In August, 2012, our Reading into History family book club read Walter Dean Myers’ Harlem Summer. At the time, Mr. Myers was serving as national ambassador for young people’s literature, and he was kind enough to appear here at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum at a meeting to discuss his book. Now, we are deeply saddened by his passing and want to take a moment to reflect on his legacy as an author who not only wrote beautiful, complicated, imaginative books for young people, but also added unmeasurable value to our society by telling stories that rarely get told.
Walter Dean Myers touched our community of family readers briefly, but powerfully. During his visit, Mr. Myers not only answered questions, but asked participants questions in return. He also talked about his mission to represent the lives of African American youth in literature. In his New York Times Sunday Review essay “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” that ran this past March, Mr. Myers called attention to the shameful reality that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 prominently featured a black main or supporting character. That figure is shameful because while African Americans make up roughly 13.1% of the US population (US Census Bureau, 2012), they only make up 2.9% of the featured characters in children’s books. Mr. Myers dedicated his writing career to changing this. Here’s why he did so, in his own words, from his New York Times essay:
TODAY I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other…They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are.
We honor Walter Dean Myers’ commitment to validating the existences of kids like Mark Purvis, the main character in Harlem Summer, who in the beginning of the novel ponders his neighbor’s claim that “some folks were upper-crust, and some were plain old crumbs. I was more crumby than crusty.” Mr. Myers’ stories chip away at the “crumby” feeling too many children of color have. Here at the New-York Historical Society and DiMenna Children’s History Museum, we hope to be a part of carrying on his legacy by reading books about, as Mr. Myers put it “the mosaic” of American experiences, offering all children a chance to see their lives validated in literature.
In preparation for his visit with our book club, Mr. Myers answered some interview questions about his life and Harlem Summer. We are reprinting the interview here to pay tribute to a remarkable man and a remarkable life. Our hearts go out to Mr. Myers’ family and friends, and we hope it gives them comfort to know that we are a small part of the mosaic of lives he impacted.
Walter Dean Myers: I was a confident, but aggressive, kid, from the age of nine to my twelfth birthday. My uncle, who had finally been released from jail after being there some seventeen years or so, was murdered on my birthday. This started a downward spiral for my family which would involve alcoholism and a major depression.
DCHM: What is your favorite time period in American history? Why?
WDM: The period right after the Revolutionary War when the young nation was trying to find its path through the intellectual concepts it wanted to embrace and the pragmatic needs of its diverse citizenry is my favorite time period. How elevated the tone of those conversations, many mirrored in the Federalist Papers, must have been!
DCHM: What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen at the New-York Historical Society?
WDM: What always interests me at the N-YHS are the everyday artifacts of ordinary lives. I’ve always wanted to think of the past as vaguely esoteric, but these people, solders, patriots, house wives, workers, also had to manage the tasks of day to day living. Tres cool.
DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York City? Why?
WDM: Harlem, of course, was my childhood home. But it also represents a growing New York as it extended the idea of ‘uptown’ and represented a style, and a cultural concept that promoted growth.
DCHM: What made you want to write Harlem Summer?
WDM: Langston Hughes did readings at my church when I was a child, and promoted my writing when I was a young struggling artist. I was published early on in The Crisis, the magazine started by DuBois. My parents went to rent parties at which Fats Waller played. How could I not write Harlem Summer?
DCHM: What 3 words best describe Harlem Summer?
WDM: Truth. Legend. Fun.