Award-winning writer Jewell Parker Rhodes grew up in the Manchester area of Pittsburgh. When she was very young, her grandmother took her Downtown for the first time. Living in a predominately African-American neighborhood didn't prepare her for what she discovered in the city. Until that first trip across the Allegheny River, Rhodes, born in 1954, had never seen a white person.
“I was like, 'Whoa, who are those people?” says Rhodes.
That sense of wonder was rekindled when she attended Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to study dance. During her junior year, Rhodes discovered books written by African-American writers. Until then, she'd never heard of James Baldwin, Phillis Wheatley, or any other writer of color. An avid reader as a child, Rhodes never even encountered a character of color in a book until she was at CMU.
Despite having thrived the first two years in the university's challenging dance/theater curriculum, Rhodes decided to switch her major to writing.
“I almost missed my calling,” says Rhodes, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and a doctorate, all in writing, from CMU. “It would have been so easy [to miss it]. I'm the luckiest person alive.”
The Piper Endowed Chair and founding artistic director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, Rhodes' most recent book, Ghost Boys (Little, Brown) is for middle school readers. Twelve year old Jerome, the novel's main character, is killed by a white police officer while playing with a toy gun. But instead of journeying to the next world, Jerome becomes a ghost, forced to watch the effect his death has on his family and community with two new friends: Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who killed him, and the ghost of Emmett Till, who was 14 when he was murdered by two white men during a visit to relatives in Mississippi in 1955.
“I thought my generation would make things better and make things right,” Rhodes says. “And I tell you — to wake up with this slew of riots and racism and white nationalism and these innocent children being murdered, it has really taken me aback to see that, 'Oh my God, we have a long way to go.'"
She finds hope through telling stories such as Till's for children who might not know about his story. Rhodes recalls that if not for magazines such as Ebony and Jet, she wouldn't have learned about Till's hellish demise.
“I still have this one particular image of the lynching and I've never been able to forget it,” she says. “I must have been three or five, and that set me on this course. ... If you look at all of my work, I've always been trying to break down barriers against racism, against sexism, against class, against religious differences, with gender, with everything. We are a humanity that must come together through the power of words, through the power of empathy, which fiction does.”