet, I used a wide variety of sources, but the most helpful were government documents, memoirs, African American newspapers, and the papers of the Black Cabinet’s driving force, Mary McLeod Bethune.
The amount of time it takes to research a historical book depends on the subject. Since the Black Cabinet was an unofficial group within the Roosevelt Administration–not recognized by the President–it worked out of the limelight and often undercover. Black Cabinet members held federal jobs in Washington, D.C., and faced significant hostilities as pioneering government appointees. Their goal was equal inclusion in Great Depression relief programs as well as equal rights in American society as a whole. As federal employees, they often had to shield their activism and militancy. Finding documentation on their activities was difficult and it took years. In part, this is also because Black people’s lives have often gone (and still go) unrecorded. It is a challenge, but uncovering the African American past is one of the most important tasks we can undertake at this moment in history.
MGR: What did you edit out of the book The Black Cabinet?
JW: I edited a lot out of this book. The Black Cabinet focuses on the activities of five main members—the dynamic educational and Black women’s club leader Mary McLeod Bethune, the Harvard educated economist Robert Weaver, the brilliant legal scholar William Hastie (who mentored Thurgood Marshall), the militant newspaper editor Robert Vann, and Howard University trained journalist Alfred Edgar Smith. But there were numerous other core members that I would have liked to written more about. Eugene Kinckle Jones’s parents were college professors in Virginia and he was a founder of Alpha Phi Alpha (the first Black fraternity). As an Urban League official, Jones was the first leader of a civil rights organization to become a federal administrator; A descendent of a revolutionary war soldier, Forrester Washington forged the field of social work and came to Washington to anchor the first Black federal jobs program. Born in Oklahoma, Juanita Sadler rose to Dean of Women at Fisk University and later joined the federal government to push for educational and job training programs for African American youth. At one point, the Black Cabinet numbered over one hundred members. Each had a unique story and made an important contribution to building a bridge to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
MGR: What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
JW: Historical writing is not like writing fiction. It cannot be made up. It is based on fact. Historians don’t create voice, they convey voices from the past from the documents that they discover.
However, in the process of writing history not all facts can be used—it would be impossible to read a history like that since it would become a list of events. As historians construct the story, they begin selecting evidence to answer the central question of why did things change or not change? They construct a timeline to tell the story in a linear fashion to make the story understandable.
The ethics of this are critical. Historians have the obligation to get the past right—to accurately reflect as much as possible what happened. That requires historians to think carefully about their own biases as they assemble the facts into a coherent narrative. They constantly must ask themselves why they are choosing the facts they select to tell the story? How do the people of the past experience this history? How do the perspectives of those of the past differ from the historian who is in the process of recovering the past? Those who lived the story are the best teachers; a good historian learns from them and accepts that the historian’s role is to become a transcriber not an inscriber of the past.
In the case of African American History, it is imperative to get it right. As a historian who is white, I think about this all the time. I let the primary sources tell the history. I was raised in a predominately African American community in my father’s hometown of San Diego, California where I learned about slavery and the African American experience at an early age. In college, I discovered African American history and was mentored by African American scholars both at the University of California San Diego, where I got my B.A., and the University of California Los Angeles, where I received my Doctorate. I have the obligation to honor my mentors and the training they gave me. I do that by carrying forward the quest to uncover the story of the African American past. Everyone in the United States needs to know African American history—it is American History. In our time, it is urgent that we all become fluent in African American history.
MGR: AMEN!! If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
JW: I teach full time at California State University San Marcos and university teaching requires publishing, so writing comes with the job. If I weren’t teaching and writing history, I probably would be still teaching. I taught music before I was a historian, so maybe I would be teaching music.
MGR: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
JW: At the university, you are regularly evaluated, and your evaluators read the reviews and provide you with their own reviews of your work. So you have to read the reviews. You can really beat yourself up over a bad review. But you can also think about bad reviews in another way. Even if someone pans your work, you can learn from it. You can see what doesn’t work. A good review is such a relief because you can see what did work. Good reviews help because it feels rewarding to be able to convey history and preserve the past in a way that resonates in current times.
MGR: Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
JW: I think my books are mostly connected. My work is primarily biographical and even though The Black Cabinet is about a group, I see it as a collective biography. My main interest is in how marginalized Americans, specifically African Americans, used various methods to empower their communities and fight against discrimination. My earlier work primarily explored cultural channels and focused on religion and then later entertainment and film. The Black Cabinet focuses on politics, which has long been an interest for me—I was raised in a very political family. But religion and entertainment are also political in the African American context, so there is a political thread that runs through all of the work I do.
MGR: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
- The Old South Meeting House (Church) in Boston where Phillis Wheatley worshipped.
- The subway stop at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard) where Langston Hughes got off when he first came to Harlem: “On a bright September morning in 1921, I came up out of the subway at 135th Street and Lenox into the beginnings of the Negro Renaissance.”
- Southern Californian sites from the novels of Raymond Chandler: Despite Chandler’s problematic depictions of race, gender, and sexuality, he grounds his mysteries in real locations that remain captivating for a Southern California native like me.
MGR: This is the last question. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
JW: Energize. Once you accept the reality that writing is revising it is renewing. Each page is like a new day.
MGR: Thank you so much Jill Watts for joining us today. Please let the readers know how to find you on social media.
Books by Jill Watts
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