On September 11, 2001, Christopher Myers called his father on the phone. "Dad, check out the television. A plane just flew into the World Trade Center," he said. "Not to be outdone," Walter Dean Myers recalls, "I said, 'I remember back in 1947, a plane flew into the Empire State Building.' " But then the second plane hit. Two months later, Myers was in London with his wife, Connie (Christopher's mother), when a plane malfunctioned and crashed in Queens, N.Y. A group of Middle Eastern men were on a London street, watching the crash on television through the window of an appliance store, cheering because they believed it was an act of terror. The author's complex reactions to these two events sent him on a journey to rediscover what America means to him. Christopher Myers, as the artist, went on an odyssey of his own. But as Christopher puts it, "To be honest, these are conversations, we've been having since I was a kid." Here they let us in on the conversation about how their paths converged in the majestic We Are America.
From your foreword, it seems that this book grew from a place of great feeling. Did the first draft come to you in a rush?
Walter Dean Myers: No, it did not. I started with a very formal, very strict rhythm. I thought, "It's not working for me. I should just write it as I feel it and see what happens," and I did a moderately fast first draft. Then I looked at some of my lines, and I realized I was paraphrasing. So I began looking at the originals. Then I thought, "This guy said it better than I did." Sometimes it was better because the language was more direct. It was so charged with emotion under the original circumstances. I began to make a concerted effort to incorporate them. Then I said, "No, take them out of my material because it's necessary to put these things into context." That gave me a lot of freedom. I could write the way I felt, have these quotations on the side, and hope that my editor would go for it.
As you went through those original documents, how did you decide which quotes to use in the poem?
WDM: Sometimes I'd find, while looking through a speech, something I hadn't put in the book, and think, "let me go and mention this." I hadn't read a lot of it since I was in high school. They were so stirring and to the point. You also find people serving their own purposes, twisting things--twisting Lincoln, twisting Jefferson. It's a damn shame that Jefferson is known to many people only by the fact that he might have had an affair with Sally Hemings.
Christopher Myers: What's also odd about the way people think about these Founding Fathers, is they think about them as people who lived without conflict, who lived as these unified thinkers. That takes away from the strength of what it means to be American. In fact, these guys were debaters, they were thinkers. That's the beauty of this place, that it was founded on the idea of, "Let's make changes, let's discuss." There's the Federalist Papers, but you look even in the work of Jefferson, there's tumult. This is not a country about stasis, this is a country based on tumult. And how does one deal with that?
WDM: That's a good point. You don't make a lot of good points.
CM: Once in a blue moon.
Was Walt Whitman an influence for this piece? I thought of "I Hear America Singing" with its hymn to the satisfaction to be gained from one's work, and also "One Song, America, Before I Go."
WDM: I've always been moved by Whitman. He is, to me, America's greatest poet. It's not a poetry of detachment, it's not a poetry of abstraction. It's a poetry of love. I was very much conscious of his influence.
Then there are the ongoing themes of liberty and captivity throughout the poem. These kinds of paradoxes are still with us, aren't they?
CM: That for me is part of what I love about this place, is that we are able to acknowledge and to think about our history. I travel a lot, [and in] other places, they work very hard to have a very short memory of their countries--"We sprung up out of nowhere whenever the last regime started." One of the gifts of this place is we can think about and openly acknowledge and openly debate and discuss our history. It's not that I'd ever look at this country and say nothing bad ever happened. I'm the product of some of that bad that has happened, slavery being the emblematic one. At the same time, there are very few places in the world that can be so self-corrective.
WDM: One of the things, talking about slavery, this is a country that brought an end to slavery around the world. American debate brought an end to slavery. It was the American Civil War that brought an end to slavery around the world. England followed us; we did not follow England. As C.L.R. James said, they didn't need slaves in England to do the work, so they could abolish it by keeping it in the islands. Then they didn't need it in the islands because they had already a virtually captive workplace. Although the British abolished slavery before America, it was the American debate that caused that, in my view. Americans talked about ending the powers of slavery more openly and more widely than anyone in the world--that idea of freedom of speech, the idea of debating, the idea of open conversation, it's still so great.
CM: When you ask yourself, "What is America?" there are a lot of definitions. As much as America is the people and the geography, America is also a set of ideas that are very beautiful ideas, a lot of them. That was a big challenge of this book, to contain all those definitions of America, to contain the people, the land, the history, and the ideas. I would put ideas last.
WDM: I'll put ideas first, just to be different.
CM: That's cool. Rewriting runs thick in this family.
For the spread that begins "Like clumsy children/ we fell/ as we learned to run," would you call the references to Wounded Knee and Chapultepec Castle early examples of the kind of present-day jingoism to which you refer in your foreword?
WDM: We have a constant struggle in America. The people who want to achieve power will often address that achievement as patriotism. It's no coincidence that the people who portrayed themselves as the most patriotic are also the ones with the most guns--with the most threats, either veiled or unveiled. The build to power is so great, so fantastic, but what these people are doing is they are saying, "Well, this power is not just me, it's my love of country." When you go into the history of the country and who stood up for the country, who fought for the country, who worked for the country, it's never these people. It's always small people who saw a sense of duty and did it.
CM: We've talked about these things since the inception of this country. That is what our history gives us. Hopefully this book is a tool for a young child or middle-schooler or an adult who would read the book with a child, to start them on a journey to discovering their own America. As Dad says, it's the people who have come in from the side--the immigrants, the poor, the women--who have found ways to make this country better.
Is that, in part, what informed your decisions about which individuals to include in your paintings?
CM: There were several things going on in my election of Americans. I wanted to think about Americans that were unsung--Americans that did something to change the way Americans were viewed both at home and abroad. There are some wonderful lines about the landscape of America that Dad had written. What's amazing about America is how the diversity of the landscape mirrors the diversity of the people. You take, for example, Duke Kahanamoku, who's known as the father of modern surfing, a Hawaiian guy. Here he is, a tall dark brown man who lived in the water and represented the U.S. in swimming events in five Olympics. He went around the world, spreading surfing and spreading the good will that he'd grown up with in Hawaii. The idea of what an American was changed. He changed it--as did all of the people that I elected after many debates along the way. To be honest, that's all of our jobs in some way. Sometimes I travel in Asia; I was recently in Sudan. You tell people, "I'm an American." Certain places they look at you with incredulity. They say, "Americans look like this, Americans look like that." You want to say, "No, Americans look like me."
WDM: That happened to us in a village in Egypt, a guy looked at us and asked, "Who are you people?" We said, "Americans." They didn't want to accept us. They accepted Connie [who has fair skin] as an American but not me.
CM: People have this idea of Americans as being all blond-haired, blue-eyed cowboys or raven-haired socialites. Whatever the latest television show is. I'm always a bit taken aback. That was one of the things I wanted to talk about in the book visually. There are different classes, races, different articulations of self that are all equally American in the fact that they couldn't exist anywhere else.
So many of the images take on a mural-like quality. I thought of the WPA project murals. Did they evolve into layered works? Did you do a lot of sketches first?
CM: One of the chief influences of the art in the book is the Mexican muralists and the muralists of the WPA. There's a lot of cross-pollination between them, everyone from Aaron Douglas to Thomas Hart Benton, who did these WPA murals that tried to wrangle entire histories of countries and entire intellectual trajectories. The hard part is doing something that can match the anthemic and all-encompassing tone of the text, as well as--Dad talked about Whitman's quality of love. Love is big, love is open, especially the love that I have for my country. The strategy of muralists, and of people who want to tell this layered, rich history, is to add richness in that layering. Not one of the pieces would work without that layering. That being said, there were a lot of preparatory sketches, a lot of internal debate.
The paintings themselves were 9' x 3', weren't they? Did you just lay them all around your studio and live inside them?
CM: About 9' x 3', yes. They took up a lot of space in my studio. And yes, pretty much, that's what I did for months on end, with occasional phone calls from Phoebe [Yeh], our editor. She'd say, "So how's it going?" And I'd say, "Right now I'm sleeping in the sky that is being trod upon by a Mohawk skyscraper worker in the 1940s." For me, it felt like taking a thousand mice and trying to hook them up to a chariot.
WDM: And making promises left and right, "Don't worry, Dad, it's coming soon."
Your images often point out a paradox when laid out against the text, such as the image for "We were willing to die/ to forge our dream," where you show the violent response to the peaceful civil rights demonstrations against the founding fathers' words, then you also join that together with the colonists risking their lives to resist King George III.
CM: For me, that spread is about seeing our country as being a country in which the history of debate and protest are central. People try to take away the through line, often. They want to say that my debate was different than your debate; my struggle for rights was different than your struggle for rights. When in fact, you're still coming back to the same amazing, beautiful, brilliant and flexible and open documents. You're saying, look, through these documents, let me assert my right for humanity. It's important to remind ourselves that the Civil Rights movement was in some ways the realization of the independence dreams that were had in the 1700s, to see those through lines, to lengthen our concept of history. I tried to focus on Americans whose speech was important, who spoke with their art, who spoke with their words, with their statesmanship, with their science. This is not a country that tells people that they need to be quiet. This is a country that says, "What do you have to say? We want to know."
Your first picture-book collaboration was Harlem in 1997. In what ways was it different to work on this book, or does it feel like part of a continuum?
WDM: For me, it felt like a continuum, because I think what you do with literature is you define yourself, and you define your place. How I know who I am is how I define the world around me. I took Christopher to Harlem as a kid, and showed him all the places I triumphed. [Laughs.] I think he understood how I was defining Harlem; he took it from there. As we talk about this idea of America, I'm listening to the conversations that we're having now. You mentioned Chapultepec, and Christopher and I were there, and defining that, and defining ourselves in Egypt, and defining ourselves in London [where I live] five weeks a year. So we're constantly defining ourselves and discussing it. I see it as a continuum. What do you think, Chris?
CM: I absolutely see it as a continuum, but specifically because--we talk about Harlem and the United States as geographic spaces, but more than geographic spaces, they're conceptual spaces. They're places you write songs about. This is our song. Harlem is a conceptual place, Harlem is a place I look to both as a home, and as an exemplar of an artistic moment and a cultural moment that very strongly relates to me. Similarly, in a larger way, America is a conceptual place. There is a song that is there to be sung about diversity, about ideals, about hope, about dreaming. We're both, I think, very excited to have added our voices to the chorus.
Photo: Malin Fezehal