“I was born with stories.”
During the 2007 National Book Festival, Shelia Moses took the stage at the Library of Congress. Before she read from one of her books, The Baptism, Shelia reflected on the long journey that had brought her to that moment. “My load is heavy because I brought my ancestors with me,” she said. “It took us 300 years to get here.” She honored two important women in her life, her grandmother and her mother. As Shelia’s rich voice resonated throughout the hall, those in the audience, including President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, were clearly moved by her words. It turned out that President Bush was familiar with Shelia’s books. At a private reception, he told her: “I love Luke and Leon.” That comment still amazes and pleases Shelia. “Did the president of the United States just name the characters in my book?” Shelia says with a laugh. “He liked the book! So he wasn’t just laughing because he thought it was funny. He really liked the book.”
Shelia reading at the Library of Congress
The Baptism is just one of Shelia’s books that have earned her a diverse and loyal following. Drawing from the many stories from relatives and friends that she heard growing up, Shelia has become an impressive and influential narrator of the black experience. She began her writing career as the co-author of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s memoir, Callus on My Soul, and her most recent book, The Dick Gregory Story, published this February, is aimed at a young adult audience. With Bill Duke, she wrote Dark Girls, the companion volume to the acclaimed documentary. And she has written and is producing two plays based on her books, I, Dred Scott and The Legend of Billy Bush. When she’s not writing, Shelia keeps a busy schedule speaking and teaching workshops for writers.
Shelia, the ninth of ten children, was born and raised in Rich Square, North Carolina. “It’s peanut country, cotton country,” she says. “I grew up, not on a farm, but we grew up farming, working for the farmers in the area.” Shelia’s maternal grandfather, Braxton Jones, was a farmer, but he refused to sharecrop for white landowners, an arrangement that would have required his children also to work on those farms. “My mother loves to tell the story of how people would come to the house and say, `Braxton, can the children work?’ and he would leave it up to them,” says Shelia. “If they wanted to work and make money, then that was their decision. I thought that was incredible.”
The Jones property, where Shelia and her siblings were raised and where her mother continues to live, was purchased by Braxton for $3,000 in 1956. “He was smart enough to deed the land out to the heirs of the Jones family, so that means the land can never be sold,” she says. “He was ahead of his time.” Shelia was only about five years-old when Braxton died. “The only thing I remember was the funeral because there was so much sadness.” She learned about him through the many stories told by others. “Even now, people can still tell you a great Braxton Jones story,” she says. “My grandfather was a hell of a man. He’s really like a legend to me.” Her company, Braxton Publishing, honors his memory.
Braxton’s wife, Babe, outlived him and was a formidable woman in her own right. “She was something,” says Shelia. “She would go to the grocery store and take a chair and sit and the store owner would have to bring her the meats and have her look at them. And she’d let him know if she wanted them. My grandmother was different from the other African-Americans on Rehoboth Road. People at home, including my family, were very poor. She had her Braxton Jones stash.” She also was one of the few blacks to have a phone and neighbors often showed up to use it.
When Shelia was 14, she began spending summers in New Jersey where her brother, Daniel, and sister, Barbara, lived. “He would take us to New York,” Shelia says. “I’ll never forget seeing New York and the lights – it was just like magic. I had never been in a movie theater before and I saw this movie, Sparkle, about these three black girls who wanted more.” The seed was planted.
“Back then I was tall and thin so I wanted to be a model,” Shelia says. One of her friends, Tina, wanted to be a designer, so they came up with a plan that Tina would design the clothes and Shelia would model them. “But my mom said, `you are not going to modeling school. You are going to college like the rest of these children.’” (Six out of ten of the Moses children went to college and Shelia credits her older sister, who made many sacrifices for that to happen.) “My mother probably saved my life,” Shelia says, noting that she attended Shaw University in Raleigh on a Migrant Seasonal Farmer Scholarship. “I loved Shaw,” she says. “The principal of my high school, and most of the people in that area, went to Shaw. So Shaw meant something to us other than just as a university.”
Shelia’s degree is in psychology, but she has always been a writer. “I was writing poems in first grade, and in second grade, plays,” she says. After graduation, she went to John Marshall Law School for one year – “definitely not for me” – and then launched her own business as an agent. Dick Gregory was one of her first clients. Others included Danny Glover, the actor, Willie Stargell, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Edwin Moses, the Olympic track star. “I was the liaison between the colleges and universities to book their speaking engagements,” she explains. Gregory, who had already written his autobiography, Nigger, was due to write another book. When the search for a co-author proved futile, Gregory finally said to Sheila, “Every time I call you, you are writing. Write the damn book and call me when you finish.” For Callus on My Soul, they received a $25,000 advance from Longstreet Press, a small publishing company in Atlanta. “That’s how I became a professional writer,” Shelia says.
In 1995, the Internet was in its infancy, so Shelia had to research her subject firsthand. “I was following him around, talking to his family, and neighbors,” she says. “I would go with him on trips and we would just talk all night. I had the big tape recorder and the whole nine yards. It took two years to get that information.” Those she interviewed for the book included Congressman John Lewis and Melvin Van Peoples. “But the greatest interview of all, other than Dick Gregory himself, was walking down the street with Ozzie Davis,” pausing in front of the Apollo Theater, she remembers, regretful that she didn’t record the moment in a photo.
Shelia at one of the many events for young people
Gregory is now 84 years-old and, thanks to the Internet, is seeing a resurgence in popularity with young people “You have this old gray-haired guy who is saying the same things they are saying,” she says. “He says it in a different way, but to them they probably think he’s the hippest cat on the Internet. He still speaks their language.”
Gregory remains relevant because, besides still doing comedy, he is a real civil rights leader. “He’s not afraid to die,” says Shelia. “He was never afraid to die. He would still lay his life down for what is right. When things go wrong in this country, you still see Dick Gregory. His head is as white as snow now, but he’s still on the front line. And he’s still not afraid to die. He’s still willing to get his tail whipped.”
The Internet has also raised the visibility of other civil rights leaders. “Twenty years ago, if a teacher said write a story about a civil rights leader, students went to the media center to get a book and saw Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X,” Shelia says. Now if a student types in “civil rights leader,” many other names pop up including, besides Gregory, Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian.
As a child, Shelia never tired of hearing her grandmother’s stories which continue to spark ideas for her books. “Babe Jones couldn’t read or write, but she could tell a grand story,” Shelia says. “She would sit on the front porch and tell all these different things that happened in her past.” One story was about Buddy Bush, a 24 year-old black man who came home after fighting in World War II. “Walking down the street, he passed a white woman, touched her by accident at the shoulder and somehow that turned into attempted rape,” she says. Klan members, broke Buddy out of jail, plotting to kill him. He escaped and ran into the swamp. After hiding out for two days, the black masons took him to Virginia. “It was a big story,” says Shelia. “The London Times came to our little town, writing about him. The governor got involved. He became legendary.”
While she was collecting information about Buddy Bush, Shelia was also working on her own coming-of-age story, growing up in a small southern town surrounded by racial segregation and tension. She ended up combining the two. “I made him my uncle and I told the story through the eyes of a little girl, Pattie Mae,” Shelia says. The Legend of Buddy Bush won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award.
Shelia’s book, Dark Girls, came about after she saw the documentary of the same name directed by Bill Duke. The subject matter, racial discrimination among black women based on the darkness of their skin, struck a chord with Shelia. “A lot of the women say to me that they receive more racism from their own community,” she says. “I just think that goes back to slavery, that white people let those light-skinned people in the house and the black people in the field and that was where that divide started.”
Shelia called Duke and the two of them collaborated on the book which features a radiant Lupita Nyong’o on the cover and interviews with women of all ages, as well as celebrities like Vanessa Williams, Sheryl Underwood, Judge Mablean, and Loretta Devine. “It was a great experience,” says Shelia, whose narrative runs alongside photography by Barron Claiborne. “I have a sister who is a light girl, so she’s probably never thought about color. Then I have brown sisters and dark sisters and I’m a brown girl. To hear people say, `well, she’s cute, but she’s dark,’ I did not have that experience. So it was a lesson for me as a black woman. I was really hurt by some of those stories.”
The topic so engaged Shelia that she is working on a new book about black men titled Chocolate, African American Men Who Made A Difference. “It’s a collection of stories about dark-skinned men and their journey, not just because their skin is dark, but from being a black man in America period,” she says.
While most of Shelia’s books have been published by traditional houses, she will publish Chocolate under her own imprint, Braxton Publishing. Besides The Dick Gregory Story, other Braxton Jones titles include a 10th anniversary edition of Sallie Gal and the Wall-a-kee Man, a YA novel first published by Scholastic, about a young girl growing up in North Carolina enthralled with hair ribbons. Shelia also is working on her two plays. I, Dred Scott, a one-man show, will first be staged in St. Louis. “That was where Dred Scott walked the streets,” she says. The Legend of Buddy Bush will first be seen in North Carolina. “When you’re doing these things, you need to go back to where they belong,” she says, but adds, “If Hamilton can go to Broadway, then Dred Scott can go to Broadway.”
To purchase Shelia’s books visit mosesbooks.org.
Also, click to go to her Facebook page.
All photos courtesy of Shelia Moses.