ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Yesterday, we introduced you to Tananarive Due. She is one of a handful of black science fiction and fantasy writers. In the first part of her conversation with NPR's Farai Chideya, Due explained what inspired her to write science fiction. Today, in part two of the interview, Due talks about the importance of teaching black youth about the civil rights movement. It's a topic that's close to the author's heart. In fact, Due and her mother, Patricia, a long-time civil rights' activist, co-wrote a memoir, Freedom in the Family.
Ms. TANANARIVE DUE (Author): I think probably more than anyone, my mother has really helped shape the way I look at life and who I am. Both of my parents really, but you know how that mother-daughter bond is. My mother was part of the very first jail-in, as part of the student sit-in movement. In 1960 in Tallahassee, Florida, she spent 49 days in jail because she order some food at a lunch counter. Now, I know younger people may not be able to wrap their minds about the fact that you could walk into a lunch counter and get arrested for ordering a hamburger, but that's what happened. And by refusing to pay a fine and spending that time in jail, she and her sister, my aunt Priscilla Caza(ph), at the time Priscilla Stephens, and the other students from Florida A&M University really helped to generate a lot of interest in the student sit-in movement that was growing. And that was part of what helped sustain it. And my mother just felt over the years - she had watched so many others commemorated, and they did deserve it, and it's not so much that she wanted to glorify herself, but she really, originally envisioned a book of oral histories where she would talk to the teachers she had known, some of whom were afraid and would tell them, don't you get involved in that, and some of them who would sneak after hours and use the Xerox machines or whatever they - mimeograph machines, I guess, as they called them then, secretly give money. And I think a lot of people look at the civil rights movement today and think, wow, they were so unified. I wish we had that now. So many of us - we just lost Rosa Parks, so there's another symbolic person who tells us we're just not as together as we used to be. But Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and any of those others, if resurrected, can come back and tell you it was not like that. People were not unified. There was a lot of bickering. And there was a small core group of people who always started it, two, three, five people at a meeting who would plan a demonstration. It might get publicity; it might not. And then, before you know it, you had this brush fire sweeping the whole South.
Blacks, whites - that was another thing my mother really wanted to convey was she knew white students who came to school in the South, had no idea that there was that forcible aspect of segregation. I think a lot of people were naïve and thought, well, people like being separate. No. And once they saw how forced it was, they got very disillusioned. Others were institutionalized, black and white. They spent time in mental hospitals. And if there's one thing that sums up why I wanted to work with her on that book, it's just so that that message would get out, that there was a price and that each individual made a decision. The civil rights movement was not a monolith. It was just a bunch of little individuals contributing in their own way. Because I think we can all do that now. It's not the same as having the white-only and colored signs, obviously, but in a lot of ways, the fact that it's so difficult to track where you should put your energies means that there are opportunities for people, no matter what your talent.
I, for one, never had a talent for screaming and holding a sign. I'm just not good at confrontation, not violence, but where you're standing somewhere and someone is confronting you, and I'm not good at that. I really admire my mom for that. I'm more like my dad, who is a behind the scenes person, who was a lawyer. He was a civil rights' lawyer, so he was helping to get people out of jail once they were in jail. But all of us can have - whether it's Big Brothers or Big Sisters, whether it's in the criminal justice system, AIDS awareness. You name it. There are so many ways that we can all get involved, and I don't want us to be cowed by this idea that we don't have the unity that we used to have because it's ridiculous.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Final question for you. It seems so different for you to work with your mom on a book about civil rights and then for you to do the kind of speculative fiction and horror that you do, but in a sense, what comes to my mind is freedom. You have the freedom to live the kind of life that you want to live, to have the kind of creativity that you need to express because of all these things that have happened before.
Ms. DUE: Absolutely.
CHIDEYA: And your book Joplin's Ghost also talks about the restrictions that Scott Joplin faced as an artist because of the racial environment he lived in. And even your protagonist, Phoenix, living in the modern era, all sorts of commercial concerns and ideas about what an R&B singer should sound like. How do African American people, how do we need to express freedom today? Or how important is it to keep our eye on this concept of freedom?
Ms. DUE: Well, I think for a lot of young people, freedom means casting aside the past and sort of plowing ahead into the future by your own rules, and that works to an extent. But I think the mistake - and all young people are guilty of this. I was guilty of this. I did not learn nearly enough about my college professors while I was there. Some of them were very great people, but I didn't know. I was just showing up to class. So you have to, first of all, understand the history. That was another reason to write Freedom in the Family. That's another reason almost every novel I write has some aspect of history in it. A lot of people don't know about the work of Scott Joplin, that he wanted to compose operas, for example. So anything I can do to just plant those little seeds is the first step. And then, once you understand the history, then as a young person, you forge ahead and create your own rules because, A, I think there is a sense of unity that emerges when you understand that you have the shared generational experience. And understanding that shared generational experience gives you power. I think a lot of parents are afraid to teach about the dark old days because they're afraid the kids, oh, you're going to hate white people, blabbity, blah, blah, blah. Well, I've got news for you. Depending on what neighborhood you live in, where the only white people you may come into contact with are police officers or you name it, you know, it's not doing those kids any good not to understand the history of this. This is a long-standing problem. The relationship with the police is not starting with you, so therefore you need to speak a certain way when a police officer approaches you. And therefore you need to understand. I mean, all of these give young people strength. And then freedom means, yes, unlike Octavia Butler, whom I understand, when she first started writing, you can imagine in the late-60s and early-70s, someone writing about science fiction. Sister, we've got city's burning, they were telling her. And how dare she, you know, sort of retreat into this world. But actually, she was showing us an even bigger world, something that we couldn't even wrap our minds around, and that's important. It's important to sustain an artist's class. And if that's one aspect of freedom we can really enjoy now is that we don't all have to be doctors. We don't all have to be lawyers. We don't all have to be engineers. Some of us can be science fiction writers and fantasy writers and you name it. And that is a great gift, one that I want my son to have. Yes, he's going to know where he came from, but with that knowledge, I want him to decide where he's going.
CHIDEYA: Tananarive Due is the author of several novels and of a memoir of the civil rights movement. Her latest book is Joplin's Ghost. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. DUE: Thank you.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. To hear part one of Farai's conversation with Tenanarive Due, go to our website at npr.org.