I first collaborated with Susan Engle when we showcased her tiny prayer book and her tiny introduction on the Baha’i Faith — truly, they’re really tiny books! I was excited to see that Susan, an accomplished writer of stories, poems and songs for children, has a new book out! It’s called Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade. I’m afraid to admit I had never heard of Robert Sengstacke Abbott so I was happy to learn a little bit about him, and to hear about the book, from Susan herself! Here’s what she shared with us:
Baha’i Blog: Hi Susan! It’s great to interview you again! To begin, what inspired you to put this book together?
A friend of mine who lives in the Chicago area, Bonnie Taylor, went to a presentation about Robert Sengstacke Abbott given by his great niece, Myiti Sengstacke Rice. Bonnie has a special passion for race unity (she compiled the book Pupil of the Eye), and when Ms. Rice hoped that someone would write a biography for young people about his life, Bonnie got in touch with me to help make Ms. Rice’s wish come true. There is a very large parade in Chicago every year that Mr. Abbott began especially for African American kids. Millions of kids have attended the parade over the years, but they don’t know much about the man who started it all. I was just retiring from work with Brilliant Star children’s magazine and was feeling in need of creative projects. I’d written several two- and three-page biographies for the magazine over the years, but not a full-length book. I felt a little nervous about taking it on. Bonnie had confidence that I could do a good job, so I said I’d give it a try.
Baha’i Blog: What was the writing process like?
It took about a year to do the research and write the manuscript. I read what I could find and took a trip to his birthplace about halfway through — St. Simons Island, Georgia. I’ve never lived in the South and wanted to get a feel for his beginnings. It really sparked my imagination to see his first surroundings, and I began to feel a great love in my heart for his courage and his service to his fellow African Americans and, by extension, to all humankind.
Baha’i Blog: What’s something that you learned during the process of putting this book together?
I read quite a bit about what it takes to wake up Black in America. Having been born so close to the end of the Civil War, having lived in the Jim Crow era, it’s really amazing that Mr. Abbott was able to publish a paper to give African Americans a voice, a way to express the many injustices they faced in their daily lives, to give people encouragement and knowledge, and to celebrate being Black in a hostile environment. Though I knew that his paper, the Chicago Defender, helped bring about the Great Migration of about a million and a half African Americans out of the South to the North and West in the U.S., I didn’t know about Mr. Abbott’s having met Abdu’l-Baha, or the story of how he announced that he became a Baha’i.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope people will take away from this book?
My hope is that people, old and young alike, will become curious about heroes, inventors, scientists, actors, musicians, writers and others in our nation’s history, especially people who are not yet mentioned in the books used in our schools. We’re missing so many stories of Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans and others who had a positive impact on our nation, hidden from our understanding of history simply because of the color of their skin. The stories are out there to be brought to light. It’s a little like a treasure hunt. May we all search for stories that aren’t yet discovered.
Baha’i Blog: What projects are you working on next?
I’m currently researching the life of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Most of his story isn’t much of a secret, but it hasn’t been told for young readers. He had a profound effect on the development of jazz, and, toward the end of his life, wished only to be remembered as a helpful humanitarian. The biggest problem in relating his story is that he accomplished so much! It’s a challenge to not write a 500-page book.
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to add or share?
Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade is the first of a series of “Change Maker” books being planned by Bellwood Press, an imprint of the Baha’i Publishing Trust. One way to connect with people is to tell stories of the lives of inspiring Baha’is that teachers and librarians will use in public institutions.If parents and teachers would be well served in their work with poetry, especially for kids and families, my website, Iambic Nana, is up and running. Poetry can be downloaded for free for use in classrooms, and living rooms, for study circles, children’s classes, junior youth classes, and even, with some of the poems, in devotions. Tiny books for proclamation and personal teaching can also be ordered at https://iambicnana.com.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much, Susan, for sharing this with us! You can purchase a copy of ‘Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade‘ here.