Brave. Black. First: Guest Post by Cheryl Willis Hudson

Author Photo © 2020 Stephan Hudson Photography

Co-founder of Just Us Books, Diversity Jedi, artist, quilter and award-winning author, Cheryl Willis Hudson brings intention, meaning and magic to everything she touches. Her latest book, Brave. Black. First.: 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World (Crown, 2020), is her latest outstanding project.

Beautifully illustrated by Erin K. Robinson and published in collaboration with curators from Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the biography collection shines a light on trailblazing Black women. From the arts to civil rights, from politics and STEM to sports and business, Hudson centers change makers through memorable profiles that inspire and inform. The book delights all the way to the end. The back matter is packed with extra facts about each featured woman and a list of related memorabilia at the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the National Portrait Gallery.

We are proud to welcome Cheryl Willis Hudson, a brave, Black first herself, back to The Brown Bookshelf:

Brave. Black. First. was a dream project because it gave me an opportunity to write a book that combined my love of biography, research and African American history in a unique format for middle readers. As a work of nonfiction, it is beautifully designed and illustrated. It is supplemented with photography and lots of additional information which resulted from our collaboration with of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. I’m delighted to share a bit about my process and the steps that went into creating Brave. Black. First., especially at the end of Women’s History Month 2020 and during the 100th anniversary year of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution which guaranteed women the right to vote.

Inspiration and Collaboration with the Smithsonian

Illustration © 2020 by Erin K. Robinson from Brave.Black.First.

I had visited NMAAHC twice in 2016 and 2017 and was blown away by its design and amazing exhibits, so I readily accepted an invitation by Phoebe Yeh, V.P. at Crown Books to write a book about some of the Black women who were featured there. Making a wish list of the women to write about was easy. I started with over 100 names–doctors, lawyers, entertainers, civil leaders, activists, educators, as well as other historic and contemporary figures. This was a collaborative project, though, so with input of my editor, and curators from the Smithsonian Institute, the list was pared down to a more manageable number of 50. That was hard!


The Process

Once the list was finalized, illustrator, Erin K. Robinson was commissioned to do the drawings. She and I began working independently—she on the portraits and myself on the text. My research was done from autobiographical books, magazine articles, viewing videos, and online sources such as those available from the Library of Congress. Erin created a series of incredibly sensitive digital portraits and her style really helped to lay the foundation for the overall design of the final book.

Early in the process and on my third visit there, Erin and I met along with our editor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to review some of her preliminary sketches. It was amazing to see Erin’s process unfold in the exquisite lines and layers and textures she created on her iPad. The final illustrations are stunning!


Other Background Information

Illustration © 2020 by Erin K. Robinson from Brave.Black.First.

Of the 50+ women in the book, I realized that I had experienced the privilege of meeting at least 11 of them in person (Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Althea Gibson, Ruby Dee, Faith Ringgold, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruby Bridges, Nina Simone, Dorothy Height and Dr. Carla Hayden). Those encounters contributed a bit of my own personal insights while writing about each of these women. My goal was to make each biographical profile resonate with the reader with a sense of immediacy and conversation, rather than simply presenting a litany of dates, facts and accomplishments. Adding short personal quotations at the beginning of each entry helped to provide some insight into each woman’s personality, too.

It took a bit of time to work out how the women should be listed in the book: alphabetically, chronologically, thematically, by occupation, that kind of thing. Interestingly enough, the final arrangement of profiles had a lot to do with variations in the palette of Erin’s striking illustrations. Ruby Bridges Hall literally walks into the reader’s view in the first entry, starting with her first day at school at the age of six years old. The book ends with a bold, graphic profile of the three women activists—the organizers of Black Lives Matter.

The collaborative experience

Photo courtesy of Wade Hudson, Just Us Books

I can’t say enough about what a great project this was to work on—truly a collaboration. I loved the research but the big challenge for me was distilling it into an engaging format for the reader. I tried to capture the personality and spirit of each woman through my texts. Erin certainly captured their essence in her portraits. But there was literally too much pertinent information to include in the body of the book so Crown’s editorial and design team decided to add text and graphics packed back matter to provide readers with additional information and items in the Smithsonian Museum’s collections. Using that source material, a reader can literally walk through the museum and see for example, the dress that Marian Anderson wore at her historic 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Facts were thoroughly checked and cross checked by Crown’s editorial team and curators of the museum. The photo researcher and Smithsonian curators did a fabulous job in pairing items from the museum’s collection with my text and source notes. The layout, design and production of the book are the best!

How Brave. Black. First. has been received

The reviews have been great. I’ve done large school visits and smaller group presentations as well as online interviews and radio appearances to promote the work. Excerpts of BBF have appeared in Smithsonian Magazine  and educators have

Photo courtesy of Wade Hudson, Just Us Books

been sharing profiles with their classrooms on a daily basis during Women’s History Month. One of our most successful signings was held in Heritage Hall at NMAAHC during Black History Month where Erin and I autographed copies for over two hours straight.

Women’s History Month is a great time to celebrate so many African American women whose stories so important for history and culture. I hope that readers are inspired by reading about the lives of these important African American Women who were Brave. Black. First.

P.S. Readers may purchase copies of BBF via Just Us Book’s online store, and have them autographed by the author. Books are also available for order by publisher, Random House, brick and mortar stores and other online sources.

9 thoughts on “Brave. Black. First: Guest Post by Cheryl Willis Hudson

  1. This is an amazing project that offers hope and inspiration to marginalized students. It was creatively presented to introduce women of color who have triumphed over many odds and left legacies. Unlike the misrepresentation of minorities so many students will see in the media, they can now look to these pillars of change and see themselves walking in their shoes. This allows students to see they can dream bigger then the World presented to them. More literature depicting people of color in position of positive influence and innovation would help to shape the young minds of tomorrow’s leaders.

  2. I must have this book for my classroom library. It would be a great addition for the students to read throughout the year. It is a book of inspiration, students need to be inspired as often as they can. They would definitely be ready for black history month.

  3. This book is very important and a must-have for every classroom. During this time of social media, it is important for children of color to have positive role models and believe in themselves. I really like how added quotes to make the book as personal as possible. It is not just dates and facts. That personal touch will allow readers to relate to the book that much more. It is also incredible that you had the opportunity to meet some of the people in your book.

  4. This book is very important and I must-have for every classroom. In this time of social media, it is important for children of color to have positive role models. It will allow themselves to dream bigger than what they see on television. I also like how you added a personal story or quote to each of the people you spoke about. It makes the stories just that much more relatable. Especially since you had the opportunity to meet some of the historic figures.

  5. This was a wonderfully thought out initiative. This book can and will do so much good for the culture of little Brown girls of today and the future. I hope This book goes far and wide. Also, kudos to the artist that you collaborated with. She is also very talented… I had to go find her Instagram @brooklyndolly and follow her! I love seeing quality representation of Black Lives.

  6. This was a very well thought out initiative. It is a blessing to have met so many pivotal women of our Black culture. One might hear a about a story of a woman or girl on paper but meeting them and feeling their energy and passion behind their story is another. That is why this book will do so much good; it is genuine. I do hope this book travels far and wide and reach the many impressionable minds that are growing today. I believe that when we are allowed to write and publish our own narrative of history, it is closer to what we have experience and what we achieved. When I say we I do not mean as an individual, but as an alliance within our own Black culture. Also, kudos to the illustrator for her positive images of black lives. I had to go find her Instagram and follow her @broolyndolly. There is not a day that goes by, when I’m discussing Black people in the media (African Americans to be exact), where I do not note that representation matters. Imagery can fill a thousand words. Good images produces good narratives and vices versa. This is a great testament of Black Culture that can build the esteem of generations.

  7. For a long time, African Americans have only been represented in books as either slaves or their accomplishments during the civil rights movement but typically these books focus on the men. As an African American woman, this book is such an accomplishment for us. Black women are under represented and under appreciated so to see that there is a book that casts a light on the many of accomplishments that were made by them, setting the foundation for women like me, is such a powerful accomplishment. Students can see black women is a positive light and become inspired to set new goals for themselves.

  8. When we speak of African American and history or positive contribution we always have a detailed list of men and the women pioneers tend to be forgotten. I love the concept of this book, this is definitely a must have in my home. Young colored girls can read about women that made a significant role in shaping our society. This book will lengthen the list of positive African Americans. This book will definitely encourage and inspire any young person to dream big because they can relate to the content. They will see themselves within the pages of this book.

  9. I agree with @siobhansampson, talking about books with African Americans only being represented as ‘salves’ or ‘accomplishments during the civil rights’ movement. It it essential to document, remember, and teach ourselves, each other, and our children all of the truth. Yes, Black people a strong and resilient and can make changes but we’re also smart, we can write intelligently, and are capable of greatness.

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