Sunday, March 25, 2012

Stitching Stories in the Ring

March 25 - Today's post provided by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Stitching Stories in the Ring by Andrea Davis Pinkney

There’s something to be said for women and the power of storytelling. Like quilting, we can stitch color and tradition into something warm and beautiful, by the simple act of sharing memories that become the stories that shape us.

When I was a girl, my mother, grandmothers and aunts could sit for hours spinning family tales that came from the patches of their lives and times.
From my Aunt Rosa there were tales of my grandma’s gold tea set, and the sweet Sunday gatherings where women in fancy hats drank tea and talked about local doings.

My mother is a storyteller, too. She loves to recount her years growing up in the small town of Elmira, New York. Mom was one of the few African American girls in her high school. Her big dream was to leave that slow, tiny place to attend college. This was the 1950s when a college education was a far-off dream for a black girl. Many told Mom she couldn’t attend college, but by finding a way out of no way, she did.

From my grandmothers and great-aunts came stories of traveling from Elmira to New York City’s Harlem, where black folks strode with clothes that dazzled and dreams that shone.  These feisty ladies wanted to explore the freedoms of big-city inclusion, rather than be confined to small-town bigotry. (Sadly, they learned that prejudice exists everywhere.)

My grandmother and great-aunt enjoying a stroll in Harlem
As a child, I never grew tired of these storytelling “quilting times” with Mom, my grandmas, Aunt Rosa, Aunt Theodora, and all the women who were very bright flowers on the Williams and Davis family trees.

I didn’t know it then, but these women were shaping me as a writer.

There was one story that was told again and again. It was a tale that stuck with me — the story of my great-grandfather, Cyclone Williams. Cyclone was an amateur  kid-boxer growing up during the Great Depression. More than anything, this determined youngster wanted to be just like the legendary boxer Joe Louis, who in 1937, became the heavyweight champion of the world.  Cyclone’s story is one of tenacity and triumph. 

My grandmother was very proud of her father’s legacy. She kept an archival photograph of Cyclone on a special shelf in her home, and seldom let that picture too far out of her sight.

Cyclone Williams, my great-grandfather
After my grandmother passed away, my Aunt Rosa had strict rules about the framed image of Cyclone. You could look at the photo, but please don’t touch it. 

As a young person, I looked and looked at the stocky build, clenched fists, and hopeful expression in Cyclone’s eyes. These made me wonder.

What was this kid fighting for?

I became so intrigued with my great grandfather’s story  — and with my grandmother’s telling of it — that I started to write my novel Bird in a Box. I was so eager to share what the Williams women had told me about this kid!

I soon learned that to write about a boxer, I had to become one.  If I wanted to make my character Willie Martel —the boy in the story who is based on my grandfather Cyclone – truly authentic, I had to box in the ring.

So, I got myself a pair of 1937 vintage Spalding boxing gloves, hired a trainer, and got to work!
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My circa 1937 boxing gloves

 I punched and jabbed, and hooked a peanut bag. And, with determined feet, I learned to pivot properly so that my opponent couldn’t land a fist near my ribs.  

I soon felt the sting of hard work in the ring, and the fire in my belly that told me to keep going even when I wanted to quit.

Me, ready for the ring
After the novel was written, I later realized that while boxing is considered mostly a man’s sport, it was the power of the women in my family that gave me the grit and fortitude to step through the ropes.

Even though my mom, grandmas, and aunts dressed in their Sunday bests and drank tea, these women also beat some incredible odds.  As African Americans making their way through the Great Depression, world wars, segregation, and the civil rights movement, they had the tenacity and strength of any boxer. And, with each and every hurdle, they emerged as champions.

Editor's Note:
Andrea Davis Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling andaward-winning author of many books for children and young adults, including picture books, novels, works of historical fiction and non-fiction. Andrea’s novels include Bird in aBox, a Today Show Al Roker Book Club For Kids Pick, and hailed by the New York Times as “a powerful middle grade novel”; and With the Might of Angels, a book in the DearAmerica series. Andrea’s picture books include Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down,a Parenting Publication Gold Medal winner, winner of the Jane Addams BookAward, and the Carter G. Woodson Award for historical works for young people; Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride, a Jane Addams HonorBook and School Library Journal “BestBook of the Year,” the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, which also won the Carter G. Woodson Award for historical works for young people; and Duke Ellington, a Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Book.


  1. Living a full and meaningful life is a gift that we all can offer to future generations - the gift of inspiration. Thanks for sharing your personal story and photos. Lisa

  2. You came from storytellers & archive-keepers.
    Such a fabulous background for many careers, but how cool that it lead you to writing. Lovely tribute to those women.