Constable: White author learned early how Black lives matter
As a white girl growing up in Arlington Heights in the 1950s and '60s, Patricia Hruby Powell was taught that Black Lives Matter long before that concept became a movement. There were no Black people in the lily-white town that was transitioning into a modern suburb during those years. She could pedal her bicycle to tadpole-filled creeks and across the mounds of dirt left by construction crews building new houses. But through the efforts of her parents and her career as a professional dancer, she learned to appreciate the accomplishments and struggles of Black people and has told those stories in several award-winning books.
"My parents were socially conscious," says Powell, 69. "I saw my parents as special. They were different."
Her mom, Dolores Hruby, a piano prodigy who composed countless choral and piano compositions during her career, led the choir at Our Lady of the Wayside Church in Arlington Heights but also taught at St. Agatha Catholic Academy in the predominantly Black neighborhood of North Lawndale on Chicago's West Side. Her mom and father, Norbert Hruby, vice president at Chicago's Mundelein College, a Catholic women's college that is now part of Loyola University, encouraged her to explore Chicago neighborhoods that didn't see many white people.
She remembers her parents urging a family to break the color line in Arlington Heights by becoming the first Black family in town. "This Black family looked around and said, 'No way,'" Powell remembers.
"My parents taught by example. They were trying," says Powell. Her parents were members of a fledgling Democratic Party in town that didn't expand far beyond a few families. But they were active.
"We boycotted the buying of grapes to support Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers," Powell says of the late-1960s protest that led to a contract that improved the lives of migrant farmworkers.
Powell was part of a group from Arlington High who spent a day at an all-Black high school in the city. But that well-intentioned program didn't succeed because all the like-minded Black students who would have welcomed the exchange were spending an equally awkward day in Arlington Heights.
Her world greatly expanded when Powell graduated from Arlington High School in 1969 and went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a dancer, where she would eventually earn her bachelor's degree in fine arts.
When students boycotted classes after four were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University during 1970 anti-war protests, Powell moved to England, where she studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance. She launched a professional career as a dancer and choreographer, making friends with dancers from around the globe. After earning a master's degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, Powell started her own dance company, One Plus One, which toured throughout North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe.
"There's a lot of time sitting around, and that's when I started to write," Powell says. Realizing that dancers can't work forever, Powell returned to the University of Illinois to get a master's degree in library and information sciences. She wrote, and illustrated, a children's book called "Frog Plus Frog," which was never published. A gifted storyteller, she often incorporated dance into her presentations.
Her first published picture book in 2002, "Blossom Tales: Flower Stories of Many Folk," used flowers found in gardens to introduce different cultures. Her next book, "Zinnia," retold a well-known Navajo folk tale. "Frog Brings Rain," which introduced readers to another Navajo folk tale, won an Aesop Accolade Award in 2006 from the American Folklore Society.
Her book "Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker" won a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal for Powell and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for artist Christian Robinson.
"I danced all the dances that Josephine danced in order to write it," says Powell, whose free verse gives readers the rhythm of dance.
Her 2017 book, "Loving vs. Virginia," tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage resulted in the landmark civil rights case that saw the U.S. Supreme Court legalize marriage between races.
Her husband, jazz trombonist and composer Morgan Powell, a professor emeritus of composition theory at the U of I school of music, suggested her next book -- a biography of jazz pianist, singer, band leader and composer Lil Hardin Armstrong called "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," which was the title of one of her songs.
Her latest book, "Lift As You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker," recalls the life of the civil rights activist, with illustrations from R. Gregory Christie. It was named a Junior Library Guild Selection and has garnered rave reviews. It asks the question, "What do you hope to accomplish?" and notes that Baker's mother advised her, "Lift as you climb."
"Lift as you climb would be the perfect message today," Powell says, adding that she thinks her books, listed on talesforallages.com, have added to efforts to bring different voices to the front. "We have to empathize with different people if we're going to write."
But this will be the last book about African Americans that she'll write without a Black collaborator, she says. "The times have changed, and the world values 'own voice' books, books written from within the culture," Powell says. While she's never been accused of "appropriating" other cultures, Powell says she's aware of the expectations people often have. Booked as a speaker and asked to read her books at many cultural events, Powell says she doesn't want to put people in an awkward situation.
"I've had to say to people, 'You know that I'm white?'" Powell says. "And they want to be polite, and say, 'Oh, yeah.'"