Jamia Wilson: “Young, Gifted, and Black”

KATE SCHATZ: Let’s start with the title of the book—Young, Gifted, and Black. How did you land on it? Did you have the idea for the book and then the title, or vice versa? For older generations (and some especially woke kiddos!) it evokes Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin. What resonance do you think it has for young readers today? 

JAMIA WILSON: My wonderful publishers at Quarto reached out to me about the concept and they had me with the Hansberry-Simone connection! Both artists have inspired me as a writer and activist and Nina Simone is from a town close to my ancestral homeland in the Carolinas. When the book came out, I traveled to Nina’s birthplace with my family and brought a copy of the book. I wanted her to let her spirit know that we took her call to action seriously when she said “there’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”

KS: Here’s a question that I get asked constantly, and I’m kind of excited to ask someone else for a change! How did you choose the 52 people you profile? Why 52? what were your parameters, and what guided/influenced/shaped your decision-making process?

JW: The hardest decision I faced was sharpening the list of luminaries. I presented a much longer list to our editorial team that still holds the names of the people I wish we could have included—but alas the book could only be so heavy in order to fit little hands, so we had to edit down. The main criteria I factored in included global diversity, age diversity, genre diversity, representation of different abilities, LGBTQ diversity, and a mix of people who are mixed race, from different parts of the diaspora, etc. I wanted every child who read this book to see themselves reflected.

KS: What have you learned from the 52 heroes you researched and wrote about? That’s likely a long list, so to be more specific: What new insights or lessons did you gain during the research/writing process, especially around people you already felt you knew a lot about? 

JW: I learned that each of us have skills and talents that we’ve had since we were children that helped shape who we are. I wish that I had an appreciation for my unique gifts earlier in my life and I hope our readers will discover that the world needs them and the brilliance they bring to the table.

I have been preparing for eye surgery related to a visual disability I was born with. The book came at a time when I was struggling with challenges related to this issue becoming more present in my life. Stevie Wonder’s quote “just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision” stuck with me throughout this process and has healed me in so many ways.

The insights I gained from the book also help me point out and develop talent in others in deeper ways. Learning about some of the subtle ways children started honing their gifts and their purpose has inspired me to help support others on their journey with more intention, generosity, and compassion.

KS: I really appreciate that you include people of all genders. Why is it important to you, as a feminist leader, to include stories about great men alongside stories about women?

JW: Thank you! It meant a lot to me to represent the full story of who we are as humans—and gender diversity is a part of that story. I also wanted to demonstrate the importance of equality so that children of all genders could see that greatness comes in all forms. We all have the capacity to make change and we’re all valuable. It was also important to me to name some of the social systems that create barriers and obstacles for people based on their gender identity because I want children to have those conversations with their parents.

KS: You are someone who does a lot—and I mean that in the best way! From leading Feminist Press to movement building to teaching to traveling and public speaking. What made you want to add children’s book author to that powerful list? What role do you see children’s books playing in the movement for social justice and gender and racial equality?

JW: I feel like I’m in a place in my life where my purpose aligns with the work I’m privileged to do in the world. I have always wanted to write a children’s book and expected it to come much later in my life. I learn so much from the next generation and wanted to find a way to give back to people who teach me so much through their wisdom and fresh perspective. I’m also interested from a literary activist standpoint, in ensuring that children are exposed to stories that affirm diversity and inclusion, challenge them to question, and inspire them to take action about the issues they care about in the world.

KS: What are some of the books that you read as a young person that have really stuck with you? I always love hearing about people’s favorite childhood books, but I’m also curious about books you came across that had a big impact, maybe a wow moment, that weren’t necessarily a beloved favorite, but that impacted/shaped your thinking and understanding of yourself and the world.

JW: Children’s books by intersectional black feminists paved the way for me–

KS: I’m a big fan of Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf illustrations—taking inspiration from her, here’s a fun challenge: What’s on the Ideal Children’s Bookshelf for the Feminist Kiddo?

JW: I love this question!

I have so many favorites but here’s a few:

KS: Speaking of heroes, you’ve been able to interview some pretty rad people, from Erykah Badu to Solange. Who would you love love love to interview next?

JW: I would love to interview Oprah Winfrey. I have SO many questions. She was one of my favorite people to profile in Young, Gifted and Black. #GOALS

KS: Young, Gifted and Black features short profiles of 52 remarkable Black heroes—this format works so well for so many reasons, including the fact that young readers can get a quick sense of so many people, and then choose which ones they want to learn more about and do a deep-dive into. If you could do a single-subject biography of a few of the people from your book, who might you choose to deep-dive into?

JW: I would love to write a biography about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American and Indigneous woman to launch a public flight in the United States.

KS: You are the Executive Editor of the Feminist Press—and the youngest and first person of color to hold this position. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversations often tend to focus first on diverse content, then on diverse authors, and only sometimes on the importance of diversity within the publishing industry—the gatekeepers, the decision-makers, the people at the table. What advice/wisdom do you have for young people of color who want to work in publishing, who want to be in the rooms, at the table, making the editorial decisions?

JW: My motivation is to help pave the way for others so that we hear less about firsts and more about the change we make collectively when there’s enough of us to band together to create critical mass and change in the industry. My advice to young people of color who want to work in this industry is to work hard on their craft, connect with the writers and editors they want to work with and ask them for coffee and mentorship, apply for internships, and to take every opportunity they can to write and develop their voice and their network. I also believe that as we grow along the way, it is important to pay it forward and lift as we climb.

Finally, I’m a big believer in cultivating relationships like a garden. Take the time to follow up with people who have helped you along the way and be intentional and outspoken about what you want to do in the world, so that people who may be in the position to support your goals know what challenge you’re interested in pursuing next.

KS: Bonus question! What are some unexpected Jamia fun facts that we would be super surprised to learn about you?

JW: I was once a very mediocre trombone player even though I practiced for HOURS everday. That experience taught me several things and one of them was that we don’t need to be good at everything, that sometimes trying something is about the learning we get from having to put in exra effort and having the tenacity to show up again, and again to get it closer to almost right.

 

Young, Gifted and Black (Hardcover)
Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present
By Jamia Wilson, Andrea Pippins (Illustrator)
Wide Eyed Editions, 9781786031587, 64pp.
Publication Date: February 1, 2018