An interview with New York Times Editor Veronica Chambers on Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matters
Today, on the Mixed Up Files, we welcome Veronica Chambers, who is the lead author of Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matters.
Chambers is the editor for Narrative Projects at the New York Times. As an author, she is best known for the New York Times-bestseller Finish the Fight!, which was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and the New York Public Library. Her other works include the critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl, Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb, and the anthologies The Meaning of Michelle—a collection of writers celebrating former first lady Michelle Obama—and Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latino heritage. You can find her online at veronicachambers.com or on Twitter and Instagram @vvchambers
Congratulations to you and your team at the New York Times on the release of Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matters.
I can’t wait to virtually sit down with you and ask you some questions about this essential history of the Black Lives Matter movement for young people. I’m especially excited since I share certain New York City experiences with you, having been a journalist there (features writer for New York Newsday) and living for awhile in Brooklyn. I love that you’re bridging a career as an editor/journalist with being an author.
In the book, readers are introduced to the concept that “the power of the people is greater than the people in power.” Can you elaborate a little bit about that?
Sure. Experts believe that up to 26 million Americans participated in some sort of Black Lives Matters protest, which would make it one of the largest protests in the nation’s history.
Peaceful protest is the most effective form of protest in the world. A study conducted by researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan compared the outcomes of hundreds of violent insurgencies with those of major nonviolent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006; they found that over 50 percent of the nonviolent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent of the violent insurgencies.
The text addresses some universal questions, such as how does a movement become a movement? You spend time looking at contemporary events and leaders as well as historical antecedents and galvanizing moments. Was it hard for you and your team to figure out how you wanted to balance all of these elements?
There’s a famous phrase that “journalism is the first draft of history.” The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were still ongoing when we started working on the book. There was a real challenge in trying to figure out what to immortalize in a book when the story was changing and growing every day.
That’s why the decision to lean in on the incredible photography of the New York Times was so meaningful to us. This is what the great photojournalists who contribute to the daily report saw and while we wrote text that put the movement in a broad historical context, each of the photos tells a deep and powerful story of its own, without any need for us to editorialize or comment on the images.
You make a point that the protest is larger than the people gathering in the street (although is certainly part of it). Protest can mean “making art with a message” or “calling elected officials.” How would you define protest for children?
Protest is anything we do to say we want things to be different. I think a lot about the kid I was when I’m working on these books. When I was growing up, and reading about the modern civil rights movement, I thought those are stories about heroes whose bravery and wisdom I could never match. I’ll never make a difference in those ways.
I understood as I got older that we all have a role to play in shaping the world we live in. Coretta Scott King once said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” I think that’s some of the truest words ever uttered.
The book makes a point to say that children are never too young to lead. In the text, you offer many examples of young leaders from teen environmentalist Greta Thunberg to eight-year-old Mari Copeny, who protested the water conditions in Flint Michigan. How might younger children participate in standing up for what they believe in?
One of the highlights of my year was this piece I did about Paola Velez and Bakers Against Racism. Bake sales associated with that group have raised more than two million dollars in a single year towards social justice causes.
Paola is not just an incredible culinary talent but also one of the most eloquent, thoughtful people I’ve ever interviewed. One of the things she said was this: “When we speak about issues that we care about, we do it with a pie in hand. And so sometimes it’s a little more graceful and a little more palatable because there’s something sweet at the end of this, like, very charged, very truth-forward statement that we have to make.”
The piece is here.
The founders of Black Lives Matters are three women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. They were all in their late twenties or early thirties when they started BLM. However, I was intrigued to learn that Garza began her activism at the age of 12, focusing on reproductive rights. And it was in high school that Tometi became aware of the need to stand up for the rights of immigrants, particularly the undocumented. And Cullors learned first-hand about systemic racism as a kid when her family would go hungry. Veronica, did you have any powerful experiences as a child that also led you to career as an author, journalist and editor?
I think being a chronic outsider really helped me become a reader and then a writer. My family is from Panama, I’m Afro-Latina. I came to the country when I was 5, just becoming a reader and one of the things I was looking at books to do was teach me how to be an American. So many of the books published today remind me of the curiosity I felt at that moment – how do things work or don’t work here?
Black Lives Matter is the story of collaboration. It was Garza who wrote on Facebook in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin; it was Cullors who created the hashtag “blacklivesmatter,” and it was Tometti who created the initial Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts for the movement. In your career as an editor and writer, why is the collaborative experience so important?
Collaboration is one of my super powers. But when I was a kid, it was something I really railed against. I hated having to do projects or presentations as a team. I think it was because I was shy and I felt like I never got the credit for all my hard work.
But I’m also a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in some ways, I think that oeuvre really mimics the creative journey. Turns out you need more than one superhero to save the world. Similarly, you need lots of great minds to make extraordinary journalism.
You write that the book is “built upon the work of incredible photographers and photo editors.” How did you work with Photo Editor Anika Burgess to select the images? There must have been so many to choose from.
Anika Burgess, the photo editor on the project, as well as Jennifer Harlan, my co-author, had all worked on a history based project at the Times called Past Tense. We had a years long history of sifting through hundreds of photos and really sitting back together and discussing what moves us. What’s incredible was that 90% of the time, the photos we loved the most, we all had the same reaction to. Viewing a powerful photo is like hearing a truly great pop song, it just grabs you. What was hard was winnowing it down. There are more than 100 photos in the book. I would love to have run 200 photos. Making those cuts was brutal.
In an interview with National Geographic in 2020, Garza said, “In the midst of the all the grief and rage and pain, there’s hopefulness.” Can you speak to that and elaborate on hopefulness?
I’m incredibly hopeful. As a first generation American, what I’ve always gotten from black history is that, despite all of the challenges, African-Americans are in the business of Hope. Every decade, every chapter of the history of black people in this country is infused with countless moments of hope, resilience and creativity. I think that at this particular moment in the nation, black history and its masterclass in hope and possibility, can be useful to Americans of all backgrounds.
Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). Her forthcoming nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster in August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and, in the summers, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.
She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.