"Every important person was once a child."
Rochelle Riley's latest book traces Black heroes from their beginnings
By Anna Faller | May 8, 2021
A nationally syndicated columnist and near two-decade veteran of the Detroit Free Press, Rochelle Riley has spent much of her career telling stories that might otherwise have gone unheard. “A lot of what I write has to do with issues affecting African Americans, or of interest to African Americans,’ says Riley, “because I’m a black columnist living in America and writing, and that’s my duty.”
So, when Riley discovered a 2017 social media series featuring a young girl dressed as history’s most revolutionary Black women, she knew she’d stumbled upon something special. “While I was working on my first book, called "The Burden," I started seeing these photographs of these amazing Black women [every day of] February, Black History Month,” she says. “And I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out who this is!’”
Her answer: Seattle-based photographer Cristi Smith-Jones and her young daughter, Lola. “She said she was doing [the photos] not just to teach her daughter about Black history but also to help her embody the spirit of these women she wanted her to know,” says Riley. According to the old adage, a picture is worth 1000 words; but Riley had far more than that for Smith-Jones’s photos. “I said, I’d love to write something to go with them.”
The resultant biography, "That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World," comprises a series of essays detailing the lives and accomplishments of the country’s most influential African Americans, from Frederick Douglass to Maya Angelou. Accompanied by Smith-Jones’s reimagined portraits, the book fills the gaps in our country’s chronology that most contemporary history simply excludes.
“If young white children were taught the entire history of America and all the things that African Americans had done, they would not feel that African Americans were inferior, and young Black children would not feel inferior,” says Riley. “So, when I wrote these, I wanted to make sure I wrote about how these are Americans, and we should be grateful that they lived and that they did these things that they did.”
A celebratory collection — both of achievement and of childhood — the essays in "That They Lived" are also intended to spark inspiration, especially in its youngest readers. “The whole point of this book is to teach children and families that every important person was once a child,” says Riley. “Every single biography begins that way.”
Of course, all children eventually turn into adults; and it’s those transformative elements of childhood — the “moments that matter” — that each essay aims to emphasize. “There’s something that happens that might lead [a child] in a certain direction,” Riley says, “so I spent a year doing all this research to figure out who, or what, in their lives might have changed them.”
For champion heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, that moment was when his bicycle was stolen when he was 12. Shirley Chisolm, America’s first African American woman in Congress, grew up so poor that she was sent to live elsewhere as a child. “I look for those moments,” says Riley. “Each [essay] talks about what [that person’s] childhood was like, and what they became from that. I want every child of color to be inspired by knowing that.”
Riley’s own moment arrived in adolescence when a beloved high school English teacher lead a news-writing class. “All I ever wanted to do was be a writer from the time I was eight years old,” says Riley. “So, when she held up that news-writing book, I said, ‘That’s how I’m going to be a writer.’ From then on, I was a journalist.” A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Riley spent four years in Louisville as a columnist, reporter, and newsroom executive before becoming a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
Now the city of Detroit's director of Arts and Culture, a position that Riley herself pioneered — “How many times in your life do you get to make the job you’re going to have?” she asks — Riley combines her love of writing with advocating for Detroit-based artists. “When you’re starting something new like this, it’s a selling job,” says Riley. “And as a columnist, you persuade people. So, part of my job is the same as being a columnist: [telling] these stories so that people understand what a creative workforce and economy we have in Detroit.”
But first, the art of storytelling requires a story. For Riley, those tales often reflect the obstacles many African Americans continue to face. “The vestiges of enslavement still affect how African Americans live in America,” she says, “and it also affects how we teach our children.”
That process, however, is progressing — and Riley’s pen is more than ready to push it forward. “What’s happening now is that people are awakening to what it really has been like for African Americans in America, and by seeing that, want to change,” says Riley. “We can have the America that was dreamed of, and the America that we talk about, and the America that other countries see if we work at it. It’s just about wanting it to be, and being a part of it in every way that you can.”
The Host: Leonard Pitts Jr.
Throughout his esteemed 43-year career, Leonard Pitts Jr. has worked as a columnist, lecturer, and college professor. A nationally syndicated journalist, Pitts is a 2004 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. His other accolades include multiple awards from both the Atlantic City Press Club and the National Association of Black Journalists. Pitts was the NABJ’s Journalist of the Year in 2008 and is a 2016 inductee to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Hall of Fame. In addition to his work as a journalist, Pitts has also authored several books, including, "Before I Forget" and "The Last Thing You Surrender." Pitts is a graduate of the University of Southern California and currently resides in Maryland.
Attend the Event
Award-winning journalist and author Rochelle Riley will join the National Writers Series for a free, virtual event on Thursday, May 13, beginning at 7 p.m. to discuss the biography, "That They Lived." The book will be published Feb. 2, and is available for preorder at Horizon Books with a 20 percent NWS discount. Guest host for the event is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author, Leonard Pitts Jr. Registration can be found here: https://nationalwritersseries.org/2021-spring-season-registration/