Shanna Miles is a young adult and children’s book author and librarian residing in the Atlanta area. She is an advocate for diverse books for all people, and her debut YA romance, For All Time, is due out September 28 from Simon & Schuster. Here, Miles discusses her passion for weaving lesser-known historical events and truths into her fiction.
I love history. It was my favorite subject in school. I loved stories of how people shaped the world, the scandals and drama. I loved reading about how one person’s life could have impacted yours, even if they lived a century, or five centuries, before. As an author, you might think that I was in love with Language Arts, but you would be wrong. Language Arts, at that time, was filled with books I didn’t want to read and teachers who insisted that only they knew how to read them. No one looked like me, lived like me, or came from a place like mine.
In my debut novel, For All Time, I weave historical fact into a story about two teenagers who are deeply in love and who keep reliving their romance in different lifetimes. In one lifetime, the two main characters, Tamar and Fayard, meet on a train to Atlanta in the 1920s. Fayard learns about the struggle for unionization by the Brotherhood of Streetcar Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph. It was the first labor organization run by African Americans to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Tamar is on her way to begin her freshman year at Spelman College, an all-girl’s school for Black women in Atlanta. Because so little of Black life is highlighted in textbooks and in Language Arts curricula, some kids may not know that Black people had colleges of their own and still do.
I had great teachers but there were gaps. I was taught that most Native Americans died from diseases that European settlers brought with them, but not so much about broken treaties or even state-sanctioned executions like when Abraham Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota Indians to be hanged on December 26, 1862. It’s still the largest “recorded” mass execution on U.S. soil. If it weren’t for teachers like Mr. Mitchell Case at Summit Middle School, I wouldn’t have known about Ben Franklin’s raunchy past or that I really liked to write.
Real history is messy, but people don’t like messy. They like uniformity and for a long, long time that uniformity had one central tenet: America is great, its founders are heroes, and anyone who says different is wrong.
On June 23, 2021 in Loudon County, Va., hundreds of angry parents rushed into a school board meeting to protest the adoption of critical race theory. The meeting had to be suspended. Someone was arrested. The event got national attention, but it wasn’t isolated. Protests against so-called “critical race theory” have been gaining steam across the country, with my own state board of education, Georgia, passing a resolution against it. Sixteen other states are considering similar measures. Why? Because, America is great, its founders are heroes, and anyone who says different is wrong.
So what about Lincoln as a mass executioner? Or Thomas Jefferson as a rapist or at least a deadbeat dad? Okay, what about the Civil War and slavery? Well if you read Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States (which is still being used in classrooms), it states:
"Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other." (Boorstin, Daniel Joseph, et al. A History of the United States. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007)
If happy slaves and state’s rights is what you get from your history textbook, you’re gonna have to do a little digging on your own to get to the truth. You know in your heart that slavery was hell on Earth, either from the stories your elders tell or just putting yourself in their shoes, like only people who would have been enslaved can. If you’re lucky you won’t have to dig at all, you’ll stumble upon it.
Novels like Anne of Green Gables can tell you about turn-of-the-century farm life and sometimes a historical romance can teach you about exodusters, the name given to Black people who emigrated from deep Southern states to Kansas in the 1870s. Exodusters started their own towns and built lives for themselves in places like Nicodemus, Kans., and others in Oklahoma and Colorado. Forty thousand people escaped the increasing violence by the Klan and others in the South but you won’t read anything about them in school, though you might come across them in Paradise by Toni Morrison or in Something Like Love by Beverly Jenkins.
In For All Time, Tamar and Fayard live one of their lives in Gao in the 14th century, where Fayard is part of Mansa Musa’s retinue as the ruler makes his famous trek to Mecca. In historical circles, he’s billed as the richest man who ever lived. He’s purported to have tanked economies on his trek because he gave away so much gold, but you may never read about him in a textbook. You might learn little to no African history in your World History curriculum unless you take a special class, and those special classes, like Advanced Placement and IB courses, aren’t always offered in low-income schools that disproportionately serve Black and Brown students.
My plan is to be a sleeper cell, an agent for historical accuracy. I want kids to read my books and be so enthralled by the love and heartache that they don’t notice they just got a lesson on the origins of Durham, N.C.’s Black Wall Street (I snuck that one in, in the third act).
Hard truths don’t have to be spoon fed and it shouldn’t matter if you’re Black or white or whatever the state is recognizing as race these days. What matters is the truth, and the truth is Black people have been here, living, loving, contributing, and fighting since 1619.
For All Time by Shanna Miles. S&S, $19.99 Sept. 28 ISBN 978-1-5344-8597-6