Many today may be vexed having to hoof 500 yards to school or work, but imagine walking 500 miles to get an education. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the formidable subject of Jabari Asim’s eleventh book and first picture book biography, did just that, leaving his home in Malden, West Virginia and trekking hundreds of treacherous miles through the mountains of Virginia to reach Hampton Institute, where former slaves like him were free to study and read what they pleased. Though Washington is perhaps best remembered for founding the Tuskegee Institute and penning the important memoir Up from Slavery, in Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, Asim concentrates on the struggle and triumphs of Washington’s youth, highlighting his personal quest to explore the worlds of language and learning. Here three-time Caldecott- and Coretta Scott King-honoree Bryan Collier employs his signature watercolors and dazzlingly detailed cut-paper collage to illustrate the many literal and metaphorical layers of Washington’s journey. Given such a compelling portrait Kirkus dubbed among 2012’s best, we were eager to learn what prompted Jabari Asim to tell the story of Washington’s early life.
What inspired you to write this?
The primary impetus was reading Robert Norrell’s biography of Booker T. Washington (Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington) a few years ago. It’s sort of a reinvestment in Booker T. Washington, whose reputation has really suffered over time; it’s a very persuasive book, and I was heartened by it because, at that time, I was teaching Booker T. Washington’s autobiography [Up from Slavery] in a class at the University of Illinois. When I taught the book, I kept thinking that the part about his struggle to get an education would make a great children’s story.
What was it about Washington’s story that reached you?
A couple things: one was the whole idea of literacy. I have a book where I keep quotes I’ve compiled over the years, and there’s a quote from him saved long before I even taught him in school. His memoir has this really moving scene where he’s walking his master’s daughter to school and carrying her books, and he has to wait outside while she goes in. He looks through the window, and he says: “I thought that to have an opportunity to be in that classroom with those books would be like getting into paradise.” That stuck with me; it’s one of those quotes I’ve always revisited.
You know, I was a bookish kid. I loved books; I curled up with books—you know the story. I thought the worst possible punishment for me at the time would have been for my parents to say, We’re taking away your books: that would have just destroyed me. So I could very much imagine being on the outside of that window looking in. That was the first thing that really spoke to me about him, and then, later, reflecting on the tremendous effort he had to make to actually get to school. He heard about the school, he takes off, he’s not yet a man, he’s traveling in arduous and very dangerous circumstances for a black man: that part I didn’t dwell on in the book, but he does have adventures where he’s trying to find places to stay, and they tell him, ‘Well, you can’t stay here: you’re black.’ Just the willingness to not be turned away, to not let anyone stop him from reaching his goal, I thought would resonate with children, too.
Now your author’s note seems geared towards adults. Do you think Washington’s image needs redeeming today?
Yeah, I would say even before the Norrell book, certainly in African American studies, his reputation was about as terrible as it can get; it was quite negative. It’s very complicated, but part of the reason is W. E. B. Du Bois, who was his great rival, outlived him by a long time, so he got the final say in shaping Booker T. Washington’s reputation. And, by the way, I would argue that his reputation has never fully recovered; that’s a slow process, and I think the Norrell biography goes a long way towards contributing to that. Hopefully, this book will as well in its own small way.
Why do you think he remains a controversial figure even in light of a revisionist biography out there?
I think it’s a long process where scholars argue and reclaim an image of someone who’s come before. Washington was sort of written off, so there was no need to revisit him. I guess the other aspect of it is even when he was written off, his autobiography was considered a classic of the genre, certainly where African American memoirs are concerned. But beyond that, though, we don’t want to talk about Booker T. Washington; he’s not progressive enough. So it’s complicated.
I wonder how children today will be able to relate to Booker’s story—for instance, walking 500 miles to get to school.
I don’t know. You can only hope, as a writer, that they’ll get it. I think the kids out there who love to read will respond to the idea of literacy. Here’s a kid for whom reading was essentially illegal. It’s like when I was in first grade, the book that probably stuck with me the most was a picture book biography of Abraham Lincoln. I remember it had a picture of him by the fireplace sort of scratching out numbers and letters on the blade of a shovel with a piece of charcoal. The book said something like he didn’t have a blackboard, he wasn’t in school, he was home doing this, and I remember liking the book so much that my first grade teacher eventually gave it to me. I was able to relate to it, yet I was in a very different situation; I was glad I didn’t have to write on the back of a shovel with a piece of charcoal. I was in a warm, well-lighted classroom. I got to go home to a house full of books. So I realized my situation was different from Lincoln’s, but I still was able to empathize with him and relate to his love for learning and his need to read. I’m hoping that students whose situations are far removed from Booker T. Washington’s will still be able to make that empathetic leap and get involved in the story.
How do you convey to children how devastating those anti-literacy laws of the 1830s were?
I think it’s such a monumental idea that all we can do is tell them and tell many stories about it. I see this book as sort of a drop in the bucket in terms of making children aware of how different it used to be and how much better it is now. You know, we want to end on an optimistic note as well. You have to have that balance: this is how things were; this is how things are, and partly the way they are now is because of people like Booker T. Washington. There is some cause and effect there, however subtly rendered.