Michelle is an incredibly thoughtful and witty writer that I have known since 2010. In her book, “The Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings”, she expertly advocates for a more nuanced version of African-American history by sharing this story, one that gives us insight into Black and Native American life during America’s westward expansion.
What story are you trying to tell with The Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings? Why is it important?
I wanted to tell a story that was unique, and I think this one is. It’s important because it paints another picture of African American history that is often overlooked. I also think it’s important because it challenges the notion that African Americans and Native Americans could live, and love in the same frontier. Many times, when telling stories about the expansion of the United States, writers tell stories about “Cowboys and Indians” and that is all. There was a time when Rock Island was at the edge of the Wild West, and there were plenty of African Americans there, working toward the connection of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We’re left out of that tale most times, and I wanted to add another perspective.
It was also personally important for me to claim this part of my family tree. I didn’t talk about my Grandfather’s heritage at all until I was an adult. Most people assumed that he was a light skinned black person, rather than a Creek Indian. He was a person I loved, and still do, and I always felt that I was selling him out by not talking about his ethnic background. I mentioned it when I was very small, and kids accused me of not wanting to be Black, or not being “Black enough”. And so I learned to shut up about it. That is something that I regret. I thought by basing the character Lee on my Grandfather, I’d be sort of setting the record straight in our “multicultural” America of today. Even as I was writing, I got feedback that the characters don’t sound “Black enough”. Believe me, I grew up with these folks, and that was how they spoke. They are not from the South, never traveled south. To throw in a “y’all” or something so that they could be believable to readers felt really… dishonest.
I just chose to trust the reader to trust me.
Tell us about your current book tour. Where will you be and have been?
So far, I’ve been here in Wisconsin ( several locations), to Rock Island Illinois where the book is based, Atlanta Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. This spring, I’ll be in Wisconsin again, Michigan, and Chicago. I’m sticking, so far, to a schedule of one or two events per month.
The widest reach on the book tour been the blog tour. Each month, another blogger or two reads and talks about the book. They’ve been based in various parts of the US. and Europe. That has been really great, because bloggers have a wide audience. The tour has been surprising; I’ve been surprised to learn that EVERYONE has a story, and I’m shocked by how many people want to tell me theirs. I’m both fascinated and honored.
What is your blog Thanksamen about and how is it an extension of you, if at all?
My own blog, Thanksamen started when I decided, last Lenten season, that instead of giving something up, I’d add something. I made up my mind that I was going to listen to God. Not exactly a first, but definitely something that I needed to practice as a new habit. So, I’d ask God, when I was faced with a difficulty, or looking for guidance, and the blog is the result of the reflections.
I call the blog Thanks, Amen to remind myself to be grateful for the lesson, whatever it is. The word Amen translates to “So be it.”
It’s not easy for me to just accept things with gratitude. Well, it wasn’t before- it’s getting easier. And as it does, my life becomes more and more peaceful.
What else can we expect to hear and see from you as a writer and storyteller?
I’m working of the story of the next generation of The Rock Island Line. It’s about a man who learns that he’s going to die and signs up for the National Donor Registry. And then, he learns that he’s not dying after all. He also learns that he’s not African American.
I think, as a story teller, I feel sort of driven to tell stories that keep people out of boxes that are widely perpetuated, like they’re some kind of Universal truth.
· If you’re Black , then you’re poor. Or if you’re poor, then you’re unhappy.
We could go on and on…..
In the end, I believe that everyone really does have a story, and they all deserve telling. While we’re talking about American History, let’s get it all in there! Interesting, and weird, and funny- I love them all.