Acclaimed novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes vividly recalls her earliest years, growing up in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood in the 1950s and early 1960s. One reason is all the storytelling.
Through third grade, Rhodes and her younger sister were among the kids raised by her grandmother, who years earlier had come north from Georgia. Summer nights were spent on the front stoop on West North Avenue.
“Grandmother would tell stories, and in that way she introduced me to African-American oral tradition, the power of telling stories,” Rhodes said. “And every afternoon after school, grandmother and I would watch the 4 o’clock movies, and then that would just spur my imagination more.”
Rhodes spent the next several years with her family in California before graduating high school at 15 and reuniting with her grandmother in Pittsburgh. She went on to enroll in Carnegie Mellon University. Her grandmother, sadly, died before Rhodes – a self-described "hippie, black-power child" who’d first majored in dance and acting – turned her career ambitions toward storytelling by switching her studies to English.
Some 45 years later, Rhodes is the author of 11 novels and three works of nonfiction, including historical novels about the women in Frederick Douglass' life, and the fate of "Black Wall Street" in 1920s Tulsa, Okla. Over the past decade, she’s increasingly focused on fiction for middle-grade students, including her critically lauded Louisiana Girls Trilogy.
Her latest, 2018’s best-selling “Ghost Boys,” is new in paperback. Rhodes, who now splits her time between California and Arizona, makes her first visit to Pittsburgh in years to discuss the book at a free event Sunday at Carnegie Lecture Hall, in Oakland.
The reading, which includes an audience Q &A, is part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Words & Pictures series for younger readers.
“Ghost Boys” explores a tragically timely narrative: the violent deaths of unarmed black boys. The narrator, Jerome, is a 12-year-old boy who -- like Tamir Rice, in Cleveland -- is shot to death by a white policeman while holding a toy gun. Jerome, now a ghost himself, befriends another ghost: that of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy murdered by whites in Mississippi in 1955.
The supernatural device suggests an historical continuum of violence, but also, potentially, redemption.
“In my novel, though you have all the ghosts -- you know, Trayvon Martin, Lacquan McDonald, Emmett Till -- all the ghosts, I imagine them roaming the streets,” said Rhodes, speaking by phone on the road in St. Louis. “They are looking for the person who can make the civil-rights era move forward to another level. That can make a change in the world.”
“But the theme is really ‘bear witness,’ and the book really asks for all of us to use our voice, to use our art, to bear witness to pain, and make the world better,” Rhodes said.
Book List called “Ghost Boys” a “gripping and all-too-necessary novel.” A review in Publishers Weekly said that the novel “packs a powerful punch, delivering a call to action to speak out against prejudice and erase harmful misconceptions.”
Rhodes, who is 65 and now a grandmother herself, particularly emphasizes the importance of storytelling to children. “I tell them when I visit them in schools, write your stories down, because the world needs them,” she said. “And everybody has a unique and special story.”
Rhodes is a vocal advocate for diversity of authors and characters, especially in books for children. Though she’d written on her own since childhood, she never considered writing professionally, she said, until as a college junior she came across “Corregidora,” Gayl Jones’ 1975 novel of the slave trade. She changed her major that day, she said.
“Every child deserves to see themselves in a book,” said Rhodes. “And I think how lucky I am that even though I had my grandmother’s tradition of storytelling, I didn’t know I could do it as a career. And I almost lost my calling because I never saw a mirror of someone who looked like me writing books.”
In Pittsburgh, as in many cities she visits on her speaking tours, she’ll be pairing her on-stage readings with discussions with students at local schools. Monday, she’ll visit Downtown’s Urban Pathways Charter School, where a video call will link in four other regional schools, and then travel to Woodland Hills High School.
Rhodes said she misses Pittsburgh a bit, and has contacted cousins here in hopes of arranging a reunion sometime. She also said the city is among the places where she and her husband are considering retiring. Next week, she’ll tell students about the city’s role in her development.
“I have to give a shout-out to teachers and librarians,” she said. “Because my family were very poor, and teachers and librarians just keep feeding me books. So in a very critical, critical sense, Pittsburgh really contributed to who I am today.”
More information about Sunday's event is here. Admission is free as part of the Allegheny Regional Asset District's RADical Days series.