Teaching History and Hope: An Interview with Children’s Book Author/Illustrator Don Tate

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When the credits of a TV show roll, some people may change the channel or go get a drink of water. But when the credits came up every week at the end of the hit 1970s series “Good Times,” 11-year-old Don Tate sat mesmerized by the painting displayed in the background. It inspired him to become an artist and storyteller himself, one who highlights little-known stories from African American history and brings them to life for a new generation.

Don joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss his Christopher Award-winning children’s book “Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton,” some of his other works, and the people who led him to become a successful author and illustrator.

In the context of “Good Times,” the painting at the end was done by the character JJ Evans. But in real life, it was a work of art called “The Sugar Shack,” by former football player Ernie Barnes. Its images sparked young Don’s imagination, inspiring him to start drawing himself. His uncle, who ran a barber shop in their community of Des Moines, Iowa, hung his pictures around the shop and declared to customers, “My nephew is the best artist in the country!” His uncle’s words built up Don’s sense of talent and self-worth.

In addition, Don’s aunt became one of the first African American writers at the Des Moines Register. She went on to author young adult novels and even had one of her stories adapted into a movie. Her success taught Don that he could also make a living being a storyteller some day.

As his writing and illustrating career grew, he co-founded a website called The Brown Bookshelf with author Kelly Starling Lyons (herself a recent Christopher Award winner) in order to help other African American creative artists. Don explained, “The main inspiration behind The Brown Bookshelf was the fact that so often…books written by or illustrated by African Americans, would publish and go unrecognized by the publishing industry. So we decided that we needed to start some kind of an initiative to advocate for not only our own works, but for other creators who looked like us, who were facing some of the same dilemmas.”

The story by Don that first caught The Christophers’ attention was “Poet,” which tells the story of George Moses Horton, who was born into slavery, but taught himself to read despite all the obstacles in his way. Horton enjoyed composing poetry and eventually began writing and selling romantic poems to the students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so they could give them to their sweethearts. In fact, he made so much money that he was “able to buy time away from his enslaver to work full time on campus,” explained Don. “He became the first African American in the South to publish a book…That first book was called ‘The Hope of Liberty’, published in 1829.”

Horton often incorporated his deep religious faith into his work. Don said, “Horton was not happy throughout his life, but he found happiness on Sabbath Sunday. Typically, not always, that was a day off for enslaved people. And on that day, George attended church services. He was happy listening to the preacher read the Bible. He was happiest singing and dancing to lively music. And he was in seventh heaven when in relationship with God.”

That relationship is highlighted in two stanzas from Horton’s poem “Heavenly Love”:

“Eternal spring of boundless grace!

It lifts the soul above,

Where God the Son unveils his face,

And shows that Heaven is love.

“Love that revolves through endless years –

Love that can never pall;

Love which excludes the gloom of fears,

Love to whom God is all!”

Faith remains a vital part of Don’s life as well. Though he grew up around a hellfire and brimstone version of God, his spiritual journey as an adult led him to the gospels and their message of redemption and love. Plus, he laughs, his mother’s social media posts are mostly about Jesus, so he’s getting a good dose of faith in his daily life.

Don also aims to inspire others through his work. Two of his recent books stand out in that area. First, there is “William Still and His Freedom Stories.”

Don explained, “William Still was a freedom fighter…and one of the most successful and richest businessmen of his time…He was an abolitionist in Philadelphia, top conductor on the Underground Railroad system. As enslaved people passed through his line of the Underground Railroad, he would keep records on them with a goal of helping to reunite families who had been torn apart by slavery. Little did he know that his records would help to reunite him with his own family who had been enslaved many years before…We know [many slaves’] stories because he kept meticulous records. And the story is really about the importance of documenting history. So I hope that kids will read the story and then go home and interview their own parents to learn that story about grandpa that’s been passed down through the family. Those stories need to be recorded.”

And to bring things full circle, Don also wrote and illustrated the book “Pigskins to Paintbrushes,” about Ernie Barnes, the artist behind that painting on “Good Times” that inspired him so many years ago. Don said, “It’s the story of a kid who wanted to grow up and become an artist. But in his community, in Durham, North Carolina in the 1940s, art for a boy was not considered a manly endeavor. So Ernie went out for football. He absolutely hated football, but he became good at it and ended up going to college on a football scholarship and playing five years in the professional leagues. But art always remained in his heart. So after five years of playing, after an injury, he started an art career and became very successful.”

Don’s career continues to thrive, with the latest book he illustrated called “Roto and Roy: Helicopter Heroes,” (authored by Sherri Dusky Rinker. Ultimately, he hopes his stories continue making a difference.

Don concludes, “Whether my stories are history, fiction, or non-fiction, the most important thing for me is that kids get excited about books, and they want to go to the library and find that particular story that speaks to them. It doesn’t have to be my story; [it can be] whoever’s. Reading and stories are how children learn about the past. Reading and stories are how children put today into context and how they can dream about the future. That’s not going to happen if we can’t get them excited about going to the library and picking up a book. So that is the most important goal when I sit down to write a story,  to get them excited about literature.”

(To listen to my full interview with Don Tate, click on the podcast link):

Don Tate interview – Christopher Closeup