“I didn’t know a writer lived inside of me.”
Clifton Taulbert’s words at first seem strange – coming as they do from an internationally recognized author and Pulitzer Prize nominee. But as he speaks about the power of community in his life, it becomes clear that the inspiration for his stories began many years ago, when Taulbert was a child, the great-great-grandson of slaves, growing up in the Mississippi Delta.
Clifton Taulbert on Black History Month
“As I think about Black History Month and what it means for me and for our country, I am reminded of the book I wrote entitled The Invitation, the story of the crossing of paths between the great-granddaughter of slave owners, Miss Camille Cunningham Sharp, and me, the great-great-grandson of slaves. Her simple invitation to me to ‘come to supper’ set the stage for a new understanding of the simple saying, ‘Good people ought not be strangers.’ To me, Black History Month is that kind of invitation: for fellow Americans – white, black or any other race – not to be strangers. It is the opportunity to know and appreciate each other as neighbors and to discover our shared humanity, our trials and triumphs, successes and failures. It mirrors my hope for America today: for us to understand the lingering lessons of race and place, while looking forward to the opportunity that remains – lending our hands and hearts to do our part in moving us closer to the ideals of a shared democracy.”
Taulbert’s great-aunt Eleanor was with him the day when, as a young boy, he had a library door shut in his face because of the color of his skin. But her words at that time inspired him – “You only get mad for 15 minutes. Then you go do something about it.”
What she did about it was to send letters to all the local colleges and ask them for whatever books they had to give away. She then passed them along to her great-nephew so he could build his own library.
“She planted the seeds of writing within me,” the decades-long Tulsan says.
Germination occurred, followed by growth, and, later, the best-selling book Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, which Taulbert wrote when he was stationed stateside with the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. While many of his fellow airmen coped with the loss of life and the brutality of war through drinking or other distractions, Taulbert took solace and found an emotional outlet in writing stories about his childhood … and never expected them to be published. (The memoir was not printed until 1989.)
“It was the vehicle that took me out of the reality of war,” he says.
Since the publication of his first book, everything that Taulbert has done draws from the power of community. As an entrepreneur and sought-after public speaker, Taulbert has influenced thousands of people with his message of self-sacrifice and positive outlook. But it all goes back to the concept of people helping people, to better each other and to improve society as a whole.
“Being our brothers’ keepers – that’s what it’s really all about,” he says.