AFRICAN ICONS on WNDMG Wednesday
Welcome to WNDMG Wednesday–we have quite a treat for you. New York Times bestselling author Tracey Baptiste is here to talk about her newest book, AFRICAN ICONS, (Algonquin Books, October 2021) which has already garnered a Kirkus Reviews star: “empowering, necessary, required reading for all” and “game-changing.” AFRICAN ICONS expands how Black History is presented by spotlighting the incredible achievements of ten awe-inspiring African innovators who have been too often ignored by history books.
“In African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History, Baptiste engages in the hard work of unveiling the myths about the African continent to young readers. She pieces together the stories of ten people in a continent that fueled the world. This is a great beginner’s guide to pre-colonial Africa.”
–Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
(Kendi quote sourced from author’s website)
AFRICAN ICONS Origin Story
MUF: We’re so excited about your new book …. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin story for AFRICAN ICONS?
TB: This started as a blog post called “Africans Before Slavery” which I wrote in February 2017 Africans before slavery – Tracey Baptiste (wordpress.com). It was a response to the then president of the United States saying some embarrassingly ignorant things at a Black History Month breakfast. A few kidlit writers responded with a series of posts directing educators to better resources about Black people in history. All of their posts though, highlighted Abolition, Freed Slaves, or the Civil Rights movement. This has long been a source of aggravation for me from when my kids would come home with their Black History Month projects and nothing pre-slavery was ever mentioned. So I did some quick research and posted it. My editor, Elise Howard, saw the post and asked if I would like to write an entire book about pre-slavery Black history. Of course, I said yes.
The Research Journey
MUF: Where did you do your research?
TB: I did most of my research in libraries and museums and using online searches for articles. Academia.edu was particularly helpful, but most helpful were professors in African studies, museum curators, librarians at African library collections. Most of my physical searches were in New York City, Boston, and Cambridge, MA.
MUF: Following up on the research question: one of the most exciting/challenging parts of research is following threads of information to unearth new details and source material. Do you have any fun stories that illustrate this part of the journey? Were there any surprises?
TB: One of my favorite research trips was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I met with one of the curators, Yaëlle Biro. She walked me through several pieces of art in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas exhibits which is where I got my first introduction to Queen Mother Idia of Benin. She brought many of the pieces alive for me, and I started to see the real people behind the artworks. The big surprise came with one of the pieces which was covered in Venetian glass beads. It was the first time I saw the real connection in trade between Africa and Europe. I had been looking to find the long-established relationships between the two continents, and it was right there in front of me. I was really excited about that. Then when I left the museum, there was a west African woman selling beaded wire sculptures on the street on the sidewalk. It was exactly in the tradition of the artwork I had just seen behind glass at the Met. So revered inside, but outside, this was street art. A total discard. There weren’t even reproductions of any of the African art pieces at the gift shop. It laid bare for me that despite the displays, African art isn’t valued.
((Enjoying this interview? Read this archived MUF interview with Tracey about her book THE JUMBIES))
MUF: Do you have a favorite icon or part of the book?
TB: My favorite section is probably “Across the Golden Sand.” It was also one of the earliest pieces I wrote for the book. I can see the Berbers lined up and the caravans secured as they cross the dunes. It’s an exciting visual and was a lot of fun to write.
My favorite icon is probably Amanirenas. Imagine going toe to toe with a Caesar and winning! I had never thought of an African Queen being so formidable as to defeat Rome, because it was never in any of my history books. As far as I knew from what I’d read growing up, when Rome was in its heyday, Africans didn’t have anything at all, let alone kingdoms with warriors who would defend their borders against Rome, and diplomats who would negotiate with Caesar himself.
MUF: How did you narrow your list of icons to write about?
TB: The book started with a set of kingdoms and circumstances. When Elise read the first draft, she saw that there were ten icons, and asked me to focus on them. (Actually, there were eleven. We left off one, Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, because it was after the period we wanted to cover, and because he didn’t have a lot of agency in his life.)
Biased and Incomplete Records
MUF: Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you want to share with us?
TB: The research was incredibly difficult in large part because of the bias and racism in the written records, and the bias and racism that kept things out of the written records. Often, I would go down rabbit holes of research and find dead ends because no one bothered to follow up on threads. There was one story about a European king who tried to marry his daughter off to an African king because of the wealth coming out of the country, but I could never find anything to verify that story, who the players might have been, or what eventually happened. It was one offhand remark. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t. It’s frustrating not to know for sure.
MUF: We’re grateful that AFRICAN ICONS will now be available to other researchers to fill in the blanks you found. Thank you for your time and many congratulations!
About Tracey Baptiste:
I am the New York Times bestselling author of Minecraft: The Crash, as well as the creepy Caribbean series The Jumbies, which includes The Jumbies (2015), Rise of the Jumbies (2017), and The Jumbie God’s Revenge (scheduled for 2019). I’ve also written the contemporary YA novel Angel’s Grace and 9 non-fiction books for kids in elementary through high school.
I’m a former elementary school teacher, I do lots of author visits, and I’m on the faculty at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
My name is pronounced buhTEEST.
How to stay in touch: