James S. Haskins Biography
Writer, college teacher, teacher
For writers of children's books, celebrity is frequently elusive, and most often it is children's fiction that dominates the news. Nonfiction earns far less public acclaim. Author James Haskins managed to defy these conventions by publishing nearly 150 nonfiction works that chronicled and celebrated the black experience. For many years, his books filled an important space on children's bookshelves and he became an powerful voice in children's publishing.
James Haskins was born September 19, 1941, in Demopolis, a small rural town in Alabama. In the nineteenth century, plantation life flourished in this small town, but by the early twentieth century, the period of gracious living had passed and cotton was a failing crop. By the time that Haskins was born, beef cattle and dairy products had replaced cotton, and the small town's location on two rivers helped to bring in more industry. But in the segregated south, there were still few opportunities and services for black Americans. Haskins, the son of Julia Brown Haskins and Henry Haskins, was born at home because there were no adequate nearby medical facilities for African Americans. Julia Haskins was a housewife, while Henry Haskins worked in the funeral business, embalming the dead and building concrete vaults for their burials.
Neither of Haskins's parents attended high school. But, as Haskins told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), his parents "fostered a love of books and of reading" in their son's life. Though Haskins loved to read, there were few available outlets for a black child who loved books. The local public library did not admit blacks, and so to help feed her child's desire, Haskins's mother brought home encyclopedias, one volume at a time, from a local Demopolis supermarket. Eventually a white woman, an acquaintance of his mother, began to check out books from the local library and send them home for Haskins to read. With the assistance of these two women, Haskins was able to read a wide assortment of books.
As a child Haskins attended a segregated elementary school in Demopolis. As was often true in the rural American south, schools for black students had only out-of-date textbooks and materials with which to educate their students. However, rather than rely only upon textbooks that offered little positive information about the African-American experience, Haskins's teachers made it clear that black Americans did have an important story to tell.
By the time he was due to begin high school, Haskins was able to escape Demopolis. He moved to Boston to stay with relatives after being accepted at the prestigious Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the United States. The school's own Web site claims that the school "has taught its scholars dissent with responsibility and has persistently encouraged it." In his interview with CBB, Haskins pointed out that the Boston Latin School "fostered thinking for oneself. The school taught that the world should be a humane place to live." The school's emphasis on dissent with responsibility can be seen in Haskins's efforts after he graduated from high school and returned to Alabama to attend Alabama State University in Montgomery. One of the first things he did after enrolling in college was to contact Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and volunteer to help in the movement to secure equal rights for all blacks. Haskins's efforts to fight segregation followed in the footsteps of other Boston Latin School alumni—most notably, abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Henry Ward Beecher—who also fought for equality.
When Haskins became active in the protests against segregation, he was expelled from Alabama State. He then enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology in 1960. After completing this first degree, Haskins again enrolled at Alabama State, and this time completed a bachelor of arts degree in history in 1962. He subsequently enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he earned a master's degree in social psychology in 1963.
After completing his formal education, Haskins tried to find a satisfying career. He had initially envisioned a career as a social psychologist, an interest often reflected in his books. Early on, he worked as a stockbroker for Smith Barney & Co., but soon found that this job did not present the type of fulfillment that he had expected. Haskins's search for a more satisfying job soon sent him in a very different direction, that of teaching. The choice of a teaching profession was partly due to the fact that teachers had been such a strong influence in his life.
Haskins's first teaching position was as a special education teacher at Public School 92 in Harlem, New York. His students had many problems, and as a result their new teacher was forced to create innovative ways to challenge his students. Haskins began a diary in which he recorded his feelings as he struggled in his new job. A woman friend who worked for a publishing house read the diary, was fascinated by it, and suggested that it be published. This diary later became Haskins's first book, Diary of a Harlem School Teacher (1969).
After the publication of his first book, Haskins was asked if he would like to write books for children. Haskins told CBB that "in 1970 there was a dearth of black writers; I was someone who was publishable, and so I was asked to write children's books." Haskins's first book for children, Resistance: Profiles in Nonviolence, was published in 1970. This was the kind of book that Haskins had wanted to write: a book about people and about events. As a child, Haskins had read the encyclopedia when there were no other books for him to read. Now, as an adult writing for children, he again turned to facts in order to create nonfiction works that would speak to children about the world that surrounded them.
In the years that followed, Haskins penned some 150 nonfiction works. Although he has written some books for adults, most have been directed toward children and adolescents. Many of these have been biographies that reveal the depth of black culture and experience in the United States. Haskins has written about black athletes, such as baseball great Hank Aaron, basketball player Julius Irving, and boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali. But the black experience is about more than sports, and Haskins has also focused on black entertainers and artists, such as composer and musician Scott Joplin, playwright Langston Hughes, and singer Diana Ross. The lives of black politicians and activists have also been captured in Haskins's biographies, including those of Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, and Andrew Young. Other works such as Leaders in the Middle East and Winnie Mandela suggest that Haskins's ultimate goal has been to educate and challenge his readers. In an interview for the St. Petersburg Times, Haskins explained that his Count Your Way Through… series on foreign countries "shows the importance of understanding other cultures and languages." Haskins's books have provided his young readers with a door into the world beyond their own borders. He has made the black experience come alive for his readers, and has placed African-American history within the context of experiences that occur in the world beyond the United States.
Although Haskins was a prolific writer with many interests, his books focus on the African-American experience. He told CBB that his books have "focused on the undeservedly obscure, who should be better known." One of the significant strengths of Haskins's books, consistently noted by reviewers, is that they expose African-American children to positives message about their own history. In books such as The Creoles of Color of New Orleans and The Scottsboro Boys, Haskins tried to illuminate less well-known topics in an effort to probe deeper into American black history. For instance, few children—black or white—may know that there were black explorers, and Against All Opposition: Black Explorers in America offers stories that might otherwise never be known. His I Am Rosa Parks, written with that important civil rights pioneer, helped to correct many of the misconceptions about her role in the civil rights movement. Some of his books present social commentary on some of today's problems, such as Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today, which examines the history and possible causes of street violence. Professor Irma McClaurin told the Los Angeles Times that "Jim Haskins created a canon of literature, particularly for children, that is a resource for anyone studying black history. He wanted to document the triumphs and tribulations of African Americans in books that are readable and accessible for the young, but not only for them."
Haskin's books for adults have also had an impact. The Cotton Club, which explored the vibrant black nightclub scene in Harlem during the 1920s, was the basis for the 1984 movie of the same name. The Cotton Club was the first major feature film based on the work of an African-American author, according to a memorial tribute written by McClaurin. Other of Haskin's books for adults include biographies of Richard Pryor, Scott Joplin, Lionel Hampton, and Winnie Mandela.
Though Haskins is best-known as a writer, he also had a long and distinguished career as a teacher. He was a visiting lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1970 to 1972 and an associate professor at Staten Island Community College of the City College of New York from 1970 to 1977. During this same period, Haskins was a visiting lecturer at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a visiting lecturer at Purdue University in Indianapolis. In 1977 Haskins accepted a position as professor of English at the University of Florida at Gainesville, where he taught until his death from emphysema on July 6, 2005.
Diary of a Harlem School Teacher, Stein & Day, 1969.
Resistance: Profiles in Nonviolence, Doubleday, 1970.
Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today, Hastings House, 1974.
Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Lothrop, 1974.
The Creoles of Color of New Orleans, Crowell, 1975.
Dr. J: A Biography of Julius Irving, Doubleday, 1975.
Fighting Shirley Chisholm, Dial, 1975.
A Picture Life of Malcolm X, F. Watts, 1975.
Always Movin' On: The Life of Langston Hughes, F. Watts, 1976.
The Story of Stevie Wonder, Doubleday, 1976.
The Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lothrop, 1977.
The Cotton Club, Random House, 1977.
Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime, Doubleday, 1978.
Andrew Young: Man With a Mission, Lothrop, 1979.
I'm Gonna Make You Love Me: The Story of Diana Ross, Dial, 1980.
Sugar Ray Leonard, Lothrop, 1982.
Winnie Mandela, Putnam, 1988.
Against All Opposition: Black Explorers in America, Walker, 1992.
The Scottsboro Boys, Holt, 1994.
Count Your Way Through… series (Africa, Arab World, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico Russia), 16 volumes, Carolrhoda Books, 1987-96.
(With Rosa Parks) I Am Rosa Parks, Dial, 1997.
Baynard Rustin, Hyperion Books for Children, 1997.
Black, Blue & Gray: African Americans in the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
One Nation Under a Groove: Rap Music and Its Roots, Hyperion, 2000.
Editor, Black Stars series, John Wiley & Sons, 2000-2005.
Toni Morrison: Telling a Tale Untold, Millbrook Press, 2002.
Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights, Lee and Low, 2005.
Something About the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 4, Gale, 1978, pp. 63-69.
Boston Globe, March 23, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2005.
New York Times, July 11, 2005.
St. Petersburg Times, April 1, 2002.
"A Celebration of the Life of James Haskins," University of Florida, http://clasnews.clas.ufl.edu/design/booklets/2005haskins.pdf (October 10, 2005).
"History of Boston Latin School," Boston Latin School, www.bls.org/cfml/l3tmpl_history.cfm (October 10, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Contemporary Black Biography on June 28, 2002.
Sheri Elaine Metzger, and