Bayard Rustin: Interview with Co-Author Jacqueline Houtman
Several years ago I launched a blog about unpacking the power of picture books for any age. I’ve featured an extensive array of titles, but a frequently-viewed post addresses Martin Luther King, Jr. and explains why he is a personal hero of mine. That post, and another about “themed” months” (Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, etc.) explain in detail why I feel so strongly about presenting young readers with a truthful and balanced picture of the past in ways that are both age-appropriate and “whole grain”. That’s my way of saying they have not been sanitized or retro-fitted to wrap the realities of the past in modern day sensibilities. I advocate for sharing these topics with ALL children, ALL year long.
My decades-old stance on this matter feels right at home in the current discussions of the need for diversity within the content and creation of literature for young people.
With MLK, Jr. as a personal hero, I sought out readings about him and the Civil Rights movement throughout my life. As a result, I actually knew the name Bayard (rhymes with “fired”) Rustin for many years. Only recently did I become aware of how pivotal his role in the well-known March on Washington actually was. An internet search of his name reveals many titles by him and about him. But the first time I read about Rustin in a book for young readers was when TopShelf Productions released a graphic history by Congressman John Lewis last year: MARCH: Book One. Lewis knew and worked directly with him, so the truth surrounding Rustin’s place in history was described honestly, if briefly.
Now, I’m excited to celebrate the launch of a book that is decades overdue but seems to have arrived at exactly the right time in our cultural evolution. BAYARD RUSTIN: THE INVISIBLE ACTIVIST released at the end of this November. It is co-authored by Wisconsin writer Jacqueline Houtman, historian Michael G. Long, and Rustin’s partner and archivist, Walter Naegle. Jacqueline agreed to answer some questions about this book and how it came to be:
Jacqueline, thank you for your important part in creating this book for today’s readers. Let’s start by finding out more about how that happened. How is it that you became a part of this impressive collaboration?
My two coauthors, Walter Naegle and Michael J. Long, had worked together on another project. Mike is an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College. Walter was Bayard’s partner for the last ten years of Bayard’s life and he’s the archivist of the Rustin estate. Walter provided a lot of the material for a book of Bayard’s letters that Mike edited called I Must Resist. They decided to write a children’s biography together and submitted it to Quaker Press. The folks at Quaker Press thought it needed some work to make it appropriate and engaging for a fifth grade audience so they contacted me and took me on as a coauthor. They knew about me because my novel, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, is in the QuakerBooks catalog and I gave a talk about it at a national Quaker gathering a few years ago.
After reading this biography of Rustin I’m astonished at the impressive accomplishments of a man whose name is virtually unknown. Even though I had made it a point to learn about him, I didn’t realize he was a Quaker. How familiar were you with Bayard Rustin before you began to work on the project?
As a Quaker, I knew of him by reputation, but I didn’t know many of the fascinating details of his life. He is much admired among Quakers, and his Quaker beliefs were the basis for his activism. When I was asked to work on the book, I jumped on the opportunity. For me, it was what Quakers call a leading—something I just had to do. I was led by the Spirit, not by reason. It was such an honor to be asked, but I was also afraid I wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice. I set aside all the other projects that weren’t under contract to make time for it.
I’m aware of your science and technical writing backgrounds, but you also write novels, in a style you’ve called “sciency fiction”. How much of the content was based on your own research and how much of the content had been “gathered” before you embarked on the actual writing ?
The manuscript Walter and Mike submitted was about 30,000 words, so there was a lot of great content there to begin with. Part of what I did was cutting out details that weren’t part of the heart of the story—what drove him and what got in his way? The point was to make it engaging, rather than exhaustive. If readers want to find out more, there are resources listed in the back of the book (and I’ve added additional resources to my website, www.jhoutman.com)
I did add material that I thought young readers would connect with. I beefed up the sections on his childhood, for example. It was wonderful to have Walter and Mike as resources. For example, when I was looking for more information on Bayard’s childhood, Walter sent me a two-hour tape recording of an interview with Bayard about his childhood.
I used sidebars to give historical context without interrupting the narrative and to break up the big blocks of text. Some of the material was pulled from the original text, and some of it was added.
I also added a chapter at the end. The original manuscript ended with his funeral. While we were negotiating about my role in the project, President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously to Bayard. Walter accepted it. He and Sally Ride’s partner Tam O’Shaughnessy were the first same-sex partners to accept this award. That was a perfect ending, and one that wouldn’t be part of the book if it had been published in its original form.
What specifically in Bayard’s long life of commitment to equality and freedom did you find most surprising and/or impressive?
I was impressed by his resilience and his determination. When he was prevented from working toward justice in one arena, he turned to another. I was also surprised that he had such a beautiful singing voice. I purchased two CDs of his singing and listened to them frequently as I was writing.
What do you hope for this book to accomplish, what impact and sustained life do you see it having in the future?
When I mention Bayard’s name, most people have no idea who he was. I would like that to change. I would also like young people to realize that the Civil Rights Movement was made possible by a lot of people who will not be named in history books. Each person has the power to work toward equal rights for everyone.
That last comment touches my heart, especially when pop culture seems to be driving people (not just youth) to validate their lives through fame rather than through the good they can do for others. I’m also excited that this title will release as soon as it’s ready. I’m sure it will find attention during “Black History Month”, but history happens every day, and the stories of history-makers should fill our daily lives.
Will you be launching the book at any upcoming events?
I’m doing a reading at A Room of One’s Own in Madison, WI on December 5 and a Goodreads giveaway. That’s all I’ve got lined up for now. I’m sure there will be more. I think this is the kind of book that builds its audience slowly.
Thank you, Jacqueline, for following your leading and allowing young readers to meet this amazing American as he takes his rightful place in their classrooms and lives. I’ve read it twice so far, and I feel confident Rustin himself would say you did his story justice, in every sense of the word.
This quote by Rustin convinces me he would appreciate having his story told by someone who shares his Quaker values:
“My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”