These Truths: Round and Round Together with Fatima Shaik, Amy Nathan, and Sharon Langley
These Truths is a new, limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a deeper understanding of what connects us.
Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.
How do you explain segregation or the Movement for Black Lives to kids? In this conversation, author Fatima Shaik speaks with co-authors Amy Nathan and Sharon Langley about their picture book, A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, which tells the story of how a community came together to integrate a public park and its carousel. These award-winning authors share their perspectives on how caregivers and educators can explain democracy’s benefits—and failures—to kids.
FATIMA SHAIK: Today, I’ll be speaking with authors, Amy Nathan and Sharon Langley, who wrote the book A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story. Let’s start with you, Amy.
AMY NATHAN: I co-authored it with Sharon, who was actually the main character in the story, and it’s illustrated by Floyd Cooper. It tells the story of a carousel ride that Sharon took in August of 1963, when she was only 11 months old, on the first day that an amusement park in Baltimore dropped segregation as a result of people coming together: blacks and whites, young and old, Catholics, Protestants, Jewish people in Baltimore, protesting at this park to demand that they drop segregation.
SHAIK: Sharon, I’d love to hear your version of this story. How did you first become aware of the controversy surrounding your carousel ride?
SHARON LANGLEY: Well, I come from a family of great storytellers, and all of the grandchildren and all of the children had their own photo albums, and my grandfather loved to take pictures and write captions for the photos. And so, I always had a sense of the things that we were involved in and the things that were important to us as a family. And this was my contribution.
My parents and I had gone to the amusement park—I suppose to test whether the integration was real or not. And I have always been appreciative that they chose to do that: one, because it says, “You know what, Sharon? You belong where I say you belong, and no one has the right to take that away from you,” and I grew up having a sense that we had contributed to something meaningful on that day.
SHAIK: And the carousel, you said, has a deeper meaning, right?
NATHAN: Yeah, the Smithsonian bought it! They didn’t know anything about the story until I wrote the book that I wrote on this in 2011 for teens and adults called Round and Round Together. But when they heard that story, they were really fascinated by it. They figured out which horse little Sharon rode at that time, and they decorated that horse with the names of civil rights heroes, and even put Sharon’s name on the back of the saddle.
“Othering people, and discriminating against people, seems to be a universal thing. But what we’re trying to point out in this book is that, yes, a terrible thing like that can happen, but people can change them.”
SHAIK: What brought you to this particular story, Amy?
NATHAN: Both Sharon and I grew up in Baltimore. I didn’t really learn the story about Sharon’s ride until 2008, when my brother gave me a copy of a book called, Here Lies Jim Crow, which is about segregation in Maryland. And in the back of the book, there was this picture of Sharon on the carousel and maybe two sentences telling that story, and I thought, “That is a really good story.” And the fact that it happened on the same day that Dr. King was leading the March on Washington, I thought, well, that’d be a great idea for a picture book.
So I started doing research, and I tracked Sharon down, who then was living in California. And I interviewed as many people as I could find. I read as many books as I could find. And here I was, learning about what was actually going on in Baltimore when I was growing up there and didn’t know about all these amazing civil rights heroes in Baltimore. It all seemed to have more significance and so, that’s why I wrote it.
SHAIK: Now, the first book that you wrote called Round and Round Together was for older kids. And this one is a picture book. How do you explain something like segregation to children—little children?
NATHAN: Well, it’s really hard to explain segregation to anybody, you know? Othering people, and discriminating against people, seems to be a universal thing. But what we’re trying to point out in this book is that, yes, a terrible thing like that can happen, but people can change them.
Sharon was only 11 months old, so this book is framed with her parents explaining to her, “Well, you know, before you were born, things weren’t so great at that park,” and explaining segregation to her, and explaining the protests to her. And so, then we hope that this book might encourage families to share their own stories about times when maybe they stood up for what’s right, or maybe when they experienced discrimination of various sorts.
SHAIK: And what age do you think that should start?
NATHAN: Family storytelling could be part of the response of the book, the conversations that parents and kids can have together. Reading the story can start, you know, definitely [at age] four or five, because kids have this really strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s fair and what isn’t fair. So they could definitely grasp this idea. But I think, to really understand it, more deeply, you know, maybe six to 12.
SHAIK: Now, how do you move from that to something like race? Because this is a book about race, right? How do you move from unfairness to racism?
NATHAN: Well, I think you just lay it right out there. One of the examples that we have of a child who came to the park is Lydia Wilkins. She was 11 years old in 1963, and her aunt was very fair-skinned, and she was very fair-skinned.
They tried to sneak into the park before the second day of protests occurred in July of 1963. Because they figured the ticket-takers would be so worried about hordes of protesters coming, they might not look really carefully at everybody. And so, they went on the carousel, and then they left before the protest started and told their story to the African American newspaper in Baltimore. And he wrote a whole story about it. Nothing bad happened to this park because this little girl and her aunt came. So that really faces it right head on. Was it skin color?
“If I tell you a story about someone who was treated unfairly—if you can draw upon those times in your life when you got the smaller piece of cake—then you can understand where the story is going, and you can understand what role you play in the outcome.”
SHAIK: It also sort of speaks to colorism, doesn’t it? We all know Black families come in all different shades. The fact that colorism exists as sort of hand-in-hand with racism is a very interesting illustration to me—that certain types of Black people would be allowed in, and certain types wouldn’t. Certain colors of people would be allowed in one place and not another.
So what can we tell children about that experience—that laws that we got rid of in the past still exist in a certain way today? How do you explain that?
NATHAN: You just tell them that it exists, and to be on the lookout for it, and to try to counter it in whatever way they can. We’re hoping that this is going to embed in children’s brains. Whenever they see any carousel, they’ll remember, “Oh yeah, I remember that story about that little girl.” And then maybe that will remind them of the real absurdity of discriminating against people for whatever reason. It could be because they’re immigrants or what’s going on now with COVID-19, you know, the anti-Chinese bias. So we’re hoping that this is going to create a generation of kids who are going to be called up every time they see a carousel. That might be too much to expect from a picture book, but you never know.
LANGLEY: [A reading from] A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper.
I love carousels.
The horses come in so many colors—black, white, brown, gray, a honey shade of tan, sunny yellow, fire engine red, or even a soft baby blue. But no matter their colors, the horses all go around at the same speed as they circle round and round. They start together. They finish together, too. Nobody is first and nobody is last. Everyone is equal when you ride a carousel.
When I was a very little girl, my family lived in Baltimore. Near our house was an amusement park. It was green and grassy, big and beautiful, bright and shiny. There were rides and games, treats and cold drinks at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park—and a carousel, too.
But before I was born, there were no rides or sweets at that park for children like me.
SHAIK: Thank you so much. You know, people look at children’s books and picture books, in general, as very simplistic sort of media for kids, but it takes a lot of thought. Just like learning the alphabet—in the way that you teach kids the alphabet, and then you teach them to read simple words, and then more complicated words, and then very difficult literature—I think that you can teach them about their social relationships, too. So, children’s books are as foundational as the alphabet is to reading.
You can sort of introduce them without breaking their hearts, you know, to unfairness.
LANGLEY: If I tell you a story about someone who was treated unfairly—if you can draw upon those times in your life when you got the smaller piece of cake—then you can understand where the story is going, and you can understand what role you play in the outcome.
I am an elementary school administrator. From the time I began working with students in the classroom, I was probably an activist educator. I felt that my students could understand injustice versus justice. I try to encourage them to think about what kind of people they want to be.
Years ago, our school district did an anti-bullying campaign. And I think the principles apply here. Not only don’t you want to be a bully, but you also don’t want to be a bystander. And so, beyond not being a bystander is being an “upstander”: being the kind of person who doesn’t tolerate that in their presence.
So, that’s something that they can do, something that they can understand.
When we started working on the book, I knew about my family’s visit to the park, and through research that Amy had done, I learned about the other families and the other children who were a part of moving the park forward to the day that my family and I were able to go and to enjoy it freely. They actively made a choice to take action, and that action varied.
Quite a lot of people brought their children, modeling what they believe about justice and fairness. If you look at the book, the Coleman brothers went with their family. Actually, the youngest child was a bit younger than depicted. When you have children being arrested for something as ordinary as wanting to go to an amusement park, that might’ve been a part of the embarrassment and shame that turned the tide.
“In politics, a person has to have a thick skin and a kind heart to make any sort of change, and that’s difficult for anyone. I think we can teach children to learn to be that way.”
SHAIK: Yes, I agree. In the past, seeing young people who are beaten and set on by police dogs in their nightly news changed things in the Civil Rights era. If you remember the picture of Walter Gadsden, he was a high school student in 1963.
And then the church bombing of the four girls in Alabama was a horrifying event for most people when they saw that. And that was just a few months later. So, when people see these images of children on the front line, it does strike them viscerally. In more recent times, I have to say that we had already seen Blacks being murdered, sort of one-by-one by police on TV. And even Isabel Wilkerson commented in The New York Times about the statistics of Blacks that were comparable to the Nadir when people were being lynched, and that didn’t seem to move enough people, so I wonder whether young people will have the energy to sustain this fight to end police violence.
LANGLEY: They have to do it, because you know what, we do them a disservice if we don’t give them an opportunity to express their feelings about their world. And you look at John Lewis, and many of the men of his generation are no longer with us. Angela Davis is still here, but there are many others who aren’t.
And you look back and realize that a lot of those people were extremely young—probably under 30—when they took to the streets, when they planned their marches and their speeches. So, when does a revolutionary get started?
I think you have to have it in your heart and your mind that you want to do something, and I don’t think anyone can stop that.
SHAIK: In politics, a person has to have a thick skin and a kind heart to make any sort of change, and that’s difficult for anyone. I think we can teach children to learn to be that way. So I’m going to ask you, Amy, when laws are unfair, how can we explain to children that these laws are unfair, and that the government actually can perform better?
NATHAN: Well, it’s up to the people to make the government perform better. And that’s why very everybody had better register and vote.
I think we have to tell kids that, yes, people make those unfair laws, and people can force those unfair laws to be changed. That people just have to find the right way to speak up and to make their voice known either by voting, or when that doesn’t work, by protesting.
And so, in this little picture book, we do say that by the time they started protesting, there had been laws passed to end segregation in restaurants and in schools, but that other places like this amusement park just wouldn’t change.
And so then, it made sense that there would be protests. And so, in my book that I wrote for teens and adults, there was this great quote from Dr. King, where he said, “An individual who breaks a law that his conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the very highest respect for the law.”
So, I think that’s a message that you need to give to young people—that laws can be changed, and have been changed. It may not happen overnight. It took 10 years of protest at this amusement park before they got it to change. But it can be done.
SHAIK: Well, we’ve seen the difference. I mean, I grew up in segregation, and we’re seeing renewed efforts to silence stories or to bully legal protests and to frighten people from dissent, right? And it’s been a technique of terror. It’s also keeping the mistake-prone people in positions of power, like local police.
On a national scale, this may be an awakening. But I’ve been studying the South for a long time, and the protest for the vote, for example, or protests in general, were taking place not just in the 1960s, but a hundred years before that in the 1860s. And during that time, people were murdered for taking a stand, too. In fact, in New Orleans in 1866, the police and firemen carried out an organized riot to kill people who were trying to get the vote for Blacks. So, lynching and terrorism and murder are basically weapons that keep people from exercising their legal rights when the law is finally on their side.
LANGLEY: You know, young men were recently found dead by hanging—originally ruled suicide—and more than one person sent me a text about “strange fruit.”
On one hand, it seems like these things are too gruesome to discuss with a child. But you do have to be honest. We talk about them to bring them into the light of day, and to show them for the hateful acts that they are, and to respect the dignity of the people whose lives were taken. It’s not easy and certainly not sanitized.
SHAIK: So is the question, then, truth? Ida B. Wells said that the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them. Do you think that storytelling makes us understand truth better?
NATHAN: That’s absolutely right. It’s to turn the light of truth on it and be truthful with children. We should tell them about the bad things, especially bad things that can be changed.
“The whole reason we have all this othering going on is that we say, ‘Oh, that other person is different from us in some way.’ But through literature, you can become that person. And then you can see that the other is you and break down these walls between people.”
SHAIK: I think what you’re doing in your book is to show children what the right thing is, and what the wrong thing is. And I really appreciate that. I think it’s a wonderful book at showing teachers and parents and students the ways that we can be activists in this society.
NATHAN: Well, I think, one of the best ways is just by telling other people’s stories in a way that brings you in. The whole reason we have all this othering going on is that we say, “Oh, that other person is different from us in some way.” But through literature, you can become that person. And then you can see that the other is you and break down these walls between people.
LANGLEY: What is the value of storytelling in African culture? There is the Griot, the wizened elder who keeps the stories of the community and shares them with the generations
In the Bible, Jesus often taught by parable because he needed the people to enter the story and see themselves in it and see what part they played. You need stories to help you imagine, to help you feel what someone else is feeling, and to then decide, “What should I do? If I don’t do anything, what will happen?”
So, I do think that stories about activism, social justice, and injustice are important stories. And as much as they are important for us to tell, people point out that Ruby Bridges is 65 years old. She’s still living. It happened during her lifetime. It happened during many of our lifetimes.
I’m still living, right? And so, if we don’t have honest conversations—and if we don’t listen to what children have to say about the world that they’re living in—then, just when we think that we have tamped it down and beaten it back, we see it starting to shake itself and trying to rise again.
ROLLEY: Thanks to Fatima, Sharon, and Amy for helping to create a new generation of upstanding readers and activists. You may also be interested in today’s PEN Pod episode also features a conversation between Fatima and YA author Elizabeth Levy about her book on impeachment, Bringing Down a President.
These Truths is a production of PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Special thanks to Nicole Gervasio, Viviane Eng, Emily Folan, and Cameron Lee.
Next time on the podcast, the acclaimed, genre-breaking playwrights Lynn Nottage and Jeremy O. Harris join forces for a compelling conversation about imagining what a new theatre can look like in the midst of a pandemic and cultural uprising.
About Fatima Shaik
Fatima Shaik is an American author whose writing explores the human spirit and the intersection of cultures. Her books include Melitte, The Jazz of Our Street, and for adults, What Went Missing and What Got Found, which topped Goodreads’s Great African-American Short Story Collections list. Her first nonfiction book, Economy Hall: A Radical Memoir (THNOC, Spring 2021), is the true story of a free Black family from the Haitian Revolution to the birth of jazz. She is the cochair of PEN America’s Children’s and YA Book Authors Committee and serves as a Board member.
About Amy Nathan
Amy Nathan is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for adults and young people. Her most recent book, A Ride to Remember, co-authored with Sharon Langley and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, is a follow-up to her YA book, Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement. Her other books have covered women’s history, music, and dance. She is an alumna of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Columbia’s Teachers College.
About Sharon Langley
Sharon Langley is a Baltimore native who became known as the first African American child to enjoy Gwynn Oak Amusement Park when it opened to the public without segregation in 1963. A Ride to Remember, co-authored with Amy Nathan and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, is her debut picture book. Sharon is a poet who writes and performs with Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) and Poetic Oasis. An elementary school administrator, she is also an educational consultant providing professional development in early literacy, culturally relevant literature, and equity in gifted education. She is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from Mount Saint Mary’s University. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
About Elizabeth Levy
Elizabeth Levy is the award-winning author of over 100 fiction and nonfiction books for children and young adults. Her work is known for its humor and research, from My Life as A Fifth-Grade Comedian, to Scholastic’s America’s Funny But True History, and If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution. For a full list of her books, please visit elizabethlevy.com.