Jeffrey Blount has worn many hats over the course of his life–he’s a successful author, Emmy Award winning director, accomplished public speaker, and father. But before all of this success, Jeffrey was just a young African American boy grappling with the hurt of feeling excluded within his own community. This experience, along with a haunting news story he read about a gifted black child who was bullied for “acting white,” inspired his powerful new novel The Emancipation of Evan Walls. Read our conversation below to learn more…
Katie: Tell us a little bit about the book. What inspired you to write it?
Jeffrey: I was haunted by a child’s burdensome journey. In the late 1980s, I read a story in the paper about a boy – young, gifted and black. This 10-year-old little boy’s black peers physically and emotionally harmed him because they found his love of school to be a negative. They placed him in the category of “acting white,” a pejorative term placed upon intellectually inclined black kids by black kids who are not so inclined. This boy was not alone. This was and is a phenomenon in the African American community and it’s been a taboo subject for some time. I carried this boy with me for quite some time, often setting him aside because I had my own life to live. But, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” So, one day I was talking about this kid with my mom, who was a teacher. She was the one who set me free, telling me that I had talent as a writer and that I needed to tell this story. I told her that I thought it might be met with hostility. She encouraged me to keep the little boy in mind and to do what I knew was the right thing. I began to write the first version of the book not too long after that conversation. This book is Evan Walls’ coming of age story. He only wants to get an education, but that requires him to negotiate a painful path between angry whites and his own people, who question whether or not he’s black enough to be a part of the community that he was born into.
Katie: Although the novel is fiction, you write in the first person, and the subject matter is clearly very personal to you. How much of Evan’s story is based off of your own experience?
Jeffrey: I love writing in the first person. Think about a story told to you by a person from his or her heart. Their story. Now, think about that story told secondhand. For me, it’s not the same. There is nothing like the intimacy of hearing a powerful story from the source. No one else can reach that person’s soul. No one else can unequivocally share that journey. And so it had to be that way with Evan. You had to hear it from him. That said, Evan is definitely based off my own experience. I shared this journey of acting white. Though it was not debilitating for me, I shared the hurt of being excluded from spaces within my community. But strangely, not enough to inspire me to write about it. It wasn’t until the little boy and the conversation with my mom happened. It wasn’t until I had subsequent conversations with others who had dealt with this unique issue and lots of research that I began writing. In a way, I am quite happy about that because this isn’t just my story, it’s community wide. It’s a broader issue that needs to be pulled from the shadows and talked about for more than just my benefit.
Katie: There is a quote by Michelle Obama that you asked me to consider before reading- “And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that.” Will you tell me what that quote means to you?
Jeffrey: As I began to write The Emancipation of Evan Walls, I started attempting to have conversations about the issue within the African American community. Most of the time, the subject was dismissed as not widespread enough to raise concerns. Often, I was told outright that there were studies to indicate that this acting white business didn’t even exist. This, of course, angered me having lived through it. But things began to change after the former First Lady spoke those words in a 2013 commencement address. When I quoted Mrs. Obama, the counter arguments suddenly carried less weight. She validated my concerns and hey, it’s really hard to accuse Mrs. Obama of creating a fake issue. Now that she’s also written about it in her memoir, Becoming, minds are changing. For me it means support. For me, it means a voice so powerful that the kids who suffer from this can find affirmation from someone who is universally respected. And they can also see that she worked through it and succeeded in a most dramatic fashion. Her life is a clear path through this madness and she’s strong enough to ask the community to end the practice. I feel deeply indebted to her.
Katie: In the novel, we see that Evan’s attempts to get an education are resisted not just by the white community, but by the African American community as well, including by Evan’s own parents. Evan’s story takes place in the late 1960’s, yet you assert that many young African American students are still facing these barriers today. Why do you think that is, and how do you think we can change that?
Jeffrey: I believe that as African Americans, our task for so long has been to fight with everything we have to end institutional racism in the United States. And while we have kept our focus on the harm and inequalities racism has brought to our community, we have been somewhat negligent in recognizing some of the psychological damage it has caused within the community. What it has caused us to do to each other. ABC’s Blackish recently did a show on colorism, the idea that blacks with lighter skin treat blacks with darker skin as lesser persons. Colorism is a similarly controversial topic and the show answered the question of why they chose to take it on beautifully. They said they did the show, “Because nothing gets better in the shadows.” This is exactly why The Emancipation of Evan Walls exists. We haven’t dealt with the issue of acting white very well, so it has festered in the shadows. And it’s much worse than when I was going through it as a child. Within the last couple of years, two little black girls killed themselves because of this kind of bullying and ostracizing. Others are, in my mind, being tortured at school and the larger community. It has to stop and I am trying to raise the alarm.
Katie: You are a parent of two adult children–both of them successful scholars. What did you do as a father to instill a love of learning in your children?
Jeffrey: First of all, we created an environment of unconditional love. Julia and Jake understood that no matter what, we loved and supported them. This is the foundation for anyone being equipped to take on the world. Having a secure home base means everything. Then, we read and read and read. There is this picture of me reading to Julia when she is barely a week old. I get teased a lot about it, but we wanted them to love learning and we did everything we could to foster that. Once, when Julia was about six, she’d done something well and we wanted to reward her. So we took her to the neighborhood children’s toy and bookstore. We told her to pick any toy she wanted. She went to the book section and picked two books. Jake followed along the same path. We came to the dinner table ready to argue our positions regarding current events and the world at large. Years later, when they marched together to protest police brutality, we were proud. They now write, teach and lecture. Julia in the classroom. Jake does it alongside his music. But it all begins with saying I love you as often as you can and then proving it to them.
Katie: Thanks so much, Jeffrey!