Kekla Magoon is a multi-award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers. Her new book, Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People, which was a National Book Award finalist, is an in-depth study of the Black Panther Party, written for young people. We spoke with Magoon from her home in Vermont about her experience researching and writing the book and why it’s important for youth to find their voice and agency in movements.
What made you decide to write a book for young people about the Black Panthers and were there any challenges in doing so?
I started working on this book more than 10 years ago. I had written two novels about the Black Panthers—The Rock and the River (Aladdin, 2010) and Fire in the Streets (Aladdin, 2013)—and had done some research for both. When they came out, teachers and librarians were using them in their classrooms and sharing them with readers. They kept saying to me, “Hey, we’re teaching your book—what other resources can you recommend to learn about the Panthers for middle and high school students?” There just really wasn’t much of anything at that time that was age-appropriate and comprehensive. That was when I decided that I wanted to do the book and spent chunks of time over the next 10 years or so researching it. I traveled to Oakland, Calif., and lots of other cities to see the places where the Panthers were founded (it was a national organization). I went to museums, libraries, archives, [and read] anything that I could get my hands on. I was going to events and meeting former Panthers. all kinds of things.
It’s always challenging to write something that hasn’t been written before or in a new way. So there definitely were challenges, from finding a publisher, to putting the book together, to making sure that everything in the book was factually accurate, but also reflected the truth about the Panthers. There’s been a lot of effort to minimize their contribution or to demonize them for some of their choices. It was my goal to present a really complete and thorough picture. Something well-researched and fact-based that talked about what they really wanted to do. How they really impacted community, as opposed to the twisted narrative that has been perpetuated for many decades.
Why do you think it took so long for someone to write a comprehensive study of the Black Panthers specifically for kids?
There are a number of challenges in publishing this type of book, especially for young readers.
Those systemic barriers are likely the reason it hasn’t been done in the past. I know that people have been interested in the Panthers, but there also has been this studious attempt to demonize and minimize their legacy and narrative in mainstream history. I think a lot of people weren’t even aware of the Black Panthers as an organization. A lot of people didn’t want to see their story reflected, especially for young readers. The dominant image that I think many people have in mind of the Black Panther Party are Black men with guns. Sometimes that comes with a connotation of bad and scary. Perhaps even so scary that we don’t talk about it or think we shouldn’t talk about it. And I think that that has pervaded the way that we show history, especially the way we tell history to children. We strip away nuance, we strip away complexity. We avoid certain truths when they are challenging—when they are difficult. I think that the publishing industry was resistant to those kinds of narratives if, and when, they did surface. If, and when, they were submitted. It was challenging to find a publisher that was able and willing to put this story forward in a way that I wanted to tell it. That’s part of what took me a long time to get it published. So, I would not be surprised if other people have tried to put forward material like this and didn’t make it through the publishing apparatus.
What about the state of the world today do you think have made publishers ready for a book like this?
When I started working on The Rock and the River, Fire in the Streets, and the long-term research project that would become Revolution in Our Time, there was not nearly as much information available online, not just for younger readers, but across the board regarding Black history. There were not many Black authors who were successfully working in publishing or working in publishing at all. That transformation over the last decade—where publishing has become more aware of the need for diverse stories and creators to be invited into the process and have the opportunity to speak in a landscape that has been historically predominantly white—has certainly opened up opportunities.
There are quite a lot of books coming out now that are exploring lesser known and less talked about moments in Black history. We have, for example, Black Birds in the Sky (HarperCollins), which is Brandy Colbert’s new book about the Tulsa Race Massacre. A lot of people didn’t know about it before this year, when we’re recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. A lot of people have never even heard of that event. But now, we have a young adult history about it.
So, I think that there are a number of opportunities that are open to us now because of the broader cultural awareness and especially the broad cultural awareness among young people. Teenagers are, once again, forging a movement for social justice under the banner of Black Lives Matter and similar movements that are taking shape right now. They’re looking for ways to speak—ways to seek justice. They’re still fighting the same battle, facing the same challenges that the Panthers faced and organized around 60 years ago. It is very important for these young people who are building a movement to understand that they are not inventing the wheel. They are building on a legacy of activism. I believe that a book like this can help them understand where we have been, where we are going, how we got to where we are today, and give them some tools to help them think about what activism can look like. To think about what community organizing can look like, what collective action can look like. To, perhaps, see some of the challenges and pitfalls that the generations before have experienced and, in some ways, overcame and, in some ways, struggled through. It’s a really valuable resource for young people today. The moment that we’re in is a moment where literature, activism, and that desire to use your voice as a young person to make change in the world are coming together in really powerful ways.
Were you able to speak with former members directly? What was that experience like and how much of those conversations made it into the book?
I met and talked to quite a number of former Panthers. However, oral interviews were not a central focus of the book, for a couple of reasons. I wanted to tell a story that was bigger than any one individual. So while I looked for and sought that connection with people who had actually been there doing the work, I was also trying to tell a story that was about the Panthers as a whole, as opposed to getting too caught up in any one person’s narrative. I got to meet with Ericka Huggins. There’s a picture in the book of me meeting Bobby Seale at the 50th anniversary in 2016. I met several other Panthers in that context. There are a lot of Panthers in New York, which is where I lived for a long time. I used to go to events, panel discussions, and any opportunity that I had to interact with the Black Panther Alumni Association to meet people, share their stories, and watch their videos.
I feel like there’s a strong presence of all of those voices [in the book]. Not just from their autobiographies, books, articles, interviews, and whatnot, but from immersing myself in the atmosphere surrounding the alumni association. I tried to use that wisdom and their words about who the Panthers were, what their goals were, what their vision was, and the difference that they made. Many of those people are still activists today! They took being Panthers very seriously—this is their life’s work and they continue in one way or another through teaching, speaking, activism, and writing.
What were your perceptions of the Black Panthers growing up and what do you hope young people today take from their movement and your book?
I didn’t have much of a perception of the Panthers growing up, because I wasn’t taught about them at all. I don’t ever remember a lesson in elementary, middle, or high school about the Black Panther Party. I studied and was interested in the civil rights movement—l could recite the “I Have a Dream” speech when I was young because that was the movement I idolized, celebrated, believed in, and thought I understood. So it was quite a surprise to me in my early 20s to learn all of these things about the Black Panther Party. They had a free breakfast program for schoolchildren. They founded schools. They opened health clinics in cities around the country. They were extreme activists around housing justice, union organizing, workers’ rights. They helped get Black history education into our school curriculums. That powerful organizing that they did was completely off my radar as a young person. Part of why I write and what excites me about this history is not just to educate myself, but to make sure that the next generation of young readers and young change-makers have access to this history. That it isn’t hidden from them deliberately the way that it was hidden from me and my generation. People my age that I meet are uniformly shocked by the amount of work that the Panthers did. I think that it’s really important that this history be preserved and shared with young people because they need to understand the truth of our past. They need to understand all the nuances and complexity of our past. [Hiding] it disempowers them. They are the future and you can help them understand that with narratives like this.
Your author’s note emphasizes the importance of young people in movements. What advice do you have for children and teens (especially Black children and teens) who want to make a change, but don’t know where to start or are afraid?
I think that it’s always scary to be part of a movement. The things that we’re working toward are big, things like equality and justice. The forces that are working against us are equally dangerous, things like white supremacy, bias, and police brutality. Those things put us in danger physically, mentally, emotionally. We have to be really brave and really strong when we stand up against them. The things we’re fighting are very big and the work we do to fight those things often feels very small—showing up to protests, talking and educating yourself about the issues that are important to you. It’s stuffing envelopes sometimes. It’s making a sign and putting it in your yard. It’s these little things that sometimes feel insignificant, but they actually are significant because everything that we do for change is part of making the change.
I think a lot of us don’t suit up to try to make a difference because we’re worried that our contribution can’t be big enough. We look at these heroes—people who are written about in history books—and we think, “Well, I’ll never be that great. I’ll never be able to make that kind of difference.” But the fact is, when you look at a group like the Panthers, we don’t know all the names of most of the people who were making the change. We don’t know all of their stories, but they were part of this movement. That’s why I wanted to tell the story in a way that decenters the main founders and heroes we think of in relation to the party and in relation to the power of the community—rising up together and taking a stand in all the small ways that we can. My way happens to be writing. That’s how I use my voice. For somebody else it might be art, the law, or teaching. There are all these different paths to making a difference. The key is to figure out who you are, what your skills are, and how you can use them in small ways every day to work toward change.
Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon. Candlewick, $24.99 Nov. 978-1-5362-1418-5