Carolina Conversations with Author and Professor Carole Boston Weatherford

Weatherford-8987by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews

Carole Boston Weatherford is a very busy lady. The Baltimore native is a professor in the English department at Fayetteville State University, where she teaches classes in creative writing and children’s literature, and heads the professional writing program.
Weatherford, 60, is a prolific author. In fact, she is not even sure how many books she has written. Although poetry is her first love, she writes children’s literature, historical fiction and biographies, even delving into sports. She started early, getting published as a first-grader, and has continued an almost relentless journey in the printed word. Sometimes she addresses issues in her books, sometimes she praises people for their accomplishments and sometimes she teaches.
Weatherford has received the NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work and the Children’s Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text.

ONC: Your writing career really got a very early start. Tell us about that.
CBW: I composed my first poem at age six and recited it for my mother as she drove me home from school. She parked the car, asked me to repeat it and wrote it down.

Who influenced you most to be a writer?
I was encouraged by my teachers, but my parents were my chief influence. They helped me pursue my artistic and literary interests. When I was in second or third grade, my mother asked my father, a high school industrial arts teacher, to print a few of my poems on the letterpress in his classroom. He used my poems as typesetting exercises for his students. As a result, I saw my work in print at a tender age—before the dawn of desktop computers and printers.

What was your first book to actually go into print, and when was that?
“Juneteenth Jamboree,” my first children’s book, and “The Tan Chanteuse,” my poetry chapbook for adults, both debuted in October 1995.

I read that you said, “The Creator called me to be a poet.” Is that why you write?
Yes. Writing is not what I do; it is who I am.

You have, of course, written other kinds of books. Is poetry still what you enjoy writing the most?
I consider poetry my first literary language, and it’s my go-to genre for most of the time. For me, poetry makes music with words. I share that message with students during my school presentations.

How many books have you written, and what is your favorite?
I’ve written about 40 books. Honestly, I’ve lost count. My favorites are “Becoming Billie Holiday,” because the jazz icon is my muse; “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom,” because it’s my most successful book; and “You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen” because it’s my first collaboration with my son, artist Jeffery Weatherford.

Will you share a little more about Jeffery and your other children?
Jeffery holds a B.A. in art and design from Winston-Salem State University, where he was a Chancellor’s Scholar and an honor graduate. He is now completing his M.F.A. in studio art at Howard University. He is a fine artist, children’s book illustrator and rapper who performs as Jeffery the Artist. He lives in Oxon Hill, Maryland, with his sister, Caresse. She works as an assistant general manager at the Residence Inn Marriott in Springfield, Virginia. She is an honor graduate of Hampton University. She is a strong writer and savvy businesswoman and books appearances for me and Jeffery.

Did you strongly encourage them to read as they were growing up, and are books a big part of their lives?
Both I and my then-husband, Ron, read to Caresse and Jeffery and encouraged them to read books. I also took them to library storytimes when they were preschoolers. Those trips to the library were a favorite part of our week. Their bookshelves were full when they were growing up. Their father was a minister and wrote weekly sermons. So words played a big part of their lives.

Do you plan to collaborate with Jeffery on more books?
Jeffery and I are working on several book projects together that we hope will be published some day.

What is the most important book you have written?
The most important may be “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.” This poetic biography introduces young readers to a largely forgotten voting rights activist.

I like what you said about “mining the past for family stories.” Does that take on special significance for you?
I mine the past for family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. I take that mission very seriously. Our culture is so busy looking for the next big thing that we fail to ponder the past and to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors. My books bring the past into focus.

You even wrote a book about a NASCAR driver. Tell us about that.
“Wendell Scott: The Story of Stock Car Racing’s African American Champion” pays tribute to a Danville, Virginia, auto mechanic moonshine runner who used his own money and hand-me-down cars to race during the Jim Crow era. The movie “Greased Lightning,” starring Richard Pryor, also told his story.

Is writing fun for you or a chore, or is it both?
Writing is sometimes a chore, but it is as necessary for me as breathing. Sharing my books with children is fun.

How do you teach someone to write?
Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. The most important lesson I can teach any writer is to revise over and over.
What do you tell your students is the most important thing about being a writer?
Reading quality literature is the most important thing for writers. Revision and self-editing are close seconds.

Do you love teaching as much as writing?
Writing is my passion. Teaching is my profession.

Try to describe how reading —how books—can enrich a person’s life at any age.
Books are like medicine for the mind and spirit. There’s a prescription for every interest and mood. The best books can transport the reader—even if only toward deeper self-knowledge. One of my favorite proverbs states, “A book is like a garden carried in a pocket.” I truly believe that.

What kinds of books do you like to read for enjoyment?
Believe it or not, I have very little time for leisure reading. I am usually reading for work or to research a book project. I enjoy reading experimental fiction and, of course, poetry.

You have received numerous honors. What is the most meaningful and why?
The Caldecott Honors are most meaningful because they are runners-up to the industry’s top prize. The NAACP Image Awards also mean a lot, since NAACP members voted for those.

Will you always write?
I plan to write as long as I can.