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Interview: Michelle Duster On Her Book ‘Ida B. The Queen’, Legacy & More

Michelle Duster’s Ida B. The Queen is a book about the extraordinary life and legacy of Ida B. Wells – a journalist, suffragist and anti-lynching crusader, Wells committed herself to helping those who were powerless. Duster’s book explores the life and times of Ida B. Wells with both historical information and personal anecdotes because Wells was her great grandmother.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Duster over Zoom to discuss her book, Ida B. Wells’ legacy, how she went about putting the book together and her plans for future books. Check out the interview below:

Ida B. The Queen - Book Cover
Cover artwork for Ida B. The Queen (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

My first question would just be did you feel any pressure writing this book? Because obviously, Ida B. Wells is such a prolific figure, but it’s also someone who’s part of your family. So did you feel any added pressure when you were creating the book?

Michelle Duster: I felt I wanted to create something that my family members would be proud of. And, you know, and so that it will meet their expectations. But I was also aware of how they would or won’t be affected by how our ancestor is portrayed. Um, so I wasn’t conscious and aware of creating something that people would really like, you know?

During your research that stood out to you? Or was there anything that even surprised you as you were putting the book together?

Duster: Well, one of the things that I was fascinated by was how my great grandmother Ida B. Wells was surveilled by the FBI. That was not something I grew up knowing about. And she mentioned in her autobiography that she called them Secret Service – people came to visit her and question her, and even threatened her with treason. But I’m not sure if she even knew that a file had been created on her. I don’t know if she knew that. But I just found that to be very fascinating that she was considered such a danger to this country that the government felt a need to watch her.

So, I was just wondering, when you were creating the book, how did you go about putting in these factual pieces which were new to you as well? And then also, you know, because it takes like different parts, there’s obviously parts that are autobiographical about yourself. There are parts that are biographical about Ida B. Wells and there’s also some personal anecdotes in there as well. So how did tackling these different kinds of formats steer your writing?

Duster: Well, over the course of my career, it one of my goals that has evolved. And I really wanted people to feel some connection to my great grandmother in ways. We’re not just dates, facts, names. So one of the goals that I had when I was writing Ida B. The Queen was to make history fun, accessible and relatable. And I wanted people to get a sense of my great grandmother from the human side. She was a mother, a grandmother, she was a wife. And I think it’s important for people to see that side of her and to get a sense of how having somebody like her as an ancestor, what it’s like to grow up with that kind of legacy. So to me that humanizes her.

I really loved the book’s title. So was choosing that something that was instantaneous or were there other titles perhaps that you’ve thought of?

Duster: Well, the title I had to be the Queen for the book was a result of sort of a brainstorming session that took place between the editorial team at once a no publisher, so I wasn’t the only one involved in coming up with the with the title. But it’s very appropriate because during her time, especially after she marched in the suffrage parade in 1913, there was a poem written about her called Queen about race. So even during her time, people refer to her in that way.

And my last question for you is do you have any plans to write either more books about Ida B. wells, or even just other books about Black historical women figures in general that you can share with us?

Well, I have two picture books that are in the works that will be published next year. 2021 is about Ida. B. Wells, and the other is about several Black women trailblazers. I’m also working on another co-writing another children’s book about a little boy who’s learned about history through traveling and going to places with his grandmother. So I’m trying to reach a younger audience and as well as you know, the general population when it comes to public history projects that I’m working on.

Michelle Duster’s Ida B. The Queen is available now wherever books are sold.

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