Monday, February 4, 2013

Black History Month: Groundbreaking Entertainers

(photo courtesy Mason Crest)

My friend, writer Linda Armstrong's new book for children is out just in time for Black History Month.
African Americans in Radio, Film, and TV Entertainment was recently released by Mason Crest.

Linda agreed to answer some questions about how this book came to be.

Q: This is part of a series called “Major Black Contributions from Emancipation to Civil Rights.” How did you and this publisher find each other?

An announcement in a newsletter asked for resumes from experienced writers for upcoming nonfiction projects. I often reply to such requests. The project editor emailed me back with a list of possible titles. The series, Major Black Contributions from Emancipation to Civil Rights, also includes African-American Activists, African-American Artists, African-American Educators, African-American Musicians, African-American Scientists and Inventors, African-American Writers and Journalists, African-Americans in Business, African-Americans in Law and Politics, African-Americans in the Military, African-Americans in Sports, and A History of the Civil Rights Movement.

I took a couple of days to think about it, and replied that I would love to do the writers or artists, but by that time, those subjects had been taken by other writers. I looked at the remaining possibilities and settled on entertainers.

My husband and I grew up in Los Angeles. We were cinema addicts when we were in college and even wrote reviews. It wasn’t my first choice, but it turned out to be the best.

Q: Funny how that happens. With so many great choices, how did you decide which African Americans to include?

I started my research as many of us do these days, with Google. I took several days to get an overview of the subject. I also checked out every general book about African-American entertainers from Mesa County Library. This was kind of a flyover to get the lay of the land.

Of course, there were far too many exciting and wonderful stories to fit into one slender volume. I found that courageous and gifted African-Americans helped to shape entertainment as we know it. I chose a few to represent each stage in the development of today’s diverse media (stage, radio, film, and television). I chose both men and women, making an effort to highlight people who had made great contributions, but have been forgotten.

(photo by anniemullinsuk Creative Commons)

Q: I like your idea of getting a "flyover lay of the land." This was a huge undertaking. How did you go about your research, and how did you know when it was time to stop researching and start writing?

Yes, it was a huge undertaking, and, as you can tell, it was a team effort. The idea was assigned by the project editor. He determined the length and the general format. Having those decisions made for you is a good start. I knew the work would have five chapters. The first would be a dramatic incident to set the tone. I was familiar with this setup because of my experience writing similar books about Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, and Jane Goodall for Hameray.

I was also familiar with layered research. I never could have done any of these books without the Internet, Mesa County Library, and quickly-delivered used books through Amazon. I appreciated the opportunity to read interviews in periodicals from home, order special materials through Interlibrary Loan, and devour dozens of autobiographies, hearing the “voices” of amazing people I could never contact in person.

(photo by bigmick Creative Commons)
Knowing when to stop researching and start writing is tricky. During my overview period for a book like this I formulate an outline. Then, I set up folders for each section, including research notes and sketchy drafts. There is always too much at first. Once there is a folder for each section, I check the notes and write a rough draft. A writer friend once suggested typing in three Xs (XXX) whenever you encounter a missing detail in a draft. This works very well. You use Find to pick up each XXX, then look up just that fact. I must admit that the project probably could have stretched on indefinitely, but I had a short deadline.

Q: It's interesting to see how many people were involved in making this book happen and to see the general process you went through to write it. How did Marc Lamont Hill come to write the intro?

The intro is not just for my book. It is for the whole series. I don’t who arranged this. It was either the project editor or the publisher. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Q: Yes! Now, African American or Black? And your book goes back to the days of “Negro.”

Yes, it does. Next question. Seriously, the series title was chosen by the editor who contacted me. Dr. Hill uses the term Black Americans in his introduction. As an activist and national commentator, he is better qualified to answer that question than I.

Q: How did you secure photos for your book?

I used Google Image search to find possible sources and provided those links to the project editor. He arranged for the photos. They’re wonderful, aren’t they? Some image suggestions also came from the many autobiographies and general reference books I used.

That said, some nonfiction projects require the author to secure photo rights. It can be expensive. It is a good idea for a writer to ask about photo arrangements before the contract is written.

Q: Yes. I've known of projects that writers had to abandon because obtaining permission to use photos was too costly. What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I would like readers to notice and appreciate the media that enrich our lives. African-Americans had, and still do have, a tremendous role in the development of our culture. I would also like readers to realize the amount of courage, intelligence, and talent it took for the people in this book to persist and succeed. I would like them to be as fascinated and inspired as I was.

Q: What didn’t I ask that you wished I had?

I’d just like to say that at the time I wrote this book I didn’t see anything out there quite like it. It shows children how entertainment moved from the stage, to radio, to film, and then to TV. It also tells the story of what happened to slaves after the Civil War through individual experiences. For example, Hattie McDaniel’s father served in the Union Army and was wounded. After the war, he moved the family to Denver. He wasn’t able to work because of his injury, so her mother cleaned houses. Her father finally got the pension the government had promised him, but it was so little that eight-year-old Hattie and her brother made almost as much in one day singing and dancing at a carnival.

Here are Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel:

Q. Linda Armstrong, thanks for bringing this and other little-known stories to light in one volume!


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers, Jane!

  2. You're welcome, Linda! My pleasure to announce this book!

  3. Super interview and I dig all the library-love! Looks like an important and unique addition to a school's African-American collection.

  4. Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by, Joanna. I agree that this book is perfect for school libraries!

  5. It's great to see Linda's insights from within the process.
    We are proud to have Linda within our ranks as well.
    Great blog entry.
    Hameray Publishing

  6. Thanks for your comments, Bernard. This series is a great addition for libraries!