An Interview with Patricia McKissack about Color Me Dark

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti: You are quoted as saying, "I have mirrored some of my own experiences through the eyes of Nellie Lee in a very close-up and personal point of view." Could you share with us some of the most autobiographical episodes from Nellie Lee's diary?

Patricia McKissack: My grandmother's family name is Love. I have one sister, Sarah Frances, (who is named after our two grandmothers, Sarah James Love and Frances Oldham). Our mother's name is Erma and our aunt's name is Nell. There were just the two of them. Our mother's mother, our grandmother Frances, had one sister, Willamae, and their mother Martha was a twin to Mary. So for four generations there were just two sisters. My sister and I are very close. We share everything from secrets to clothing. I named my characters after our mother and aunt because they were closest to the time period (1919).

RFA & LMP: In researching the Chicago Riot of 1919, what did you discover that surprised you most?

PM: When researching the Chicago riot, I was amazed that it went on for weeks. Most riots last a day or two. Unlike the rioting of 1960s when Blacks — out of frustration — took to the streets and destroyed property by burning and looting, in 1919 Whites went into Black neighborhoods and attacked people — beat them, burned homes and businesses. There were over 30 riots in 1919 all over the country — mostly over jobs. In many places, Blacks hid in their homes and waited for tempers to cool. But in Chicago, the Black community fought back — defended themselves. That was the major difference.

RFA & LMP: Erma Jean and Nellie Lee are wonderful characters who have a great relationship as sisters. If you had two or three words to describe each girl, what would those words be?

PM: Erma Jean is creative, loving, and sensitive. Nellie Lee is generous, assertive, and a natural leader.

RFA & LMP: Your readers are introduced to many important leaders from W.E.B. DuBois to Ida B. Wells-Barnett to Marcus Garvey and Madam C.J. Walker. Of the real people who walk through the pages of Nellie Lee's diary, are there one or two you most admire? Why?

PM: The "real" people who are in Color Me Dark are all people I admire. I admire Madam C.J. Walker because she made it possible for Black women to start their own hair salons and become independent. Up until that time women were not encouraged to work outside the home, but selling Madam Walker's products made it possible for Black women to have a career that was acceptable. That was a revolutionary idea in 1919, and it made Madam Walker the first self-made, female millionaire in the country. I also admire Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was an outspoken civil rights leader who led the fight against lynching.

RFA & LMP: Do you feel that light and dark skin, social standing, or recent immigration from developing countries are issues among African Americans at the present time?

PM:
I believe "different" is always a reason for people to discriminate. That is the point of the story. Different is to some people a synonym for wrong.

RFA & LMP: If youngsters were interested in reading one or two other books about this period in American history and the people who influenced the times, what titles would you recommend?

PM: I would suggest that young readers start with a biography of W.E.B. DuBois, Madam C.J. Walker, Marcus Garvey, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Historians often start the Harlem Renaissance at 1919. Poets and writers from that period such as Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes would be very interesting for young readers to know about.

RFA & LMP:
What is one question you'd like to ask children after they've finished reading the diary?

PM: Do you think the Loves made the right decision to leave The Corners to live in Chicago? Why?

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Color Me Dark?

PM: I hope young readers will remember that it is not important where you are, but who you are with. If you are with people who love you, then you can overcome adversity of all kinds. The girls not only had a good family, they were also surrounded by a caring community.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.

  • Subjects:
    Slavery, Underground Railroad, Abolition, Courage, Bravery, Heroism, Social Studies through Literature, Tolerance and Acceptance, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences, Survival
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