Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Q&A with Ray Anthony Shepard




Ray Anthony Shepard is the author of the new young adult biography-in-verse A Long Time Coming: A Lyrical Biography of Race in America from Ona Judge to Barack Obama. His other books include the children's picture book Runaway. He is a retired history teacher and textbook editor.


Q: What inspired you to write A Long Time Coming, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I wanted to give readers a broad sweep of the role of race in American history and their young lives. It’s a story of how six individuals challenged and changed their day’s racial laws and practices. It tells of the problematic and constant struggle to achieve and sustain racial justice.


It is also my personal story (I set each of the book’s three sections with a personal remembrance) and a legacy gift to my grandchildren and their generation to protect them from the current backsliding and to value the country as a multiracial democracy. 


The title comes from Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and the words President-elect Barack Obama used on the night of his first election. It captures the sweep of hard-won progress against the odds—from a Black enslaved servant in George Washington’s President House to a Black president in the White House.


Or, as one wag jokingly said: from the first White president to the last Black president.


Q: How did you choose the historical figures to focus on in the book?


A: They were chosen for their courage in fighting racial laws and the group thinking held by most Americans of their era. They were also chosen to show how a victory in one generation must be refought in the next, i.e., the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment and the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment needed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voter Rights Act.


Or, as I asked at the beginning of the book: If the Civil War led to full citizenship rights of formerly enslaved people, why was there a need for the civil rights movement a century later?

Q: What do you think R. Gregory Christie's illustrations add to the book?


A: I am fortunate that Gregory wanted to be a part of this storytelling. His striking illustrations evoke the mood and sinew of the narrative. His cover illustration will compel browsers to pick up the book and decide if it’s worth their time and attention. Because of it, I’m confident that they will.


Q: The writer Deborah Heiligman said of the book, “I pray that this book—painful, revealing, and ultimately inspiring—will disprove forever ‘the lie,’ as Shepard puts it perfectly, ‘that people are color-coded into winners and losers.’ It is a long time coming.” What do you think of that description?


A: Deborah is a writer I admire. I studied her Charles and Emma and her Vincent and Theo for clues on the structure of a multiperson biography. In addition to reading her books, she was generous with her advice while I struggled to write my book. I am grateful for her endorsement and the blessing of Angela Joy and Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.


It’s essential for those striving to write their first book to know that writing is not a solo performance; the advice from the writing community and scholars helps you shape your story vision into something publishable. Also, I am grateful to my wife, Kathy, for her encouraging support during the five years it took me to write A Long Time Coming. Indeed, it was! 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I hope to have enough cognitive energy to tell the story of the Black and Brown Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. It’s another American history story erased in the past and likely to be erased again in the future. But as with all my books, it’s a story I want my grandchildren to know.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Deborah, thank you for this opportunity and for contributing to children’s and young adult literature.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ray Anthony Shepard.

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