Taking Care of Our Future

Debut author Willie Mae Brown on growing up in Selma, Alabama

January 28, 2023

Willie Mae Brown
Willie Mae Brown, debut author, reads an excerpt from her book My Selma January 28 at the American Library Association's 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Willie Mae Brown was 12 years old when she saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak at her church, and she was not expecting him. “I thought the ‘king’ my mom was talking about was the lord. When we want something, we call him ‘king,’” she joked, adding that she saw him every day after school. “He was just there to help us. Now I appreciate it more than ever.”

Brown spoke of her catalytic experience seeing Martin Luther King Jr. and the importance of telling one’s story at her keynote speaker session January 28 at the American Library Association’s 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans. 

Brown’s debut novel, My Selma (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January), recounts her experience growing up in Selma, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to sharing her memories witnessing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, Brown shares intimate and deep stories about her childhood and family. On where she got the inspiration to write My Selma, Brown said, “I wanted people to know how Selma felt, how it was to live there. And that we had a life, we had our families, the things that we did every day.” 

And there are things that Brown will never forget about her childhood. She recounted once being given a doll that looked like her for Christmas, and carrying that doll everywhere like a friend. She also remembered that the doll was a replacement for a bike that one of her friends broke. “All of this stuff that I’ve collected in my mind, it stays there,” Brown said. “I used to be a child, and I never let go of that child. Every day, I think of her. When I want to talk, I say, ‘Remember when?’ And that’s how it starts.”

But she was not without help from her family who aided her when she needed more details and more stories. “I have an uncle who’s 93 years old,” Brown said. “And we have a tradition where we call each other on Sundays. This has been going on for a long time.” 

Brown wrote My Selma for middle-grade readers, and she hopes they come away from the book with a sense of care for the future. “I want you to be aware of your past so that you will take care of our future,” she said. “The past can repeat itself in the blink of an eye, and the only thing that changes is the characters: James Byrd, George Floyd, Emmett Till… And vote. You must be heard.”


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