First published in the Feb. 18 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Author Sherri L. Smith has written many books about Black history and there’s one good reason she writes them.
“There’s that saying,” she recently recalled to me. “’People who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.’”
That’s true about all kinds of injustices. And it’s not just people who are openly racist. There are people who are ignorant of others’ feelings and even of the facts.
The South Pasadena City Council passed a resolution earlier this month apologizing for the fact that the city used to be what was called a “sundown town.” That was a term used in the late 1940s and 1950s indicating that Black people and other minorities, barred in various ways from homeownership, had to be out of town after work hours — in other words, by sundown.
That’s a term and a fact I didn’t know about when I moved to South Pasadena in the mid-1990s. There were also overt acts of racism going into the 1960s cited in the council resolution.
Black History Month is as good a time as any to learn about both the good and bad things involved in the continuing evolution of our country. Even the language involving race keeps evolving — for example, the Associated Press last year began capitalizing the “B” in Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense.
Smith is a good person to talk about learning and writing about Black history.
She is a Los Angeles resident who has taught several sessions of creative writing throughout the years at the South Pasadena Public Library, in addition to participating in a virtual program sponsored by the library.
She was the 2021 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Golden Kite Award winner for her book “The Blossom and the Firefly,” and her historical novel “Flygirl” was selected as one of the American Library Association’s 2010 best books for young adults.
And she has written nonfiction books on the Tuskegee Airmen, the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. She currently teaches at Hamline College, and was a 2021 visiting professor at Old Dominion University.
Smith, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York University, a master’s degree from San Francisco State and a master of fine arts degree from Cal State, Los Angeles, said that she didn’t learn swathes of Black history when she was growing up in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
She knew about slavery and the Civil War, but not a lot about the Reconstruction Era, when Black rights bloomed and then withered almost as quickly in Congress. She knew about Rosa Parks but not so much about the people who came before her.
“I thought about Rosa Parks as this person who was too tired to get up from her seat,” Smith said. “I didn’t realize that she was an activist who took the spotlight. I didn’t know about Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who had refused to get up from her seat before Parks.
“What it is important for us to know is that there is a chain of events to history,” she added. “People stand on the shoulders of others, and the fight for equality took a lot longer than what I initially thought — and it’s still going on today.”
Smith pointed out that if a young person reads about a 15-year-old standing up for her rights, it is a sign that they can also make a difference at an early age. She added that by studying the backroom deals that led to Jim Crow, it will be a warning of what we could face — and have been facing — throughout the years.
She said that when she wrote about the Black airmen — the Tuskegee Airmen — who fought in World War II, veterans of the group who had gathered at a convention were excited about her book because it kept alive the memory of what they had done.
Another book, “What Was the Harlem Renaissance?” brought comments from some readers who didn’t know that the period in the 1920s was famous for drama and art as well as literature, she said.
Her historical novels have also preserved the past. She penned “Flygirl” after hearing a story on NPR about a group of civilian women who flew military planes across the country during World War II. She conceived a fictional light-skinned Black woman who passed for white and was able to join the group.
Her books aren’t all about Black history.
Smith wrote another historical novel called “The Blossom and the Firefly” about the closing days of World War II when a young Japanese man training to be a kamikaze pilot meets a young woman who is serving as a maid for a military unit. She made a trip to Japan as part of her research and had several outside experts read her manuscript.
“It’s wonderful to write outside your experience, as long as you do your research and treat your subject with respect and humility,” she said.
Going back to learning what you were never taught, or which might have been given short-shrift in school, is good to gain a new perspective.
“We need to give ourselves permission to have our minds changed, and knowledge is a great way to do that,” Smith said. “Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat” our mistakes.
The Board of Trustees of the South Pasadena Public Library last week joined five other Southern California public libraries and others from around the country by approving the Urban Libraries Council statement on race and equity. The statement serves as a baseline upon which libraries can build policies and actions that make their communities more inclusive and just.
South Pasadena Chief Librarian Cathy Johnson said that a grant proposal is being prepared which would allow an analysis across 12 different diversity, equity inclusion topics and areas. An assessment can then be made on where gaps in the collection need to be filled.
Smith said that teachers and librarians are “on the front lines” when it comes to finding, offering and protecting books for all of us. She said literature is a powerful tool to help children grow up, which is ultimately why she writes her stories.
“Books are a light in the dark,” Smith said.