Interview with Chris Barton and Don Tate

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chris barton and book coverFebruary is Black History Month. Honor it with two incredible titles by 2015 Texas Book Festival featured authors Chris Barton and Don Tate.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton examines the life of a former slave, turned U.S. congressman, John Roy Lynch. Lynch was one of the first African-American congressmen. This book also gives readers a look into the Reconstruction Era.

Poet: The Remarkable True Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate recalls the story of poet George Moses Horton, who taught himself to read while enslaved. He was the first African-American published in the South and fought the notion of slavery with his verse.dontate and book cover

Both books address the difficult and shameful history of slavery in the U.S. and illustrate the courage of two influential historical figures. Incorporating these books into a classroom or at home can facilitate important dialogues around inequality, slavery, perseverance, U.S. history, writing, and research.

Barton and Tate shed some light on their research and writing process in an interview with the Texas Book Festival.


How long did it take you to do the research?

Barton: The book took 8.5 years from the night I first learned of John Roy Lynch to the day of publication, and my research occurred off and on throughout that period.

Tate: The book went through many revisions over the course of about 5 or 6 years, and I dug deeper into research with each revision. For me, research never really stops. The book has been published for over a year now, but I find myself continually looking for more information about Horton.


What was the most surprising thing you found out about your main character while doing the research?

Barton: The most surprising thing for me was how much company John Roy Lynch had as a black officeholder during Reconstruction. From the local level on up, there were around 2,000 black men who served in the South, including 15 others in Congress. Until Barbara Jordan and Georgia’s Andrew Young were elected to the House, there had been zero African Americans sent to Congress from former Confederate states in the previous 70 years, and that gives you a sense of how sharp was the reversal of the gains achieved during Reconstruction.

Tate: It’s amazing to think that Horton composed so much poetry inside of his head before he had ever learned to write them on paper. Horton often set the words to the tunes of church music. I suppose that’s how he was able to remember all of those poems–much like we are able to remember all the words of modern pop music. Music helps us to remember all of those lyrics. Later, he sold his poems to college students who dictated his words as he recited them. Learning to write out his poems on paper came later. I was also surprised to learn that he was likely the best paid poet in the U.S. south at that time, white or black. Think about that!


Was this always a story you wanted to tell? What inspired you?

Barton: I had never heard of John Roy Lynch until I watched the PBS documentary Reconstruction: The Second Civil War, which used his story as a lens through which it told the larger story of the era. I knew right away that I wanted to do the same in a book for children. I wanted kids today to grow up with a better understanding than I ever had of why there was even a need for a Civil Rights Movement a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a need for a Voting Rights Act 100 years after Appomattox. It all goes back to the racist determination to undo Reconstruction, and the recent wave of voter-suppression laws in this country shows that’s an impulse that still exists today. 

Tate: I’ve always wanted to tell the stories of little-known historical figures, and especially those stories of African Americans who might be forgotten about. As a reader, I was a late bloomer. I didn’t become an avid reader until I was in my early 20s. I started reading more as a result of being inspired by authors like Richard Wright, Claude Brown, Gordon Parks, even Malcolm X and Nathan McCall. They wrote stories about black males who overcame obstacles to make great contributions to society. I’d never been introduced to these stories in grade school If I had, I might have become a reader earlier. I want to tell stories that inspire all young readers, but especially young black males who don’t have as many books where they can see themselves.


What are some of your book suggestions for Black History Month that you would like to see in the classroom or at home?

Barton:  There’s still lots more to cover about Reconstruction than we could fit into The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, so I’d suggest Tonya Bolden’s book on the subject, Cause. And for older readers who want an even deeper knowledge and understanding, the go-to book is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Tate: There are so many great books. Since the focus of my career has been on telling stories of Black History, I’ll list a few of the other books I’ve been a part of creating:

Ron’s Big Mission is the story of a childhood experience of Ron McNair, the astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger accident in the 80s. Young Ron desegregated his community library by staging a lone protest when he was denied a library card due to the color of his skin. An empowering story for young readers.

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story is about the first woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Effa managed a Negro League baseball league at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to do so, and she fought tirelessly for the rights of her players and the people of her community.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw is the story of one of our country’s most important and celebrated outsider artists, a man who was once enslaved. Octogenarian Bill Traylor had no formal training as an artist, and painted images of his life from memory.

Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite tells the story of how Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn collaborated to create a jazz version of the music from the Nutcracker play. Kids can learn about the challenges Ellington and Strayhorn faced in rewriting the music, and then listen to music from Ellington’s Three Suites.

Not to forget The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, written by Chris Barton, which tells the story of a teenage field slave who became a US Congressman by his early 20s. Another inspiring story.