Interview with Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
THIS IS PROMISE OF CHANGE was an early 2019 publication with many nominations, but we haven’t discussed it much on Heavy Medal (it was part of Roxanne’s post on poetry). We interviewed the authors to learn more about how the book happened:
Heavy Medal: Debbie, why did you decide to write about Jo Ann’s memoir in verse format?
DL: As you note, except for the introduction and the back matter, our book is written in poetry—free verse and also some structured forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, haiku, pantoum. It took a while to figure out how we might best tell the story. But I kept coming back to Jo Ann’s voice. As a young girl and teenager, she was musical, playing piano, singing, and listening. As an adult, besides working as a pediatric nurse, she took gigs as a jazz singer. And when I learned that she loves poetry, I thought: don’t fight it! Let’s think about writing this book in poetry.
But it wasn’t only that poetry fit Jo Ann; it also fits the story. Poetry is excellent at conveying emotion, and this is an emotional story. But even more to the point—and exciting to us as book creators—poetic forms seemed especially well-matched to particular scenes and developments in Jo Ann’s story. The winding and unwinding motion of the villanelle in the chapter-poem “The Night Before,” matching Jo Ann’s preparation for her first day desegregating Clinton High School. The history and discipline of the sonnet format used, for example, in “This Time”—when Jo Ann and her friends are making history and exercising discipline over their emotions and actions. The rap poems, in “What Are They Thinking?” and “Notes to Myself in the Squad Car,” with their staccato rhymes and propulsive drive, matching Jo Ann’s determination and impatience at those junctures in the story. The pantoum’s circularity in “Good-Byes,” reflecting Jo Ann’s hesitancy in letting go of the life she’s known up to that moment.
I also think that poetry can excel at opening up a story—especially one, like this one, that is true and difficult—to young readers who might otherwise think it’s not for them, because they think that history isn’t their thing or because they find nonfiction dense or boring. Poetry can have white space on the page. It has rhythm; it pulses; it makes its point not only through words, but through format and shape and sound. Not boring! I’d used a similar format a decade ago when I wrote The Year of Goodbyes, about my mother’s last year in Nazi Germany in 1938. When I wrote that book, after first trying, without good success, to tell the story in a more traditional narrative form, I felt that the narrative absolutely demanded the verse format. I never thought I’d find another nonfiction story that also seemed to demand poetry—but once Jo Ann and I began exploring it, I felt similarly compelled.
HM: Some readers lived through a time of segregation. It seems like a chapter in a history book, for others like you who lived through this, did you ever feel that you needed to put that part of your life behind you?
JAAB: I have, over the years, since school desegregation happened in Clinton, TN, occasionally given thought to “putting this part of my life aside.” However, those thoughts have been fleeting. This story, and multiple others like it, must continue to be told and kept in the forefront of people’s minds, especially our youth! The less we know, the less we remember about the trials of discrimination/segregation/bigotry in the history of our country, the more vulnerable we are to those trials being repeated. That old quote about “history repeating itself if we don’t remember it” is at our doorstep right now.
HM: Reading This Promise of Change reminds me of my family, who lived in Alabama until 1966. Family, Church, Friends, Food, Love was a foundation that ushered you through the eye of the storm. I know your faith and family gave you the power to face numerous threats on you, your family, friends, and classmates. Was it challenging to continue to be optimistic?
JAAB: When Clinton High School was desegregated in 1956, I was a 14-year-old “I can do anything” teenager. I had already learned that, as an African American, my life would most likely always be full of challenges. Yet, based on the teachings of my parents that I was capable of becoming whatever I wanted, plus having that teenage mindset that I could face any challenge, I never gave up on being optimistic. Besides, it was almost impossible not to be, considering I had a fantastic father whose philosophy was always to see the glass as half full no matter the circumstances. I loved that about my Dad and so always being optimistic became my philosophy too, as well it still is!
HM: There was a quote from an interview where said that you believed the situation at school would be all right if outsiders left us alone. It seemed like school was bearable without protesters of being on edge. You were a child having to witness and see individual behavior at its lowest. Did you keep a journal?
JAAB: You know, it’s possible that initially, I wrote a few pages of notes but didn’t continue. I concentrated instead on maintaining a scrapbook, filling it with numerous newspaper clippings. It was a much better way to maintain a timeline of what was happening at Clinton High School as well as in surrounding neighborhoods, and also in other states attempting to desegregate schools. I brought my scrapbook to California when we moved in December 1956. My children and my grandchildren would later, over the years, share it in their classes when they did a school project on the group, eventually known as the Clinton 12. I have, since the opening of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center and Museum (in Clinton, TN) donated my scrapbook for others to enjoy and study.
But those early few, forgotten pages of notes blossomed into copious notes that I made starting some 30 years ago when I began presenting the story of the Clinton 12 to schools and other interested groups. So although I don’t have a journal from my teen years, I do have written notes and remembrances about those days that I prepared decades before we created this book.
HM: You and your classmates were trailblazers. Have you kept in contact with anyone since high school?
JAAB: I have kept in contact with almost all of the members of the Clinton 12 over the years, some more than others. One would be my best friend since she was two years old and I was one year old! I have been as faithful as possible, returning to my hometown almost every year since my mother passed in 1990. I made that promise to her. Throughout the years, I’ve seen either one or two former classmates during my visits, or a few at a time.
HM: What are both of your thoughts about our public school system today? Could it be better?
JAAB: When I visit my home town, I can’t help but notice things haven’t changed over time in the numbers of African Americans enrolled in the Clinton schools. It looks very much like the enrollment when we first desegregated. Remember 12 of us, compared to 800+ white students! Well, it looks about the same today because there are still few people of color living in Clinton. Here in Los Angeles, it has been evident over the years that the schools look very much like 1956 BEFORE desegregation. Inner-city schools are brown and black. Unfortunately, this appears to be due to economic disparity and redlining. It seems we are going backward, not moving forward as I hoped we were doing when Clinton High School was desegregated in 1956. Another reason for me to continue telling our story!
DL: Wouldn’t it be great if our public school systems today weren’t so starved for resources? Shouldn’t every school have a real library and librarian? I’m awed, as I know Jo Ann is, at how much educators are able to do with so little. I’m not awed—rather, I’m downright saddened—to realize that schools today continue to be segregated by race. There may no longer be laws on the books like the ones that required, on pain of criminal penalty, separation of the races in Tennessee schools before 1956, when the Clinton 12 walked into the formerly all-white high school in their town. But as a practical matter, segregation is still rampant, and that is a loss for all children.
HM: How did you two of you meet?
JAAB AND DL: We met: first on the Internet, then on the phone, in emails, and finally in person.
In February 2015, Jo Ann’s daughter-in-law, Libby Boyce, posted on Facebook about Jo Ann and the Clinton 12. “In honor of Black History Month, I want to share my mother-in-law and 11 other children’s experience as young students in Clinton, TN, who desegregated the first High School in the South. This story has somehow not risen to the level of other similar stories, but it should! Respect to all of those who paved the road for our children!”
One of Libby’s childhood friends saw this. The friend thought, “This could make a great children’s book,” and she thought that because she was Caryn Wiseman, a children’s book agent, and Debbie’s agent. Caryn got in touch with Libby, who put her in touch with Jo Ann, who said she’d be open to working with one of Caryn’s clients. Jo Ann familiarized herself with the work of several of Caryn’s clients, including Debbie. Debbie, whom Caryn had also contacted, familiarized herself with what little material she could readily find on the Clinton 12.
And then, on the phone and through emails—we chose each other! When we finally met in person, each of us traveling to Clinton, Tennessee, for a research trip in the spring of 2017 (Jo Ann flying in from Los Angeles, Debbie driving down from Maryland), it was as if we were reuniting with an old friend.
HM: Thank you for sharing your story, Jo Ann. You are a true icon for generations. Thank you, Debbie, for answering these questions for this inspiring memoir.
Do Heavy Medal readers have questions or reflections after reading this post? Please share with us.
About Annisha Jeffries
Annisha Jeffries is the head of the youth services department at Cleveland Public Library. She was a member of the 2007 ALSC Board and served on several selection committees, including the 2018 Caldecott Committee. A 2000-2001 Spectrum Scholarship recipient, Jeffries is currently the Chair of the Norman A, Sugarman Children's Biography Award. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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