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Bijan Bayne on His New Book, Black Trailblazers: 30 Courageous Visionaries Who Broke Boundaries, Made a Difference, and Paved the Way

As W.E.B. Dubois said, “To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires.”


Chaz Ebert (CE): It is a pleasure speaking with you during Black Writers Week 2023 about your wonderful new book, Black Trailblazers: 30 Courageous Visionaries Who Broke Boundaries, Made a Difference, and Paved the WayIs this primarily a children's book and what gave you the idea to write it?

Bijan Bayne (BB): It is primarily a young adult book and a school or school library work. I was contacted by a third party who finds authors for that publishing house, and asked by a person at that company if I was interested in writing such a book under a headhunter contract, manuscript due in 90 days from that date.

CE: There are so many historical and current Black trailblazers ranging from Dr. Charles Drew who helped advance our knowledge of blood plasma and establish blood banks to Vice President Kamala Harris. What process did you use to select the thirty people who ultimately made it into the book?

BB: The third party representative and I went back and forth selecting from an original 45 or so persons I sent them, until we had 30 names. The persons had to be past and present, both genders, across several areas of discipline, and to have changed the world, or U.S. society.

CE: Are there others who came close to being selected?

BB: Sure. Jesse Owens, Cathy Hughes, Ed Brooke, Jackie Robinson and Sammy Davis, Jr. could have just as easily been named—as could have James Brown or Duke Ellington. Dozens of figures merit inclusion, from Harry Belafonte to Ethel Waters.

I didn't want former President Obama in the text because he is so widely written about elsewhere—even for the age group who do not remember him. I wanted Ella Baker covered for the opposite reason because she is not as widely written about as former President Obama or Vice President Kamala Harris.

Illustration of Louis Armstrong by Joelle Avelino.

CE: Some of the book reviews I read of your book praised you for including facts that were previously unknown. Tell us some things you learned during your research that were new to you.

BB: I learned that Mahalia Jackson sponsored parties for children, that Thurgood Marshall was a practical joker, and that Muhammad Ali had a learning disability.

CE: We have recently lost three of the people in your book: Dick Gregory, Toni Morrison and Sidney Poitier. Did you get to speak to them before they passed away? 

BB: I didn't interview the figures for the book, I wrote their chapters based on their pasts, research, and my longtime awareness of them. I met Gregory several years ago when we were picked up together at Boston Logan Airport to present at the same conference in New Hampshire.

CE: What other books have you written and what are you working on now?

BB: I wrote a biography of L.A. Lakers legend Elgin Baylor, and I wrote a book on a unique and historic summer basketball league founded on Martha's Vineyard in 1970. I also wrote a book called Sky Kings, a young adult text on early Black touring basketball teams and pioneers. I am working on a few feature screenplays and a docuseries.

Illustration of Sojourner Truth by Joelle Avelino.

CE: What has been the most satisfying feedback you received about this book, both from children and from adults?

BB: PEN/Faulkner arranged classroom visits for the book, and schoolchildren have asked wonderful, heartwarming questions about the upbringing of the subjects, my writing process, or in some cases have been assigned group or individual projects to present orally or in poster form about one of the featured persons. 

One boy of around 14 has become a huge Muhammad Ali fan because of the work, and was stoked to meet me. I've counted more than 10 states or cities whose libraries or school system named the book to its Black History Month, Women's History Month, new books, or Dr. King Day suggested readings lists.

As W.E.B. Dubois said, “To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires.”

Bijan Bayne Bio:

Born in Boston, Bijan C. Bayne is an award-winning Washington-based freelance columnist and critic, and author of Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball, which was named to the Suggested Reading List of the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004. The book is also cited in “Booktalks Plus: Motivating Teens to Read” by Lucy Schall, and was named a Suggested Book of Interest by the organization Teachers Network, in 2010. He is also the author of the first biography of basketball hero Elgin Baylor. Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball, was named a Book That Inspires, by the Christian Science Monitor, and one of the Most 25 Inspiring Books of 2015, by Conversations Book Club. 

His book Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race & Class, was named a Must Read, by BET. In 2016 he served as a grants panelist for the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities. In October 2016, he will present on the panel, Black Humor: Reflections on an American Tradition at the University of New Hampshire’s annual Black New England Conference. At the BNEC 2015, Bayne participated on two panels, one contrasting the film 42 with 1949’s The Jackie Robinson Story, the other on early Black sports in New England.

In July 2002, Bayne, who speaks Spanish, won the Robert Peterson Research Award for his presentation “The Struggle of the Latin American Ballplayer”, given at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. On April 14, 2011, The Jackie Robinson Society of The George Washington University honored Bayne with ”…a teaching award in appreciation of your many years of special contribution to GW students through your participation in the Jackie Robinson Lecture Series and the class, ‘Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, And The American Dream’. He served as public relations coordinator for the first Martha’s Vineyard Jazz Festival (August 2011). Bayne is a project adviser for a documentary film about Martha’s Vineyard (A Sense of Place).

For more information on the book Black Trailblazers: 30 Courageous Visionaries Who Broke Boundaries, Made a Difference, and Paved the Way and where to purchase it, click here.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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