Interview with Michelle Coles
2022 Grateful American Book Prize Winner
Black Was the Ink, a first novel by author Michelle Coles, has received the 2022 Grateful American Book Prize. As David Bruce Smith, co-founder of the Prize put it: “This is a unique, powerful ‘must read’ for America’s young learners.”
Coles depicts the book as “a coming-of-age story and an eye-opening exploration of the Reconstruction Era, the period immediately following the Civil War, when 4.4 million formerly enslaved people were granted U.S. citizenship rights for the first time. Malcolm, the protagonist, is a modern-day Black teenager who is sent on a magical journey through Reconstruction-era America with the help of a ghostly ancestor, while working in the present to save his family’s farm in Mississippi from being taken by the State.”
David: What inspired you to write Black Was the Ink?
Michelle: Black Was the Ink was inspired by the Mother Emanuel massacre that occurred in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015 when a teenaged white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers during Bible study and injured more. At the time, I was on maternity leave from my job as a civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, and I struggled with how to prepare my young Black children to enter a world in which some people harbored such inexplicable hatred towards people who looked like them. The Mother Emanuel Church was not just the site of a massacre, but it is also a national landmark with a rich history of advocating for African Americans’ civil rights. Champions for equality include the church’s founder, Denmark Vesey, the leader of one of the largest attempted slave rebellions in U.S. history, to the Reconstruction Era Pastor Richard ‘Daddy’ Cain, who also served as one of the first Black members of Congress, to Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was a sitting member of the South Carolina State Senate at the time he was assassinated. Looking at American history with this church as a through line, the past and the present merged before my eyes, and I knew I had a powerful story to tell.
The church’s connection to the Reconstruction Era, in particular, loomed large in my imagination because so often when people learn about Black people’s experiences in America, the story starts with slavery and then fast forwards to the Civil Rights Era. But there is a lot to celebrate, as well as mourn, in between.
David: You used a unique technique for this book; some reviews called it “time travel.” How and why did you come up with this method?
Michelle: I wanted to write a story that showed the connections between the present and the past and toyed with a couple of different storytelling techniques. In my first draft, Malcolm simply reads his ancestor, Cedric’s, diary while living through various challenges common to African American boys in the present. Then I tried alternating the story’s perspective between Malcolm in the present and Cedric in the past. Finally, I decided the best way for Malcolm to understand what happened during the Reconstruction Era was for him to experience it himself. Using magical realism, Cedric’s ghost appears in the present and transports Malcolm into his body so that Malcolm can experience life as an aide to the first Black members of Congress during the Reconstruction Era. Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred served as a loose inspiration for this final approach.
David: How long did it take to research the historical elements of the book?
Michelle: I spent about 6-8 months immersed in researching and outlining the factual elements of Black Was the Ink. As an attorney, I am used to doing a lot of researching and writing, but creative writing was a new challenge for me. I took comfort in reading everything I could about the Reconstruction Era; once I had a good understanding of the facts, I started crafting a story that showed the connections between the present and the past.
While there are almost no fiction books about the Reconstruction Era, there are a handful of really great nonfiction resources. Particularly illuminating was W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, Philip Dray’s Capitol Men, Eric Foner’s numerous books on the topic, and Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died. By far, my favorite resource was the treasure trove of congressional records held by the Library of Congress, because I could read the unfiltered words of the first Black members of Congress as they made speeches from the House or Senate floor and see for myself what they were like. Boy was I impressed! I incorporated the Congressmen’s own words into the story as often as I could. One of the Congressmen, John Roy Lynch (R-MS 1873-77, 82-83) even wrote his own first-hand account called The Facts of Reconstruction.
David: What led you to submit your book for the Grateful American Book Prize?
Michelle: So many wonderful historical books have won this award. Two recipients in particular grabbed my attention because they similarly told overlooked stories about the African American experience: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and A Dark Sky Rising, by Henry Louis Gates and Tonya Bolden, which is also about the Reconstruction Era. If I could be in the same company as authors for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect, I figured that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
David: What was your reaction when you found out that you had won?
Michelle: I was shocked, encouraged, but mostly, grateful because receiving this award tells me that my novel was received in the spirit that was intended. Some people perceive any criticism of America as a lack of patriotism, but I see it as quite the opposite. America is not just a place. It is a set of ideals grounded in principles of equality, liberty, and justice for all. One of the most patriotic things a person can do, if you truly love America and what she stands for, is whatever you can to make sure those ideals are fully realized and equally applicable to all. That starts with an honest assessment of where we have and continue to fall short. For more than 200 years, America is the only home that I or my ancestors have known. Without a doubt, the last century has been better than the ones that preceded it, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we still have a ways to go. For the sake of my children, I hope that America continues to move closer and closer to embodying its highest ideals. If we all do our part, we can ensure that we do.
Black Was the Ink (ISBN 978-1643794310), with illustrations by Justin Johnson, was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books on November 2, 2021. For more information, see author Michelle Coles’ website: www.michellecoles.com.