Haskins, James 1941–
James Haskins 1941–
For writers of children’s books, celebrity is frequently elusive, and most often it is children’s fiction that dominates the news, while children’s nonfiction earns far less public acclaim. However, non-fiction books written by James Haskins continue to fill an important space on children’s bookshelves. With more than 100 books to his credit, Haskins has become an important voice in children’s publishing.
James Haskins was born September 19, 1941, in Demopolis, a small rural town in Alabama. In the nineteenth century, plantation life flourished in this small town, but by the early twentieth century, the period of gracious living had passed and cotton was a failing crop. By the time that Haskins was born, beef cattle and dairy products had replaced cotton, and the small town’s location on two rivers helped to bring in more industry. But in the segregated south, there were still few opportunities and services for black Americans. Haskins, the son of Julia Brown Haskins and Henry Haskins was born at home because there were no adequate nearby medical facilities for African Americans. Julia Haskins was a housewife, while Henry Haskins worked in the funeral business, embalming the dead and building concrete vaults for their burials.
Neither of Haskins’s parents attended high school. But, as Haskins told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), his parents “fostered a love of books and of reading” in their son’s life. Though Haskins loved to read, there were few available outlets for a black child who loved books. The local public library did not admit blacks, and so to help feed her child’s desire, Haskins’s mother brought home encyclopedias, one volume at a time, from a local Demopolis supermarket. Eventually a white woman, an acquaintance of his mother, began to check out books from the local library and send them home for Haskins to read. With the assistance of these two women, Haskins was able to read a wide assortment of books.
As a child Haskins attended a segregated elementary school in Demopolis. As was often true in the rural American south, schools for black students had only out-of-date textbooks and materials with which to educate their students. However, rather than rely only
At a Glance…
Born on September 19, 1941, in Demopolis, Alabama; son of Henry and Julia (Brown) Haskins. Education: Georgetown University, B.S., 1960; Alabama State University, B.S., 1962; University of New Mexico, M.A., 1963.
Career: P.S. 92 in Harlem, teacher, 1966-69; New School for Social Research, New York City, visiting lecturer 1970-72; Staten Island Community College, City College of New York, associate professor, 1970-77; State University of New York at New Paltz, visiting lecturer, 1970-72; Purdue University, visiting lecturer, 1973-76; University of Florida, professor of English, 1977-.
Awards: Coretta Scott King Award for The Story of Stevie Wonder; 1976; ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing in the field of music, for Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime, 1979; Carter G. Woodson Award for young adult fiction, for Black Music in America, 1989; Alabama Library Association Award for best work for children, for the first four books in the Count Your Way series, 1968; Carter G. Woodson Award for young adult fiction, for The March on Washington, 1994; selected as Educator of the Year, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, University of Florida in Gainesville, 1992; nominated for Outstanding Teacher Award, 1994; Washington Post Children’s Book Guild award, for his body of work in nonfiction, 1994.
Addresses: Home —325 West End Eve, 7D, New York, NY 10023; Office —Department of English, University of Florida, 4326 Turlington, Gainesville, FL 32611.
upon textbooks that offered little positive information about the African-American experience, Haskins’s teachers made it clear that black Americans did have an important story to tell.
By the time he was due to begin high school, Haskins was able to escape Demopolis. He moved to Boston to stay with relatives after being accepted at the prestigious Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the United States. The school’s own website claims that the school “has taught its scholars dissent with responsibility and has persistently encouraged it.” In his interview with CBB, Haskins pointed out that the Boston Latin School “fostered thinking for oneself. The school taught that the world should be a humane place to live.” The school’s emphasis on dissent with responsibility can be seen in Haskins’s efforts after he graduated from high school and returned to Alabama to attend Alabama State University in Montgomery. One of the first things he did after enrolling in college was contact Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and volunteer to help in the movement to secure equal rights for all blacks. Haskins’s efforts to fight segregation followed in the footsteps of other Boston Latin School alumni—most notably, abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Henry Ward Beecher, who also fought for equality.
When Haskins became active in the protests against segregation, he was expelled from Alabama State. He then enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology in 1960. After completing this first degree, Haskins again enrolled at Alabama State, and this time completed a bachelor of arts degree in history in 1962. He subsequently enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he earned a master’s degree in social psychology in 1963.
After completing his formal education, Haskins began trying to find a career that offered a perfect fit. He had initially envisioned a career as a social psychologist, an interest often reflected in his books. Early on, he worked as a stockbroker for Smith Barney & Co., but soon found that this job did not present the type of fulfillment that he had expected. Haskins’s search for a more satisfying job soon sent him in a very different direction, that of teaching. The choice of a teaching profession was partly due to the fact that teachers had been such a strong influence in his life.
Haskins’s first teaching position was as a special education teacher at Public School 92 in Harlem. His students had many problems, and as a result their new teacher was forced to create innovative ways to challenge his students. Haskins began a diary, in which he recorded his feelings as he struggled in his new job. A woman friend who worked for a publishing house read the diary, was fascinated by it, and suggested that it be published. This diary later became Haskins’s first book, Diary of a Harlem School Teacher.
After the publication of his first book, Haskins was asked if he would like to write books for children. Haskins told CBB that “in 1970 there was a dearth of black writers; I was someone who was publishable, and so I was asked to write children’s books.” Haskins’s first book for children, Resistance: Profiles in Nonviolence, was published in 1970. This was the kind of book that Haskins had wanted to write—a book about people and about events. As a child, Haskins had read the encyclopedia when there were no other books for him to read. Now, as an adult writing for children, he again turned to facts in order to create nonfiction works that would speak to children about the world that surrounded them.
In the past thirty years, Haskins has written more than 100 books. Although he has written some books for adults, most of his books have been directed toward children and adolescents. Many of these have been biographies that reveal the depth of black culture and experience in the United States. Haskins has written about black athletes, such as baseball great Hank Aaron, basketball player Julius Irving, and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. But the black experience is about more than sports, and Haskins has also focused on black entertainers and artists, such as composer and musician Scott Joplin, playwright Langston Hughes, and singer Diana Ross. The lives of black politicians and activists have also been captured in Haskins’s biographies, including those of Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, and Andrew Young. Other works such as Leaders in the Middle East and Winnie Mandela suggest that Haskins’s ultimate goal has been to educate and challenge his readers. In an interview for the St. Petersburg Times, Haskins explained that his Count Your Way Through … series on foreign countries “shows the importance of understanding other cultures and languages.” Haskins’s books have provided his young readers with a door into the world beyond their own borders. He has made the black experience come alive for his readers, and has placed African-American history within the context of experiences that occur in the world beyond the United States.
Although Haskins is a prolific writer with many interests, his books centralize on the African-American experience. He told CBB, that his books have “focused on the undeservedly obscure, who should be better known.” One of the significant strengths of Haskins’s books is their effect on African-American children who are exposed to a more positive message about their own history. In many of his books, such as The Creoles of Color of New Orleans and The Scottsboro Boys, Haskins has tried to illuminate less well-known topics in an effort to probe deeper into American black history. For instance, few children—black or white—may know that there were black explorers, and Against All Opposition: Black Explorers in America offers stories that might otherwise never be known. Some of his books present social commentary on some of today’s problems, such as Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today, which examines the history and possible causes of street violence.
Young African Americans who think that blacks were only slaves and victims during the Civil War can read Black, Blue & Gray: African Americans in the Civil War, to learn of the accomplishments and bravery of those blacks who fought during that war. In a review of this book for the Boston Globe, Scott Alarik found Haskins’s “recounting of battlefield heroics, and the equally important political heroics of black and white abolitionists, both dramatic and ennobling.”
Since 1970 Haskins has also taught writing and lectured on literature in a number of different forums. He was a visiting lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1970 to 1972 and an associate professor at Staten Island Community College of the City College of New York from 1970 to 1977. During this same period, Haskins was a visiting lecturer at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a visiting lecturer at Purdue University in Indianapolis. In 1977 Haskins accepted a position as professor of English at the University of Florida at Gainesville. He has also served as a consultant to numerous government agencies and private businesses, including the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, “The Jazz Age in Paris.” In addition to his teaching and writing, Haskins has also been actively involved in many community service programs.
Diary of a Harlem School Teacher, Stein & Day, 1969.
Resistance: Profiles in Nonviolence, Doubleday, 1970.
Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today, Hastings House, 1974.
Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Lothrop, 1974.
The Creoles of Color of New Orleans, Crowell, 1975.
Dr. J: A Biography of Julius Irving, Doubleday, 1975.
Fighting Shirley Chisholm, Dial, 1975.
A Picture Life of Malcolm X, F. Watts, 1975.
Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes, F. Watts, 1976.
The Story of Stevie Wonder, Doubleday, 1976.
The Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lothrop, 1977.
Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime, Doubleday, 1978.
Andrew Young: Man With a Mission, Lothrop, 1979.
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me: The Story of Diana Ross, Dial, 1980.
Sugar Ray Leonard, Lothrop, 1982.
Katherine Dunham, Coward-McCann, 1982.
Diana Ross: Star Supreme, Viking, 1985.
Shirley Temple Black: Actress to Ambassador, Puffin Books, 1988.
Corazon Aquino: Leader of the Philippines, Enslow, 1988.
Leaders in the Middle East, Enslow, 1988.
Winnie Mandela, Putnam, 1988.
The Day Martin Luther King Was Shot: A Photo History of the Civil Rights Movement, Scholastic, Inc., 1992.
Colin Powell, Scholastic, Inc., 1992.
Against All Opposition: Black Explorers in America, Walker, 1992.
I Have a Dream: The Life & Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Millbrook Press, 1992.
The Scottsboro Boys, Holt, 1994.
Baynard Rustin, Hyperion Books for Children, 1997.
Black, Blue & Gray: African Americans in the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Black Stars of Colonial Times and the Revolutionary War: African Americans Who Lived Their Dreams, John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
Toni Morrison: Telling a Tale Untold, Twentieth Century Books, 2002.
Something About The Author Autobiography Series, Volume 4, Gale, 1978, pp. 63-69.
Boston Globe, March 23, 1998.
St. Petersburg Times, April 1, 2002.
Boston Latin School, http://www.bls.org/bls_history/History_of_bls.htm
University of Florida, http://www.web.clas.ufl.edu/users/jhaskins
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography, June 28, 2002.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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