Welcome Barbara Binns!
When I read her amazing book, Unlawful Orders, I knew I had to convince Barbara to let me interview her for We Need Diverse Middle Grade Wednesday.
Freeman Field Mutiny
TheTuskegee Airmen heroically fought for the right to be officers of the US military so that they could fly overseas to help defeat fascism in World War II. However, after winning that battle, they faced their next great challenge at Freeman Field. There racist white officers barred them from entering the Officer’s Club. These heroic men fought for their rights and their fight helped lead to the desegregation of the US armed forces.
One Black officer who refused to give in to the bigotry at Freeman Field was James Buchanan “JB” Williams. JB grew up the son of sharecroppers. His loving family and insuppressible intellect drove him to push boundaries placed on Black Americans in the early twentieth century. JB’s devotion to the betterment of others drove him to become a doctor, to serving as a medic in the US military and eventually joining the elite Tuskegee Airmen, where he fought to change minds.
When I first read the description of Unlawful Orders, I was immediately drawn to the subject and the life of JB Williams. Can you give us an overview of JB Williams and why you were drawn to write his story?
Unlawful Orders almost wrote itself. Much of that is because JB Williams and I share so much. Like his mother, I was the first in my family to attend college. I chose to pursue a field few people like me entered in the 70s, and I studied to become a black female biochemist. JB chose medicine. In college, I entered advanced mathematics and science classes as the only black student, or the only female student (and sometimes both). Fortunately, I never met any overt issues from any instructor or fellow student; I was also never invited to join in any study group. I knew that eyes were on me, and that if I made a mistake in class or came unprepared, it would be noted and reflect on more than just me. I was strong-willed and single-minded, as an undergraduate, and then in pursuit of advanced degrees. Like JB, I never gave anyone the opportunity to say I did not belong.
My college experiences made it easy for me to recognize the emotional turmoil JB went through in his quest. He was the only black medical student at Creighton University. His activism helped persuade the school to recruit a black student to the dental school. After earning his MD degree, JB went on to earn a Master of Science degree in surgery. He knew that to be a success, a black doctor needed to be better prepared than his white counterparts.
Obstacles for African Americans In Health Care
Your book on JB’s life was hard to put down. I got goosebumps thinking of the obstacles JB overcame to reach his goals. I’d like to believe the path for all people to a profession as noble as medicine is equal, but I worry that’s not the case. Do obstacles exist today that make it harder for African Americans to enter health care professions?
About 13% of the people in the United States are African American. However, African Americans make up less than 6% of medical professionals. A lot of black kids never meet a black medical professional. The absence of a role model who looks like them is the start of a list of issues that discourage black youth from seeing medicine in their future. As early as grade school, well-intended guidance counselors and other adults discourage some from entering medicine. During my high school days, the not-so-subtle message was that biochemistry was an impossible dream, and I would be happier and more successful seeking an “appropriate” alternative like social work.
The Importance of Role Models
Will you please share your thoughts on how important it is for African American children to have a role models who looks like them?
JB was fortunate to have a role model in Dr. Aaron Nixon, a black physician who was a family friend and worked on civil rights issues. As a black physician, Dr. Nixon was never allowed privileges to work in any hospital in his native Texas. As an excellent doctor, many white patients went to Dr. Nixon’s office to seek treatment.
Many young people of any race never even meet a black medical professional. Exposing their children to real role models who look like them is one reason many black people prefer doctors of their own race. There are others. Like a child in a cancer ward who has a doctor who can tell them, “I survived cancer,” dealing with doctors and nurses of their own race can help patients relax. Sometimes black patients want someone who knows and shares their lived experiences. They want a doctor who won’t think they are overreacting when they describe the physical and emotional stress of microaggressions.
JB and his brothers ran a clinic in Chicago. This clinic gave people access to doctors who understood their medical, emotional, and financial issues. When black women discovered they could be seen by someone who actually listened to them, they flocked to his clinic.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects??
I hope to publish American Sparrow in the near future. This book tells the true story of the very first African American fighter pilot, Eugene Bullard. Decades before the Tuskegee Airmen lifted into the sky, Bullard joined other Americans flying for France during the first World War. During the second World War he spied on the Germans . He received a chest full of medals from France only to return to America where he had to scrape to survive.
I also hope to publish my middle grade fiction story, L’Tasha Learns to Be Fabulous. L’Tasha and her stepmother move to a small town where she is one of the only children of color in the school. Her efforts to join a group called the Fabulous Five give her lessons about life, friendship, and forever changes her relationship to her stepmother.
I have my fingers and toes crossed that one or both will soon find a publishing home. In the meantime, you can take a look at Courage. Courage is a middle grade retelling of the Prodigal son story. It’s told from the point of view of the brother who stayed home and now needs to find the courage to forgive his brother. You can find out more about Courage here.
Interested in learning more about the history of African Americans in the US, check out this great article