Jennifer Baszile grew up in Southern California and resides in Connecticut. She earned a
Bachelor's degree in history from Columbia University and a Master's from Princeton. While earning a
PhD in history at Princeton, she received the Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities and
the Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, among other prizes. She went on to be the first black
woman to teach history at Yale University, as an assistant professor of history, American and
African American studies, 1999-2007.
Baszile is the author of numerous scholarly essays, papers, articles and reviews, and has
appeared on public radio and television. She has been honored with the Columbia College Women Alumnae Achievement Award,
the Yale College Poorvu Award for Outstanding Teaching; and the 2008 Strength Award from the Mixed Magic Theatre for The Black Girl Next Door. Ebony magazine recognized
her as one of the "Thirty Leaders of the Future."
A Conversation with Jennifer Baszile
- How long has this book been germinating in your mind? What compelled you to finally tell this story?
- The earliest incarnation of this book began in 2002 when / recalled a picture of myself at age four or five and began to cry. I couldn't get the picture out of my mind. I was at a turning point in my career because my work as a college professor had become unfulfilling. I couldn't figure out why I'd lost my passion. Then / realized that / was a professional historian running from my past. / went looking for a book that told my story, but / couldn't find one. So, I began to write.
- Your memories of your childhood are so vivid. Did you keep journals when you where young, or did you use another way to recall the events and conversations of the past?
- Like many girls in the 1970s, I kept a diary. Mine was cream-colored vinyl and had a brass key that / hid in my underwear drawer. The events and conversations / recount were defining moments in my girlhood. But they were often so painful and upsetting that I remembered them vividly.
- It seems like your parents couldn't quite reconcile their wanting you to assimilate and capture the American Dream with their expectations for you to have black friends and not integrate too much socially. Do you still feel caught by this dichotomy?
- That dichotomy was the defining tension in post-Civil Rights America. One of the reasons I decided to write this book was to describe the bind between the hope of integration and the reality of prejudice. I don't feel "caught" by the dichotomy but remain aware of it.
- Your portrayals of your mother and father are very honest, sometimes painfully so. Have either of them read the story, and if so, how did they react?
- From the day I began writing the book, my father has said the same thing. "Tell your story. My parents read the early chapters of the book, but it was a very painful experience for them. As a mother myself, I know that no parent likes to see their child suffer, even on the pages of a book. They have been very supportive of the project.'
- Do you have any children of your own? How has your childhood experience influenced the approach you want to take with your children?
- I have one child and my experiences of motherhood have infused me with an even greater sense of respect for my parents' struggles. Every set of choices has trade-offs, but I try to help my child trust his instincts and ask me questions even when they are difficult. I also have chosen to raise him in a more economically and culturally diverse context than the community in which I was raised.
- If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
- Draw strength from the challenges that you face and be true to yourself.
- Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope they will learn from your experiences?
- 1 hope that the men and women of my generation will read this book and appreciate the important work we did to move this country forward. 1 hope that our parents will read this book and recognize the radical changes that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. I also hope young men and women who feel like outsiders will read this book and see how much change is possible.
- You end the story at your high school graduation. Do you have more stories that you plan to tell?
- I spent my thirties grappling with one transition after another. Those experiences will be the sequel to this book
I have another non-fiction project in the works, and might even try my hand at fiction.