Monday, May 14, 2007

Interview with Betty DeRamus

I am quite thrilled and delighted that my cousin, the Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist Betty DeRamus, agreed to let me interview her. Here is what transpired:

1. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but grew up in Detroit.

2. What inspired you to become a journalist?

Since I've devoured books all my life, I suppose it was inevitable that I would want to be like the authors whom I read. I began writing short stories when I was seven or eight years old, primarily because it gave me a way to work out (on paper) some of the tensions in my family. In the best of all possible worlds, I would have gone abroad after college and tried to write novels. However, my father died when I was 22 and my mother needed help. So I became a working author---a journalist.

3. What values and beliefs do you carry from your upbringing into your work?

As a reporter, I simply did whatever stories I was assigned. Once I became an editorial writer and, later, a columnist, I could express my own beliefs and values. I have always had a deep and abiding concern for the welfare of children and for underdogs in general. After I was an adult, I discovered that the person I'd always called my mother was actually my stepmother. I was my father's child "love child" by a woman who was not his wife. This had a profound effect on the way I view family. I never tried to find my biological mother because I thought it was more important to embrace my "real" mother, the one who raised me. Since I have no siblings (that I know of), I've created a family of friends over the years.

4. What has been the most rewarding thing about being a writer?

As a journalist, I've been an eyewitness to history many times. I toured refugee camps in Central Africa 10 years before genocide in Rwanda made the news. I was outside Victor Verster prison when Nelson Mandela walked out and I followed him around the U.S. later that year. A few years ago, someone told me about a black youngster who was collecting pencils for a school in the Gambia. He was 12 years old. He had visited a school in Gambia and noticed that the students had only one pencil and were passed it from hand to hand. I wrote three columns about his quest and asked my readers to send him a pencil. He and his teacher wound up more with more than 150,000 pencils and other school supplies and free airfare back to the Gambia. At the airport, officials became suspicious, thinking he and his teacher were running some kind of scam and would be selling the pencils. She showed them my articles and they decided to let him in. In my entire career, I've never written a more rewarding series of stories than this one. His name, by the way, is also Brandon and he's now in college.

5. You just recently published a book. How often do you branch out into genres other than journalism?

I plan to spend the rest of my life writing books, especially books that shine a spotlight on the neglected or forgotten history of Africans in America. I'm now writing my second one. I'm no longer a full-time journalist, just an occasional free-lancer.

6. Is there anything left you'd like to accomplish in your life's work?

You always have to keep a fresh dream in your back pocket. I've accomplished a lot but I'm just beginning to pursue my original dream of writing books. It's tough, but nothing worth doing is easy.

Betty DeRamus is the author of Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad, true stories about slave couples who took extraordinary steps to stay together

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