Kathryn Watterson on I Hear My People Singing

WattersonIn I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African-American Princeton, Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson illuminates the resilience and ingenuity of the historic black neighborhood, just outside the gates of Princeton University, through the words of its residents. Watterson recently answered some questions from writer Kristin Cashioli, providing insight into this extraordinary labor of love that began nearly two decades ago.

What does this project mean to you?  Why is it so special?

KW: Wow, that question gave me goosebumps. When this book began, it was a simple effort to collect the life stories of the elders in the Witherspoon neighborhood.  This was thrilling work, and was second nature to me as a writer and journalist. Since I was a child, I’ve seen African Americans as national heroes. Imagine yourself living in the heat of laws and efforts to thwart you, keep you in poverty, to punish, demean, and often kill you; imagine that every single day, you encounter negative stereotypes because of the shade of your skin or the shape of your nose. Racism and segregation are so cruel and invasive, and it’s just amazing how black people live with some form of violence against them at all times. Even though Princeton wasn’t as bad as many places, it still had these patterns. Most white people never experience something so crushing on a daily basis. To see the great strength that dealt with this assault, rose above it, and created from within it, makes this project special. The humanity in these residents’ lives, the richness of their vision, and the way they came together made working on this project an honor. Turning this project into a book as a way to preserve these vital stories has been a gift to me.

What sets your book apart from others about race and justice issues?

KW: It’s the speakers’ voices that make this so powerful and intimate. There is such a panorama of diverse, complex individuals and their experiences. They are the heart of the book. I’ve been told that historians have done a lot of writing about racial issues in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries, but that this book will add to the scholarship of northern segregation in the 20th century. This is not a traditional oral history–it is its own creation, one that’s highly accessible and allows readers to imagine the inside experience as if they’d been there themselves.

What aspects of your research most inspired and surprised you?

KW: I was most surprised to discover the continuity of prejudice that this community has dealt with and addressed nonstop for more than three and a half centuries.  Its origins began with slavery, long before the village of Prince Town or the university existed. The designs of racism were established when slavery was an accepted practice, and have continued in other forms through America’s and the neighborhood’s history. In my research, I felt I kept uncovering the deep roots of racism. To see something that disrupts families and the lives of children so blatantly encouraged and accepted by fellow human beings is unnerving.  It’s very similar to the way we accept the prison system today. We act like it’s normal.

The most inspirational parts of this research were definitely the stories of individuals who blossomed throughout their lives in their service to others. I fell in love with Rev. William Robeson (Paul Robeson’s father) who, after escaping from slavery, went to Lincoln University, studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, earned two degrees in Theology, and then moved seamlessly into his ministerial leadership and family life in Princeton. His wisdom and grace are extraordinary. I also was enthralled by Betsy Stockton, formerly enslaved as well, who started schools in the 1830s for a people who had been forbidden to learn how to read or write. She founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children and engaged the entire community in growing a school system that deeply understood the importance of education.

What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?

KW: So often in my own urban neighborhood, I see young black men crossing the street or walking with their heads down so as to deflect the fear they have learned to expect from white people passing by who clutch their bags or glance away. I especially want white readers to understand the impact of this diminishment and to recognize why black lives matter—just as it’s taken for granted that white lives do. I want to open readers’ minds, let them in on another level, and allow them to know how it feels. I want them to realize the courage it takes for an individual to live with hope and with the belief that the human experience we share is sacred.

How did you arrive at the title?

KW: Paul Robeson, the great orator, singer, and social justice advocate, wrote, “I heard my people singing,” when he was describing the beloved Witherspoon neighborhood where he was born. Back when we were conducting interviews in 2000, one of my students, Lauren Miller, suggested it as the title. One of the things we did during that time was to hold several public presentations at the library, the community center, and the university. Students read excerpts from the interviews we had, and residents in the audience heard their own words spoken back to them. It was like hearing singing—all of these different voices blending together. It was exhilarating and was exactly what I wanted people to hear—this fantastic chorus of voices. For me, in their stories, I hear America singing. I hear what this country could be. I feel lifted up, and I think everyone who has been involved with this book feels the same.

What is the greatest thing you have learned from writing this book?

KW: That magic happens. It all started with Hank Pannell’s love for the community and his urgency about saving these unique stories. When he told me that what he and his other Witherspoon neighbors really wanted was an oral history, I thought, how could I possibly do this? What seemed like an impossibility became a reality because it was built on love. I got swept up by the beautiful spirit of this neighborhood, and so did my students. It was contagious. This book shows what can happen when people come together, caring for and honoring one another.

What has been the greatest compliment and toughest criticism given to you as an author?  How have these helped you?

KW: The greatest compliments I’ve been given as an author are from people who’ve told me after reading one of my books, “This changed my life.” It’s been a moment or an emotional connection or a story that opened up the world for them somehow and moved them to new insights and a deeper understanding of our human experience. I’m humbled by this, as well as encouraged, because I, too, have been transformed by doing this work.

The toughest criticism that stands out is when someone wise tells me I’ve gotten something wrong, missed a point, or missed the bigger picture. These incidents act as a vehicle for learning. They sharpen my thinking and help me immensely with revisions. For this book, critical feedback that I received from three historians opened up my perspective and helped me discover more about the centuries of segregation and slavery in the North.

What is your next project?

KW: Before I found out that Princeton University Press wanted to publish I Hear My People Singing, I was immersed in a novel about a Philadelphia-based newspaper reporter at odds with the police in the 1970s. I’m eager to get back to work on it, as well as on several short stories that are treading water, waiting to get to the shore.

Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson is an award-winning journalist and writer, as well as a beloved teacher of writing. The author of nine books, including Women in Prison, Not by the Sword, You Must Be Dreaming, and Growing Into Love, she’s drawn to issues of justice and to expressing the full range of human experience. Her creative writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania, as they were at Princeton, are known for their close sense of community and personal empowerment, engagement with the world, and a great deal of fun and laughter. In addition, she sings, drums and plays percussion with an improvisational band, The Unity. She lives in the City of Philadelphia.