Don Tate: Musing in Black

Austin-based writer and illustrator Don Tate discusses the importance of Black books, bookstores and audiences.

When he was a boy, Don Tate’s grandmother gave him a suitcase filled with found items from around the house with which to create toys, objects and art. Since then, Tate has showcased the diverse talents of African American people not just through his own award-winning illustrations, but often through the lives of subjects he writes and draws about. Tate is a writer and illustrator who lives in Austin, and he has built a career using the talent initially nurtured by his mother and grandmother.

“Storytelling informs us, it entertains us. For me, I like stories that can serve as an example and inspire me. I like stories about people who overcome great obstacles, whether I read it in a book or hear it on the radio,” says Tate, who was born in Iowa in 1963.

In 2012, Lee & Low Books published Tate’s book, IT JES’ HAPPENED: WHEN BILL TRAYLOR STARTED TO DRAW. It’s the true story of an African American man who was born a slave and who began drawing as a free man at the age of 85, producing about 1,500 mesmerizing artworks over the next four years and making him one of the most revered of contemporary American artists. It was Tate’s first time to write a book, with R. Gregory Christie creating illustrations that reflected Traylor’s style (something like cave paintings of modern-day life).

“Bill Traylor had no education and no schooling and started drawing when he was 80 years old. Kids need to know that even without schooling, you can do something great in life. You have God-given ability,” says Tate, who is a husband and a father of two adult daughters and a young son, and who also keeps a busy schedule of visiting schools to encourage kids about art and life.

“Especially stories of African American males succeeding in the face of adversity. A lot of times, when I visit schools, the African American kids are looking at me with a lot of pride. I don’t have a high degree in education, and it makes me feel good that it encourages them.”

Tate says that he always knew he would be an artist. So it came as no surprise when he graduated from Des Moines Area Community College with an art degree, when he became an graphics designer for a school book publisher, when he became an illustrator and graphics reporter for the AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, or even when the first children’s book he illustrated, SAY HEY: A SONG OF WILLIE MAYS, was published in 2000. It’s not the numerous books he’s illustrated in which Tate finds the greatest sense of professional accomplishment.

“Before IT JES’ HAPPENED, I didn’t know I could write,” Tate said. “That was something way beyond my dreams, to have written that story and to have it acquired, published, and win awards, that means a lot to me. And I can go into schools and tell kids that every person does not speak the perfect Queen’s English, but that is what makes it interesting.”

Tate would now prefer more English and math training than he received during his two years getting an arts degree from community college. He credits finding the courage to write books to joining a close-knit community of children’s illustrators and young adult authors in Austin and accepting encouragement from the members. The literary community is one of the main reasons Tate originally decided to move to Austin.

And he especially attributes transitioning to writing to advice from his mentor, Cynthia Leitich Smith, who runs a children’s literature website. Writers often say that another person unlocked the gates to their creativity, and that’s what Smith did. “She gave me permission to write,” Tate said.

And then, it jes’ happened when Don Tate started to write. His first book as an author received the Lee & Low New Voices honor, and it was a Kirkus Best Children’s Books List selection, as well as the Booklist Editor’s Choice for 2012. Bank Street College of Education noticed it as one of the best Children’s Books of 2012. The New York Public Library placed it on its list of Top 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.

Presently, Tate is writing and illustrating SLAVE POET OF CHAPEL HILL, which is about how George Moses Horton was born enslaved, but taught himself to read using a child’s spelling book and then became the first published author of color in the South. Tate is also writing and illustrating STRONG AS SANDOW, which is the story of how the Victorian bodybuilder Eugene Sandow revolutionized the fitness industry and created the first modern bodybuilding competition.

In 2011, PAULA YOO wrote in her blog about Tate’s childhood experience with bodybuilding. She quoted Tate as saying, “When we were children, my dad gave my brother and I a book written by Lou Ferrigno. It was a book on bodybuilding, diet and exercise…(we) couldn’t put the book down…we couldn’t afford to buy a bench press and weights, so our mom’s coffee table had to suffice. We made our weights from empty milk jugs filled with water or bags of pennies.”

Tate went on to become a champion body builder. “My brother became the first African American Mr. Iowa,” Tate said. “I was skinny and thought I couldn’t do it, but I was inspired and a few years later, I was up on stage and doing it myself.” Three years after his brother won Mr. Iowa, Tate won his first bodybuilding trophy. “It was one of the best nights of my life,” he says.

Now Tate wants to share the joy he experienced during natural, drug-free bodybuilding through the children’s book about Sandow. Tate notes that though Sandow’s personal life may have been what adults sometimes refer to as, “a bit of a mess,” his contributions to fitness are both noteworthy and inspiring.

“At first I thought, I can’t write a story about a guy you Google and see all these images of him in a fig leaf. But this isn’t about his (personal life),” Tate said. “It’s a story about a sickly kid who almost died and became a fitness hero. Like Josephine Baker had a modeling career, but it doesn’t make less important the stories about how she fought for civil rights.”

At the same time that he’s working on the Sandow book, Tate is illustrating a children’s book called WHOOSH, which his friend in Austin is writing about the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun. According to Google, it was the top-selling toy of 1991 and 1992. Lonnie Johnson designed the toy, and he is an African American nuclear engineer who holds a Ph.D. from Tuskegee University and more than 80 patents. He is a former NASA scientist, and according to CBS ATLANTA late last year, a court ordered the Hasbro Company to pay Johnson and his company $73 million owed for the Super Soaker.

Stories like WHOOSH highlight how much about creativity in the modern environment can be learned from the lives of African American people working in areas like invention, science, business and spirituality. But there is little space for those stories without an audience. Tate notes that his books with an African American focus are not offered for sale in large bookstores on most days.  

“Publishers aren’t going to publish just to be nice; they publish to make money,” Tate says. “A lot of stores don’t stock books of color, and the majority of the ones they do are issue books, books about slavery and race; there’s not a lot about people just being.” Speaking of the many book festivals he attends, Tate observes that, “you won’t see many African American books or African American faces to buy those books. Publisher’s shy away from what won’t sell in the bookstore. So a lot of what is published is published for the library market, education and historical books.”

Tate adds, “As an African American children’s book artist, I have come to accept that my books will not always show up in mainstream bookstore chains on publication day. I’ll have to wait for Black History Month, unless my books are tagged to some other African American historical commemoration.”

Last June, Britain celebrated its first children’s laureate who is Black, Malorie Blackman, who told THE GUARDIAN how as a child she was aware of the lack of characters of color in children’s books. “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature,” she said.  Blackman also told the British publication that Britain’s new draft education curriculum leaves people of color out of history, risking turning students of color away from education: “I do feel it’s very dangerous if you make it seem like history is the province of a certain segment of society.”

Of course, people of color are not going to study Black history or buy books of color unless we self-recognize that there are people of African descent (like artist Bill Traylor, nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson, writer Malorie Blackman, author Don Tate, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, religious scholar Thea Bowman, neurosurgeon Keith L. Black, gas-mask and traffic light inventor Garrett Morgan and astronaut Mae Jemison, just to name a few) of diverse talents who we should be recognizing, admiring and self-reflecting about.

Until June of 2013, Mitchie’s Gallery filled the need to self-recognize diverse talents in the African American Community in Austin. That’s when the owner, Joyce Adejumo, passed away in a Houston hospital. Adejumo was a graduate of Vincennes University, and she became the first African American woman to graduate from the North Carolina Military Academy before serving in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard and moving to Austin in 1985. Adejumo opened Mitchie’s art gallery and bookstore in 1989.

According to THE AUSTIN TIMES, “Mitchie’s Gallery introduced thousands of people to African American art, books and collectibles while providing a forum for poetry reading and free meeting space for community groups and community events.”

When Mitchie’s closed toward the end of Adejumo’s life, so did one of the few venues for some of Don Tate’s work, like the line of teen calendars Tate created (MY PEEPZ) when he could not find items with images of people of color to give his daughters when they were teenagers. Because bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble don’t stock the calendars, Mitchie’s was the only place in Austin where they could be purchased. Now, you can only get them by ordering through Amazon.

“African American owned art galleries, bookstores and gift shops are ever so important to creators of art that reflect the Black experience, as mainstream outlets often shy away from our works…So we need stores like Mitchie’s and more,” says Tate, noting that Mitchie’s had been, “like a Black barbershop on a Saturday afternoon, buzzing with people and lively talk of current events, politics, sports and, of course, art.”

Among African Americans, both Don Tate and the African American subjects of his books should be household names. Perhaps the community could more often self-recognize accomplishments, keeping in mind Tate’s observations that others will not do it just to be nice. “African Americans need to support children’s literature featuring brown faces by purchasing books for their children, or else the books are going to go away,” he warns.

According to Tate, he illustrated 50 books before he received public recognition for writing one. But the level of notice does not correlate with the importance of the communication form. “One of my daughters has a son who is not communicating as well with math and words, but he can draw. What I see is a budding artist communicating with line and shape,” Tate says. “Drawing is a form of communication that our society does not seem to value as much as communicating through English and Math, but it’s just as important a way to communicate.”

Don Tate also illustrated THE CART THAT CARRIED MARTIN(2013), Eve Bunting’s book about the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life from the vantage point of the thousands of people who followed behind the wooden cart that carried his casket to the newly-renovated Ebenezer Baptist Church. One of his images from this book wasrecently featured in a story in the NY Times.

To learn more about Don Tate, visit his website. For more info about current children’s books of color, visit The Brown Bookshelf blog, which Tate and author Kelly Starling Lyons created to recognize books for African American young readers. It includes book reviews and author and illustrator interviews.

(photo by Sam Bond Photography)


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