Questions and answers: Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of “Black Brother, Black Brother”
The Nerd Daily recently had the pleasure of speaking with award-winning novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes. She’s the author of countless adult and mid-level novels and Rhodes takes audiences on an emotionally impactful journey in her latest mid-level release, Black brother, black brother.
In the interview, Rhodes discusses with us the social issues that inspired her work, the importance of knowing and teaching black history, and how she approached difficult topics in her writing. Released on March 3, Black brother, black brother is now available for your reading pleasure.
Hello, Jewell. Thank you for taking the time to discuss your new novel with us, Black brother, black brother. First of all, if you could describe your novel in five words, what would they be?
Anti-racist and harassment. Pro-fraternity & family. Triumphant!
What was your inspiration for writing Black brother, black brother?
My inspiration was twofold. While researching Ghost Boys, I learned from elementary to high school that students of color are often unfairly suspended and arrested. Once arrested, even for minor offenses, the chances of a student being trapped by the criminal justice system and not graduating double. Black brother, black brother corrects this bias.
My characters, Donte and Trey, are also inspired by my own experience raising two biracial children (one light skinned, the other darker). Skin color should not determine how easily one child is more fully adopted by society and the other is prone to racism. Yet in both public and private schools my son was treated with suspicion. The mood swings typical of childhood were considered criminal when an employee threatened to call the police. While as a family we were discussing “driving / walking being black”, the idea that school is a dangerous place has changed my family’s world.
Fencing plays a huge role in the novel, can you explain a bit why you chose to enter the sport? Does it hold a personal connection or was it something you had to research further?
Decades ago, I discovered that Alexander Dumas was Métis (Haitian and French) and that his novels were based on his father’s exploits as a “black count”, swordsman and general in Napoleon’s army. . Yet popular culture and the media have historically made fencers aristocratic and white.
I cried that I didn’t have D’Artagnan noir as a role model for young people, especially since in the 21st century fencing can be a path to college scholarships, world travel and Olympic competitions. . My husband and my children have fenced in a bit; I applauded and researched. Most helpfully, Ben Brattan (a three-time American athlete and the youngest to win a gold at the World Team Championships) hosted my visit to the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York. There I saw dozens of young people and instructors fighting for excellence in fencing.
You describe the importance of addressing issues regarding racial prejudice and identity in the novel, what advice can you give to parents and educators who wish to teach and hold these types of discussions with children and young students?
Fiction, in particular, can foster empathy. Allowing the imaginative connection between oneself and a character allows young people to experience vicarious events, emotions that can affect identity. Encouraging critical thinking, exploring causes and effects, asking questions about motivations and the best responses to racial prejudice lay the groundwork for great discussions. Children especially want to control the narrative of their own lives. Stories can model diverse life paths and affirm choices that nurture an amazing, self-loving identity.
In the novel, Donte realizes the importance of community. Are there instances in your own life where a sense of community has uplifted and supported you?
My childhood and my young adulthood were traumatic. My grandmother was the lifeline that supported me during the intense doubt and loneliness. Growing up, I realized that I also had an amazing, supportive community of teachers and librarians who shaped and supported me. But when I was a kid they were invisible to me, I didn’t appreciate their impact! Now yes. All of my novels celebrate teachers, librarians, mentors, elders and other adults in addition to parents who can provide upliftment and support.
The mid-level novels you write often look at serious story events through the eyes of children. Have you ever felt an apprehension, or on the contrary, a feeling of freedom when exploring these topics for a young audience?
Social injustice, family and economic stress, environmental disasters, and physical and mental trauma have always been a part of life. Having learned to persevere, to be more attentive and optimistic, I now feel both the freedom and the obligation to demonstrate that although life may be difficult, the universe “always shines with love”. The challenges don’t have to stop you from shouting, “I love being me! or by urging yourself and others to, “Be you. Even if others can’t see you. Additionally, during a national crisis like 9/11 and the pandemic, holding on to historic American values and spiritual empathy can allow love to flourish and sustain the community.
Nevertheless, in particular, as a parent, write Ghost Boys almost defeated me. I was a child when Emmett Till was murdered and having raised my son, I personally know that my son’s life was “in danger” because of the color of his skin. Ultimately, my faith in today’s young people who learn and discuss real social issues allowed me to complete the novel. Children and their courageous teachers / parents should be celebrated for these honest and meaningful conversations.
You’ve written about Marie Laveau, Emmett Till and in Black brother, black brother you mention Alexandre Dumas, is there a black historical figure that you would like to see written or that you would like to write about yourself?
Mathew Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole in 1909, has always fascinated me. How was he as a child? How did he support the arctic expeditions? Maybe one day I’ll write a novel based on him.
The biography on your website mentions that when writing your first novel, Voodoo dreams, you mainly wrote at night, has your writing process changed a lot and how would you describe it now? Also, what advice can you give to aspiring writers?
As my children needed me less during the day, I switched to daylight hours. But I still spend a lot of time dreaming, reflecting, meditating on writing. The first air currents explode in gusts. Sometimes I write for an hour … sometimes less. It’s only when I have a draft that my actual writing time begins to stretch to two hours… four hours… even twelve hours when I’m reviewing.
What book, movie, podcast, or TV show are you currently consuming?
For my Ethnic Literature class at Arizona State University, I teach Small fires everywhere (both the book and the TV adaptation).
What can readers expect from you?
Paradise on fire (a working title) is about climate change and how an African-American city woman learns to survive a drought-stricken countryside and save her friends from a wildfire.