Monday, January 25, 2021

Q&A with Amy Nathan


Amy Nathan is the author of Together: An Inspiring Response to the "Separate-But-Equal" Supreme Court Decision That Divided America, a new book for teens and adults. Her other books include Round and Round Together.


Q: How did you learn about the friendship between Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, whose families were involved in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, and at what point did you decide to write a book based on their story and that of their families?


A: I was fascinated by an article I saw about them 10 years ago in The Washington Post.


At the time, I had just finished writing a book about people coming together across racial lines to protest against segregation in Baltimore in the 1960s, Round and Round Together, and here was an example of two people crossing a really big racial divide to work together to create the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.


As descendants of the two principals in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that ushered in the Jim Crow era, their two families had been seen as polar opposites in civil rights history. If they could work together, there was hope for the rest of us.


I looked for ways to let others know about what they were doing, and decided about four years ago to see if they’d be interested in having their story told in a book for young people and adults, similar to my Baltimore book. I contacted them through their Foundation and was delighted when they said, “Yes.”


Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I already knew a little about New Orleans civil rights history from a school visit I did there in 2011 for PEN, the authors’ group, spending a day at the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School.


Located in the Lower Ninth Ward, the school had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but a fellow PEN member from New Orleans, Fatima Shaik, had a personal connection with the school and its teachers. She arranges for several PEN authors to make school visits there every year.


During my visit, I spoke with the school’s sixth graders in the morning about how to do interviews, giving examples from interviews I did for some of my books. Then, with help from the teachers and from PEN, we had made arrangements to bring five New Orleans veterans of the Freedom Rides to the school in the afternoon and have the students interview these local heroes.


I had read several books before that trip to learn about major events in that history, but I learned so much more from sitting in on the interviews, which the students recorded. It was so moving to see how those Freedom Riders opened up to the students and shared so much of their lives.


I learned even more when I transcribed the tapes. The transcripts have now been donated to a local historical society, the Historic New Orleans Collection. That trip let me feel a personal connection to the city and its history.


Before I reached out to Keith and Phoebe, I, of course, had also read the major book on the Plessy case, Keith Weldon Medley’s impressive We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson.


I live just outside of New York City, and so all my interviews with Keith and Phoebe happened by phone. After my first calls in February 2018, I saw that there was much more to learn. They offered suggestions for books to read to fill gaps in my knowledge, and others to interview.


I dug into the resources of Louisiana historical societies, libraries, and newspapers. The more I learned, the more books and articles I read. Together has a very long bibliography! I kept calling Keith and Phoebe with more questions over the next year and a half.


Then I boiled down all that reading and interviewing into a compact overview of that history (in the book’s middle chapters): pre-Civil War, Reconstruction, the Plessy case and its legal issues, the case’s disastrous Jim Crow segregation aftermath, and the impact that all this history still has on the nation today.


Intertwined with this history is an account of how Keith and Phoebe learned of their connection to it. The last three chapters deal with the creation and work of their Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. As Keith says, their Foundation is a “flip on the script.”


I was so moved to hear how puzzled they each had been as children by their encounters with Jim Crow segregation and the effect it had on each of them.


They were both born in New Orleans in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. They never met as children and lived in totally different parts of the city. Yet they each encountered segregation in schools, parks, movie theaters, and stores during their growing up years.


It was surprising how little they each knew as children about the famous case that links their families. By the time they finally met as adults in 2004, they had learned about that history. Their childhood experiences with segregation had prepped each of them to feel a connection and a readiness to work together to change the ending of the story that bears their family names.


Their childhood memories also resonated with me personally, bringing up memories from my childhood in Baltimore, when segregation still ruled there as well. 


Q: At a time when many people in this country are focused on racial justice issues, what do you hope people take away from your book?


A: I hope people will see that it’s possible to reach across the divides that separate us and work together to try to make things better.


One of the Foundation’s goals is to keep alive stories of resistance to injustice, especially those that are little-known but play a part in shaping our world today. The more people learn about events and attitudes of the past that have lingering repercussions today, the better the chance for understanding and ridding ourselves of those left-over attitudes.


Phoebe notes in the book, “You can’t really have a dialogue on race unless we both have an understanding of what has occurred over the past 400 years.” Quoting author Michael Eric Dyson, she adds, “When it comes to race, the past is always present.”


Maybe this book with its compact, readable overview of the history and its story about how these two individuals are working together to help change attitudes will inspire the book’s readers to think about projects that might work in their communities to help bring people together.


The book’s Afterword has brief introductions to other groups with similar goals. Just by purchasing the book Together, people can help the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. Half of the book’s earnings go to support its work.


Q: The book includes many photographs of the Plessy and Ferguson families and others involved in the story--how did you find the photos, and how did you choose the ones to include?


A: I worked in children’s magazines for many years and learned that photographs are a great way to help tell a complicated story. In all my books, I include a lot of photos, interspersed throughout the book, as in a magazine, to bring the story to life.


Keith and Phoebe were generous in sharing family photos. So were many of their friends and colleagues. Local historical societies and libraries had good photo collections that could be searched online.


I was especially pleased with a photo A.P. Tureaud Jr. sent me of his father, the famous civil rights lawyer, showing him as a young man. Many books use photos of him as an older man, but he was a young firebrand when he was filing important civil rights lawsuits, and so I thought it was important to show him as the young activist he was.


The same is true of the photo of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, the founder of the nation’s first Black daily newspaper. His great-great grandson, Mark Roudané, kindly let me use a photo that showed him as the young man he was when he started that newspaper.


I’m also very grateful to artist Ayo Scott for allowing us to show on the book’s cover and on inside pages some images from his wonderful mural in Plessy Park. I hope that artwork—plus the drawings Keith Plessy did for his old elementary school and a drawing that Keith Osborne made as a fifth grader—might inspire readers, young and old, to create artwork about important events happening now.


For the same reason, I hope student groups might be inspired to create a play on how the events described in the book resonate with their lives. That’s what students did who are seen in two photos in the book from their play Se-Pa-Rate. They created this play as part of a drama workshop held at NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m collaborating with civil rights hero Sarah Keys Evans, age 91, on a book about her life. We collaborated in 2006 on a book about her for young readers, Take a Seat—Make a Stand—but so much has happened since then, as is noted in Together’s Afterword. A new book from her written for adults and teens is definitely merited. No publisher yet, but I’m hopeful.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Amy Nathan.

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