Through the magic of the internet, Roseanne A. Brown, author of Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting and one of the newest additions to the Rick Riordan Presents team, got together with veteran Kwame Mbalia, author of the Tristan Strong trilogy, to discuss what Black History Month means to them. And we have the transcript! See below.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: It is so good to be talking to you today about Black History Month, a subject you and I both care a lot about. But before we get to that, you recently finished an entire trilogy! Yay! How does it feel?
KWAME MBALIA: It’s amazing. Just to think that 1) people care about the stories of a young Black boy who experiences a wide range of emotions and expresses them wholeheartedly, and 2) people want me to keep writing and hear me talk. It’s like, what is that?
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: And don’t forget Gum Baby! I’m pretty sure Gum Baby is a big part of all of that.
KWAME MBALIA: [points to bookcase behind him] I don’t know if you can see her, but she’s right there peeking out. Always keeping watch.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: [laughs] Gum Baby is always watching. On that note, what does Black History mean to you?
KWAME MBALIA: Black History is history. And we should be reading and talking about it all year and not just one month.
I look at it like a birthday. I celebrate Rosie being here all year long. But on her birthday, we’re here to make sure that she knows it. Black History Month is our month to show out in an exuberant fashion, a chance to give shine to some figures who may not be as well-remembered and yet deserve just as much praise. This time of year, we are going to let the world know: you’re going to see us all year round, but we’re going to be in your face right now.
Black History Month is our month to show out in an exuberant fashion and not hold back.
What about you?
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: I love that answer. And I hope it means that on my birthday I’m about to see a big package from you!
My understanding of history has always been as something living because I grew up so strongly with the oral folk tale traditions in Ghana. Even the act of telling it becomes a part of the history through the telling. Black History Month becomes this time in which the history feels even more present and a part of our lives in this moment. It feels so interwoven with how we see ourselves and how we see the world. It’s about understanding the long tapestry and where I am inside it and who came before me and who comes after.
Even the act of telling it becomes a part of the history through the telling.
What is one little-known Black History fact you wish more people knew?
KWAME MBALIA: Oh, man. Maybe this is why I should have reviewed the questions beforehand.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: I’m a trained journalist, Kwame. This is what you’re getting.
KWAME MBALIA: I’ll do something local! I think one of the beauties of Black History Month is we get to show love to less nationally known tidbits of information and give some shine to local information.
Ocean City Beach, here on Topsail Island in North Carolina, was for Black people at a time when everything was heavily segregated. It was a place where we could exist free of judgment, segregation, and discrimination. History is a chance to give homage to what we have done in the past to provide opportunities for our children and those who come after us, right? Because my kids love to go to the beach. I would hate for them to be denied access to the beach. And so, our elders created that opportunity. And now it is our responsibility to do what they have done—maybe not on the beach, but in kid lit or what have you—where we shelter our children from the harms that would be inflicted on them today. We are shelters to allow them to frolic and be children.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: [snaps her fingers] This is rare in an interview, but I’m snapping here!
I love that you give a beach as an example because I feel so often people think of obviously the revolutionary and the radical spirit. And that is so important, but also the idea of creating a sanctuary for Black kids and future Black generations. How that itself is such an uplifting and powerful act.
One figure I love to talk about is Yaa Asantewaa, the queen mother of the Ejisu people in Ghana, and how she fought the War of the Golden Stool in 1900. I especially love that story because of her as a military leader as a Black woman. At the time, people were shocked to see a woman as a military leader. And people aren’t very aware of how many of the native people were fighting back against colonialism and imperialism. So, she gets to be a great example of people on the continent protecting themselves and their communities.
KWAME MBALIA: Yeah. Fun fact: Yaa Asantewaa is actually one of the inspirations for the giant protector statues in Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky that guard Nyame’s palace. I love the idea of her as this protector guarding a god’s kingdom of Ghana. And doing what she could to keep that culture preserved. My mother named her cat Asantewaa.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: Shout out to Asantewaa the cat. What kind of cat was it?
KWAME MBALIA: I have no idea. I was like, five. But she was a nuisance. She stole socks.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: That is the official breed right there. A nuisance!
So, we’ve talked about both the joyous side, the sanctuary, and about the tougher side, the effects of racism and colonialism. So how then, in your work, do you balance both the joyous parts of Blackness and Black History, and the more painful parts?
KWAME MBALIA: If you’re looking at my messy office, you’ll see the poster of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. And then you’ll see Gum Baby keeping watch over everything. And both play a part in my answer.
I love the cover for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, because you have this kid who’s smirking as he battles a metaphorical representation of slavery and discrimination in the iron monsters and fetterlings. And behind him, having his back, you have John Henry protecting him, which is what we do. We serve as harbors as our kids grow and learn within this hostile environment.
And then you have Gum Baby. I didn’t set out to make Gum Baby a funny character. And if you asked her, Gum Baby will tell you that Gum Baby isn’t a joke. In no bit of dialogue in Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky does Gum Baby tell a joke. Her actions provide a relief from the tension within the novel. In a novel that heavily centers on grief and trauma, she allows you to laugh. And that is how we have to tell our stories. Whether they’re serious, scary, horrific, we give the full balance. Because if you don’t tell the whole story, you’re doing as great a disservice as those who omit parts they don’t want to tell.
if you asked her, Gum Baby will tell you that Gum Baby isn’t a joke.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: I love that part about Gum Baby. How nothing she says is a joke, but obviously, she evokes so much joy and fun.
On the topic of Gum Baby, a very important question that the youth of the country need to know: if Gum Baby ran for president, what would her platform be?
KWAME MBALIA: Probably something along the lines of “Stick with Gum Baby for 2024.” I don’t think we’re going to get better than that.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: Stick with… I just got that! That is a platform in and of itself. So, what are some reads that you would recommend to young people who want to learn more about Black History outside of February?
KWAME MBALIA: The young reader edition of Stamped is a great place to start. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds put their whole feet into that narrative. And Henry Louis Gates always does a fantastic job. Even though he doesn’t specifically write for young readers, he’s like that granddad who will tell you a story, and the next thing you know, you learn three morals within it. One of my favorite books of his is Stony the Road, which is about Reconstruction. And then I have to shout out Professor Keisha Blain. She and Dr. Kendi co-wrote a book called Four Hundred Souls. She’s a wonderful writer.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: I want to add The Glory Field by Walter Dean Myers. For those who don’t know, it’s a story following one Black family from the time of enslavement to the late 1990s. And it’s a fiction book, but it feels so real and written in such an accessible way. On the nonfiction side, there’s Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic. She writes about the history of Black characters in modern pop culture. She talks about major pieces of fandom and media that have shaped our understanding of modern storytelling, where Blackness fits within it, and how it’s been used and exploited.
My last, but certainly not least important question: can you confirm or deny if Gum Baby secretly wrote the entire Tristan Strong trilogy?
KWAME MBALIA: I am going to emphatically deny that. But I think it would be amazing if you got a Gum Baby version of the events. Because I do believe you could make a case that it is Gum Baby and not Tristan who actually saves the day. And so, we get a 10,000 short story in the Rick Riordan presents anthology The Cursed Carnival called The Gum Baby Files. It’s a short story told completely from Gum Baby’s point of view. I think her version of the events is valid. So, who knows? It depends on if the public clamors for it loud enough.
ROSEANNE A. BROWN: And the public they shall clamor. They will clamor loudly. Thank you so, so much for being here today. It is always a joy to speak to you and to speak on this topic.
KWAME MBALIA: Being able to speak about Black History, we could have done this for another 200 minutes. Thank you for having me.