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ANN BAUSUM: WITH PASSION AND PURPOSE, A WRITER LAYS DOWN PAVING STONES FOR THE NEXT GENERATION TO WALK

by J. H. Diehl

Guide my feet while I run this race,
Guide my feet while I run this race,
Guide my feet while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

Ann BausumAuthor Ann Bausum sang those lines from a well-known African American spiritual to begin her acceptance speech for the 2017 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award on April 29 at Clyde’s of Gallery Place. An audience of more than 100 Guild members, colleagues and friends honored Bausum for the excellence of her body of her work, which includes many books about issues of social justice, from immigration to civil rights to the Stonewall riots and the national Gay Rights Movement. Bausum said she selected that verse to open her talk about “the choices that have guided my feet through the years” because those lyrics have been a touchstone for her, “a reminder to ‘stay on course, Ann. Stay on course.’”

In the first part of her talk, Bausum described how her fierce passion to write historical narratives for children is rooted in her years growing up in Lexington, Va., during the 1960s. Fourth grade, she said, was the year she fell in love with history. Her hometown was filled with sites and icons of Confederate history. Of particular importance to her then was Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, which had been stuffed and placed on display in a museum. “I would visit him after school," she said, and “didn’t realize it at the time, but I was falling in love with an artifact for the first time.” Little Sorrel seemed so real to her, Bausum said, that she imagined he could walk out of his museum paddock.

In school she learned a warped version of U.S. history, however. “Only decades later did I realize how my history books had been a carefully constructed narrative,” Bausum said. This narrative was filled with distortions intended to absolve whites of culpability for slavery. 

“It took me years to realize,” she said, that her school history books had presented a “glorification of the South’s lost cause.” Not until Bausum enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1975 and saw that narrative challenged did her view of history change. She explained, “Over time, I learned I was the one who had been misled. I was in my early twenties before I had the first inkling that my textbooks had gotten things wrong.”

Years later, Bausum obtained copies of her fourth- and seventh-grade history books. In the midst of reading egregious excerpts from one 1965 text aloud to her Guild audience, she paused to declare: “It’s painful to read this, but I think this is what we need to know we taught our children.”

Her desire to create accurate accounts of historical events drew Bausum to focus heavily on using documentary photographs in her books. “My appreciation for documentary imagery began with current events,” she said. Again she was inspired by her early life, by recalling pictures from President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, the first big news event Bausum remembers, which took place when she was in first grade.

Her interest in pictorial storytelling has made National Geographic, her longtime publisher, a wonderful match for her work on subjects ranging from investigative journalism to immigration and the Civil Rights Movement, Bausum said. Sometimes, photographs have given her ideas for books. This was the case, for instance, with Marching to the Mountaintop, one of her civil rights histories, which was inspired by a black and white image taken by famed photographer Ernest C. Withers during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tenn.

The second part of Bausum’s talk concerned rage. “You cannot write about social justice, title after title, and not talk about rage,” she said. She cited, for example, her account of the shooting of activist James Meredith, a black man shot by a white man on the second day of the 1966 civil rights demonstration that was the topic of Bausum’s book The March against Fear. “While I write, 50 years later, black men are being shot as they go about their daily lives,” she said. “It’s as if nothing has changed.” Of her book Muckrakers, Bausum said, “As someone who’d been swept up in journalism after living through Watergate, could I not write about early investigative [reporters]?”

The rage that fuels her work, Bausum said, draws on “my inner child, nine or ten, full of curiosity and confidence...who stayed with me as I grew to an adult. The girl who grew up on Watergate and the Vietnam War. The girl who trusted her history books and was betrayed.”

“I can’t not do this work,” Bausum, at her most impassioned, declared movingly as she closed her remarks. “It’s who I am. It’s where my feet lead me.” She added, “My goal is to lay down paving stones for the next generation...because in the end, I don’t want to run this race in vain.”

Then, prompted by Edie Ching, the Guild’s Award Committee chair, Bausum’s audience joined her in reprising her opening verse:

Guide my feet while I run this race,
Guide my feet while I run this race,
Guide my feet while I run this race,

For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

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