Bibi Belford on her Christopher Award-winning novel about bridging racial divides
After learning about the murder of an African American teen in Chicago’s 1919 race riots, author and educator Bibi Belford felt inspired to write a novel for young people that would help them bridge racial and cultural divides in the modern world. That novel, “Crossing the Line,” became a 2018 Christopher Award winner, so Bibi joined me on “Christopher Closeup” to shed light on the story.
While she and her husband were exploring their new neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago several years ago, Bibi came across a a plaque dedicated to the memory of Eugene Williams, who had died on July 27, 1919, while he was rafting in Lake Michigan. Eugene had crossed the invisible color line that divided the black and white communities there, drifting too close to a whites-only beach. When people on the beach started throwing rocks at him, Eugene abandoned the raft but drowned because he couldn’t swim well.
As reported by History.com, “His death, and the police’s refusal to arrest the white man whom eyewitnesses identified as causing it, sparked a week of rioting between gangs of black and white Chicagoans, concentrated on the South Side neighborhood surrounding the stockyards. When the riots ended on August 3, 15 whites and 23 blacks had been killed and more than 500 people injured; an additional 1,000 black families had lost their homes when they were torched by rioters.”
Bibi felt this was a story that needed to be told in some form, but she had to adapt it in some way. She said, “I couldn’t write it from my perspective because I’m not a young, black male in today’s world. Maybe as some kind of tool to bring about peace, I could write it from my white perspective and how that would be trying to learn about another culture and bring harmony.”
And so, Bibi wrote a fictional take on the story, which takes place in post-World War One Chicago where racial tensions run high. But fifth-graders Billy McDermott, who is white, and Foster Williams, who is black, become best friends anyway. They bond over their love of baseball and the fact that their fathers are veterans emotionally scarred by war. When Billy and Foster cross the invisible color line that divides their community, they trigger a series of events that changes both their lives.
While it may seem that these are very adult issues for young people to be reading about, Bibi finds they’re consistent with the times back in 1919. She said, “Those kids worked. They had to help earn a wage. The war had just ended, so many of them were facing fatherless futures and had to become the man of the family. From that aspect, I think it’s pretty typical of kids back then – and probably kids today that face moral dilemmas about what’s right to do. How do you stand up for yourself? How do you be courageous? How do you be a man without being a bully?…I’ve had a lot of kids tell me they love Billy…because they feel like they have hard things to deal with.”
Though “Crossing the Line” isn’t an overtly Christian book, the influence of Bibi’s faith made its way into the story’s morality. She credits her approach to C.S. Lewis, who said, “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.'”
Bibi explains, “I truly believe that what I’m told to do in the Bible is act with justice, love mercy, walk humbly [with God], from Micah 6:8. And then, do justice and righteousness and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressors, [as it says] in Jeremiah…I want to show that the morals of redemption and restoration are generic to every society and that we can all learn. My hope [is] to be a reflection of those two verses, where I’m showing that righteousness and doing what’s right is a valuable attribute to have.”
In developing the character of Billy McDermott, Bibi also delved into his heritage with an Irish proverb whose theme resonates throughout the book: “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.”
As Billy becomes friends with Foster and learns about the indignities and prejudices that black families face, that idea of being shelter for each other motivates his actions. Bibi adds, “[If] we were all shelters for each other, our lives would be so much more harmonious.”
In a sense, Bibi became an author because she was trying to be a shelter of sorts for one of the students she taught in her reading class. His name was Ramon, and he said he hated books because, as a kid from Mexico, there weren’t any stories to which he could relate.
Bibi asked him, “If I write a book, will you read it?”
He promised he would, so Bibi got to work, but didn’t tell him what she was doing.
When Ramon was in the fifth grade, Bibi sent his teacher her chapters after she got them back from the publisher. The teacher would read them to the class, but not reveal who the author was. When the final chapter was completed, Bibi herself came in to Ramon’s class to read it aloud, and she asked the students who they thought wrote it.
Bibi laughingly recalled, “They guessed everyone else in the entire building. Even the gym teacher.”
When she revealed she was the author, Ramon didn’t believe it at first, but felt appreciative when he accepted the truth. That book became Bibi’s first young adult novel, “Canned and Crushed.” And in September 2018, she published her latest, “Another D for DeeDee.”
Bibi concludes, “My real passion is to write books [in which] the kids I taught would want to find a character which they could emulate…to be able to change the world. I want to inspire them to know they have a little piece in changing the world, one person at a time.”
(To listen to my full interview with Bibi Belford, click on the podcast link, beginning at 13:13):