Eleanora E. Tate Biography
Considered Writing Her "Best Friend", Wrote South Carolina Trilogy, Told Diverse Stories, Selected writings
Children's writer, journalist
Crafting uplifting stories about young African American girls who learn valuable lessons about their heritage and how to cope with the problems that surround them, Eleanora E. Tate has provided a wealth of positive role models for her readers. Her highly acclaimed stories have been hailed by critics for shattering racial stereotypes, promoting the value of community, and offering realistic hope to African American youths, all in the context of colorfully told tales that vividly capture the flavor of small-town life. As Carole Brown Knuth wrote in the African-American Review in 1998, "Eleanora Tate's imperative as an author is to tell the story of the competing dynamics of African-American children's lives, in their own language and from their unique perspective. Her novels shed light on pockets of ambivalence and darkness and confusion in children's experience; through their rich cultural linkages her works create unique contexts of heritage."
Because of their important themes, upbeat tone, and vivid storytelling, many of Tate's books have become regular additions to school reading lists and are included on recommended reading compilations. Tate is known for her meticulous research and incorporating characters and settings from her own life experiences into her books and stories. Many of the ideas for her stories have come from young people she met during creative writing residencies at various schools. "I like to write about the kid who manages to overcome an obstacle, no matter how much adults and other kids try to jerk him/her around," said Tate in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB.) This type of character is made memorable in Tate's South Carolina Trilogy, a series of three novels that deal with self-worth and image-building in difficult situations.
Considered Writing Her "Best Friend"
Eleanora Elaine Tate was born in the small town of Canton, Missouri. While she knew her father, he was not present in her life; she was raised for the first 13 years of her life by her grandmother, Corinne Johnson. "My grandmother was everything to me and for me," Tate remarked to CBB. She also credited her grandmother for greatly influencing her decision to become a writer. Tate wrote her first story in the third grade and had decided that she wanted to become a writer by the time she was in sixth grade. "I felt I had messages to share with the world, even though some folks liked to tell me it was stupid and worthless for a Black girl 'like me' to want to write," Tate related to CBB.
In 1961 Tate moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where her desire to write became even more fervent. "My writing was my best friend as a teenager," she explained to CBB. At the age of 18, Tate began working full-time as a writer for the Iowa Bystander, a small African American weekly newspaper in Des Moines. While working at the Bystander, Tate gained valuable experience as a writer from an African American news editor named Frances Hawthorne. Tate interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as various other celebrities. She also reviewed movies, books, and record albums. It was also during this time that Tate began to develop a sense of social consciousness. As she related in an interview with CBB, "The 1960s were an exciting time for this young writer and I tried to be a caring, crusading young Black woman news editor, trying to help lead the charge to expose corruption and uphold the truth and the righteous, and fight those who would cast their racist wrongs against my people in this country and on the continent of Africa."
Two years after joining the staff of the Bystander, Tate received a full four-year scholarship to Drake University from the Des Moines Register and Tribune newspaper company. Following graduation, she became the first African American female journalist to work at the Register. At this time, Tate was trying to establish her own voice as a writer of poetry and fiction. In an attempt to further her development as a creative writer, she attended regular meetings with a group of African American artists in Des Moines. Tate has also cited the works of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks as important literary influences.
In 1976 Tate relocated to Tennessee, where she worked as a staff writer for the Jackson Sun. She also served as a freelance writer for the Memphis Tri-State Defender. In 1980 Tate published her first novel, Just an Overnight Guest. Set in a fictional town similar to Tate's hometown of Canton, Missouri, the story is presented from the perspective of a nine-year-old African American girl named Margie Carson, who has to cope with the entry of a mixed-race child into her family. "Eleanora Tate does a fine job presenting the emotional complexities of Margie's initiation into adult life's moral ambiguities," wrote Merri Rosenberg in the New York Times Book Review. Just an Overnight Guest was later made into a film starring Richard Roundtree and Rosalind Cash. In 1985, the film was added to the "Selected Films for Young Adults" list by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association.
Wrote South Carolina Trilogy
Tate moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1978 and soon began doing research for her highly acclaimed South Carolina Trilogy. The first novel of the trilogy, The Secret of Gumbo Grove, was published in 1987 and tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who stumbles upon an old cemetery in her town. This discovery eventually leads to many interesting historical revelations about African Americans in her community. School Library Journal hailed The Secret of Gumbo Grove as "A warm, humorous, and wonderful story…."
In 1990, Tate published the second entry in the trilogy entitled Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! The novel tells the story of a young African American girl, Mary Elouise, who tries desperately to win the friendship of a snobbish, blond-haired classmate. Through the course of the novel, Mary Elouise begins to develop a greater sense of self-worth and a deeper appreciation for her own African American heritage. In her discussion of Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! in African-American Review, Knuth writes, "Tate looks behind the curtain of double consciousness to reveal the complex sensibilities of black children exploring their heritage, the history of their community, and the bewildering stereotypes of inferiority and shame which continue to proliferate so irresponsibly in our society."
The third installment of Tate's trilogy, A Blessing in Disguise, was published in 1995. In this novel, Tate explores contemporary themes such as drug abuse, crime, and violence and their effects on a small town. "The Secret of Gumbo Grove and Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! celebrate neighborhoods, communities, and self-worth, but in A Blessing in Disguise I explore what happens to families when neighborhood responsibility and positive role modeling for youth wither under the weight of the perniciousness of hard drugs, crime, and greed," remarked Tate in African-American Review. In its review of A Blessing in Disguise, Publishers Weekly noted, "Snappy dialogue convincingly suggests these characters' love of life, against which Tate artfully, and disturbingly, juxtaposes darker feelings."
One of Tate's motivations for writing the South Carolina Trilogy was to present African American issues from an African American perspective. Too often, these issues are presented from the viewpoint of white writers. In African-American Review, Tate said, "I wrote them to tell the stories of what it is that makes our communities what they are, from the past to the present, that will appeal to young readers, and that will give them hope."
Told Diverse Stories
In 1992, Tate published a sequel to Just an Overnight Guest. Entitled Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School, this novel examines Margie's life three years later as she continues to learn about her heritage through stories told by her father about his own childhood. That same year, Tate collaborated with her nephew, illustrator Don Tate II, on a work entitled Retold African Myths, published in 1993.
One of Tate's most charming works is her 1997 novel, Don't Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom. In this novel, Tate crafts stories from a variety of proverbs, aphorisms, and slogans. In its review, Publisher's Weekly referred to Tate as a "crafty author whose stories leap off the page and lodge straight in the funny bone."
Tate wrote her first biographical stories in Black Stars: African American Musicians, published in 2000. In the book, Tate tells about the lives of some of the most well-known African American musicians of the last 200 years, as well as the stories of some lesser known musicians. She describes the obstacles, including poverty and racism, that these musicians overcame as they helped to shape American music. The collection includes the stories of Gospel singers, concert musicians, jazz pianists, and modern pop musicians.
The depth of broadened knowledge about American music Tate had gained while researching Black Stars showed in her next book, The Minstrel's Melody. Published in 2001, The Minstrel's Melody was a part of the American Girl historical mystery series. In it Tate vividly described life for African Americans in the early twentieth century through the adventures of 12-year-old Orphelia Bruce, who stows herself away in the trunks of a traveling minstrel show in hopes of performing at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Inspired by the lives of such musicians as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, as well as more contemporary singers, Tate successfully illustrates the difficulties African American women had in trying to make a living through their music. School Library Journal praised Tate for weaving "historical elements, such as the use of blackface in theater … almost seamlessly into the narrative."
While most of her stories told about the lives of women, Tate did not limit herself to females. To Be Free, for example, Tate wrote specifically for teenaged boys who did not like to read. In her very short book, Tate told a compelling story of a teenaged slave boy's journey on the Maritime Underground Railroad. No matter the gender of her characters, Tate tried to portray them realistically. She related to Drake University alumni paper, Update, that "The characters I develop are based on people I know or are composites of people I know. The stories are about how they reconcile issues to reach a better understanding, so that a young reader might be able to resonate with the characters and relate the story to his or her own situation."
Tate's books are included on many young adult reading lists, and for many, teaching guides are also available. Audiocassette versions of some of her books are available; thus, blind children can connect with her words. In addition to novels, contributions to other books, and many newspaper articles, Tate has written short stories, articles, and poetry for magazines such as American Girl, Scholastic Storyworks, Goldfinch, and the Journal of Black Poetry. During her lengthy career, she has also written advertising copy, news releases, and public service announcements for television, radio, and newspapers. Tate also presents lectures on children's literature in schools, libraries, and college campuses and conducts creative writing workshops for both children and adults.
For her writing and activism, Tate has received many awards and honors. One such award that Tate found especially touching came in 1990 when the South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions honoring her for her literary contributions and community activist work. Still working and writing more than a decade later, Tate remained committed to the ideals that informed her work from the very beginning of her career. And her writings continued to touch the imaginations of new generations.
Just an Overnight Guest, Dial Press, 1980.
The Secret of Gumbo Grove, Franklin Watts, 1987.
Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!, Franklin Watts, 1990.
Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School, Bantam Books, 1992.
Retold African Myths, Perfection Learning, 1993.
A Blessing in Disguise, Delacorte, 1995.
Don't Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom, Delacorte, 1997.
Black Stars: African American Musicians, Wiley and Sons, 2000.
The Minstrel's Melody, Pleasant Company/American Girl, 2001.
To Be Free, Steck-Vaughn, 2004.
Contemporary Authors, Vol. 43, Gale Research, 1994, pp. 435-37.
African-American Review, Spring 1998, pp. 77, 85.
Atlanta Constitution, January 26, 1989, p. C5.
Black Issues Book Review, January 2001, p. 82.
New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1981, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, December 5, 1994, p. 77; October 6, 1997, p. 84.
School Library Journal, August 2001, p. 189.
"Realizing a Dream," Update Alumni News of Drake University, http://www.drake.edu/newsevents/pubs/update/2003fall/coverstory.html (accessed on December 2, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Eleanora Tate, publicity materials from Tate & Associates, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha Web site on the Internet.
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