Why did you choose Arturo Schomburg as a subject?
My mission as an author is to mine the past for family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. Add to that unsung heroes. When my friend and frequent collaborator Eric Velasquez pitched the idea of a Schomburg biography to me, I was intrigued. Like Schomburg, Eric has roots in Africa and Puerto Rico. I detected Eric’s passion for the project and I could not refuse. I believe this is the book that Eric was born to create. Even though the book had a ten year gestation, I am honored that Eric asked me to collaborate. This is our fifth book together.
When did you first learn about Schomburg?
I knew of the Schomburg Center before I knew about the man behind it. I did picture research there in the early 1980s. That was long before there were digital archives online. Back then, I had to wear white gloves to handle vintage photographs. I recall being in awe of the Center’s vast holdings. What I did not know is that Schomburg the man was a bibliophile and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, a period I first wrote about in Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. That picture book is illustrated by Gregory Christie.
Is there a part of Schomburg’s life story that you especially connect with?
I identify with the young Schomburg whose fifth grade teacher told him African descendants had no history worth noting. That lie spurred Schomburg’s lifelong quest to prove the teacher wrong by documenting African descendants’ countless contributions to civilization.
Well, I had my own slight at the hands of a teacher. At an exclusive private school in 1969, my eighth grade English class studied Harlem Renaissance literature. I was moved by Countee Cullen’s twelve-line poem “Incident.” The poem relates the sting of racism that an eight year old felt when a white boy called him “nigger” during a trip to Baltimore (my birthplace). I wrote a research paper about Cullen. For the assignment, my English teacher gave me a “B.” Beneath the grade was the comment, “Did you write this?” I was too young then to understand that the teacher was in disbelief that a black student who had come from public school could write so well. Consequently, he suspected plagiarism and gave me the grade that reflected his low expectation of me rather than the grade that I had earned. Ironically, that devaluation left me determined to use the power of my pen to make my voice heard and to affirm my heritage. Like Schomburg, I seek to set the historical record straight.
What item in the Schomburg Center’s holdings do you find most curious or fascinating?
That would have to be Langston Hughes’s ashes which are buried beneath the lobby’s marble floor. Hughes was Schomburg’s contemporary. The Harlem branch of the New York Public Library that housed the Schomburg collection was a haven and inspiration for young black artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I first read Hughes’s poetry in elementary school. His poems were the first I ever read by an African-American writer. I consider him my literary mentor to this day.
Carole Boston Weatherford is a New York Times best-selling author and poet. Her numerous books for children include the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor Book Becoming Billie Holiday, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, and the Caldecott Honor Books Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, and Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Carole Boston Weatherford lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina.