Gil Robertson Discusses His Latest Work, Book of Black Heroes: Political Leaders Past and Present, and Why Leadership Is So Important to Young People

Noted journalist and author Gil Robertson, best-known for his groundbreaking anthologies that include the critically-acclaimed Family Affair: What It Means to Be African American Today, has now turned his attention squarely on the political arena with his first-ever book for children and young adults. Book of Black Heroes: Political Leaders Past and Present from celebrated publishers Just Us Books, pioneers in creating children’s books and products celebrating Black history and culture, puts a much-needed spotlight on leadership, highlighting Black elected officials in various arenas past and present.

Nearly a decade in the making, Book of Black Heroes: Political Leaders Past and Present is a timely addition in these times of questionable leadership. In the book, political leaders range from Reconstruction era America Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels from Mississippi, the first African American to serve in Congress, to now with recently elected Senator Kamala Harris, a first for the state of California. The leaders presented are far from monolithic. They represent different parties and many different aspects of government. Ultimately, Robertson set out to create a primer for young people that celebrates leadership.

What motivated you to create this latest book, Book of Black Heroes: Political Leaders Past and Present?

I think this new generation of young people are largely unaware of the leaders that helped pave the way for Obama. I also felt that they needed to be introduced to a new crop of people who were living their lives with purpose and who were having impact with uplifting the lives of other people. Who is offering them a roadmap of how to do that? With this book, I wanted to be able to provide them with some real life examples of people who had this passion for public service and who had been successful. I think it’s disappointing that more of a spotlight hasn’t been shown on these individuals. If you’re not a first, if you’re not a Coleman Young or a Carl Stokes or a Maynard Jackson or Tom Bradley or Shirley Chisholm, your accomplishments aren’t given the type of platform or the shine that they deserve.

I don’t like that athletes and entertainers are often the only heroes pushed to most of our children. I think it’s a lot more attainable for somebody to become a city councilperson than say a LeBron James. I like to think that this book is introducing young people to the fundamental idea that they too can affect change. Hopefully this book provides them with the seeds of inspiration to understand that they can play active roles in that process of affecting growth and change, not only in their own lives but also in the lives of other people. I also hope this book can be a catalyst to inform them of their own personal power, especially since politics influences how we live every day as well as the quality of our lives on every level, locally, statewide, nationally and internationally.

What makes a leader?

It starts off with having a real clear understanding of what your purpose is. I think Mrs. Evers-Williams says everything about leadership because she breaks down the three very distinct types of leaders. Like she says, a leader can sometimes be unpopular, a leader can sometimes feel uncertain, but a leader has to be convicted in what he or she believes in and they have to know how to inspire people and ensure them that they are capable of leading them.

What special skills does a political leader often possess?

Knowing how to manage people and how to keep them on track. It can be very difficult and requires a myriad of skills so it’s a constant balancing act of how to keep everyone moving in the same direction.

What traits did you recognize most in the leaders in Book of Black Heroes Political Leaders Past and Present?

That they were all convicted to change. That they were really committed to using their skill set to advance the lives of others. I think that’s what binds them all.

Who are some of the people who were less well-known that you were happy to include?

People like Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota. I was real happy to include him, especially because he’s the first Muslim elected official. Marcus Brandon was the only openly gay member of the North Carolina House of Representatives when he served. Tim Scott is the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction. David Paterson is blind and became the governor of New York. The fact that someone with such a severe handicap became governor is so inspiring. I like Mia Lowe’s story, she’s first generation Haitian-American and she’s an elected congresswoman from Utah. Ollie Tyler, the mayor of Shreveport, she was a victim of domestic abuse and overcame that.

I like the stories of people who triumphed over adversities that would kill most people. I like the fact that these people didn’t allow the hardships of their lives to keep them from moving forward. I love Deval Patrick’s story of how he overcame growing up poor in Chicago and went to elite high schools in New England and eventually became the governor of Massachusetts. There are a lot more elected officials, past and present, than are included in the book of course. Some people’s stories were too similar for example. But I am pleased with who is here because they all represent a great cross-section of men and women, past and present, who harnessed their personal power, many against tremendous odds, and made a difference for us all.

This book has been a long time coming but, now that it’s here, what do you hope readers get from it?

The book took eight years. There were times when I doubted if it would see the light of day but, luckily, leadership never goes out of style. Political leadership may be overlooked but it’s fundamental to our lives. Even if a young person doesn’t want to become a political leader, I hope this book will encourage him or her to live that life with purpose. I hope that the book encourages young people to look deep inside themselves to identify what it is that they are passionate about and what it is that they want to say with their lives like the people in Book of Black Heroes: Political Leaders Past and Present have.

To connect and book Gil Robertson for school and community programs, please visit BooksByGil.com.