With no context, the opening pages of “Overground Railroad” — where we see various scenes of people carrying luggage, driving off in a loaded car, boarding a bus and riding a train — look like normal summertime vacation.
Young Ruth Ellen, the protagonist, is excited about her family’s train ride to New York City. But the reality is it’s a one-way trip. During the time of sharecropping, often regarded as slavery by another name, the Great Migration saw the exodus of over six million African-Americans from the South to the northern United States.
Sharecropping wasn’t easy to escape, however. Enslaved Black Americans had the Underground Railroad. And a century later, free African-Americans would still find themselves planning, saying goodbyes and sneaking away under the shadow of night to board trains on the railroads above ground.
Lesa Cline-Ransome, born in Massachusetts, and James Ransome, born in North Carolina, both have parents and family who participated in the Great Migration. Cline-Ransome discovered her interest in writing through a journalism workshop in high school. She also reflected on always being an avid reader.
“I had a mother who was a real reader,” Cline-Ransome said, “a brother who was a reader. And I just, I devoured books … I have a pretty vivid imagination, and so I’m not sure which came first, my imagination or the stories that helped to ignite it. But just imagining a world outside of my own, I think really helped me connect to the stories.”
James notes comic books, Mad Magazine and the Bible as some of his earliest artistic influences.
“I grew up in a small town,” he said, “and there was no art in the schools…” Relocating to live with his grandmother, he brought along an interest in drawing and comics. But he discovered illustrations in the Bible — “beautiful compositions” — that he was also inspired to copy and learn from. “Anything that had artwork, I was interested in.”
Personal accounts of the Great Migration and Frederick Douglass’ biography contribute to the mix of influences on “Overground Railroad”, which also gets its name from Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a 2010 historical study of the Migration.
What resulted was a children’s historical fiction that fulfilled not only Cline-Ransome’s desire to uncover more of America’s hidden histories but also provide the stories for kids today that were not available to her.
Mississippi Today caught up with the Ransomes to discuss “Overground Railroad,” the writing process behind it and what it means to be able to tell stories about your people, for your people. The couple will be in Mississippi on Aug. 20 as featured panelists at the Mississippi Book Festival.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Mississippi Today: I was curious if (the research process behind the book) was just taking stories you’ve heard all your life, or did you go back to your family and talk to them while writing the book? If so, can you talk about how the process was, you know, learning history directly from the source?
Lesa Cline-Ransome: Well, it was really a variety of sources for me. When I started the project, I would say that honestly, it began with reading the book “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. And as a writer who’s become increasingly interested in history, and certainly now in this age, in the truth of history and the ways in which there are moments where African-Americans have kind of been left out of different aspects of historical recounting, I wanted to be able to tell a story — seen through the eyes of a young girl at this particular, very important moment in America’s history of the Great Migration.
… I just began imagining what it would be like for a young person experiencing the Great Migration, both James and I — the children of parents who were part of that Great Migration. And so I would say that the research that I did was supplemented by firsthand accounts of sitting and talking with family members and having their direct experiences, which certainly enriched, I think, both the text and the art.
James Ransome: Sometimes we’ve had family conversations, and they just talk about the experience of coming to the North. You know, so many people came and these sort of new communities were created where they maybe met someone from another county, from the same state. Events were planned around the fact that they were from other places. There’s a Carolina Ball, for example.
LCR: Yeah, the clubs that were formed as a result.
JR: So, this was an event that my mother and uncles went to, and it was a big event. They all got really dressed up and got ready for the Carolina Ball. Which was a party for people who were from North Carolina. So this was a way to sort of meet friends and meet new people who were also from the state.
LCR: I think what’s beautiful about the Black experience in terms of the Great Migration is, you know, James mentioned he’s from North Carolina, his family’s from North Carolina. My father is also from North Carolina, but their experiences are very, very different in many ways. And there are also some similarities. So just seeing the range of experiences is also important to note and to reflect in the writing and in the art.
MT: Are there any other interesting stories that stood out in the research process?
JR: I have a stepmother, and she talked a lot to Lisa about, you know, how poor she was in the South and the type of living standards that she grew up under, which was very different from when she moved to New Jersey… I think something as simple as indoor plumbing and the fact that she didn’t have to work in a hot field all day. I mean, she ended up working in a factory, like many of them did, but the working conditions, living conditions were just so much better in the North.
It was not ideal… when I read about people who migrated, they seem to paint the North as being sort of this land of future gold. She had very modest ambitions, just better living conditions is what I hear from her when she describes the difference between the two places. And not that she wanted to live like a queen or expect these sort of fantasy conditions beyond what she had before. But the fact that it was decent living and she could go to stores and buy things and not, you know, not be subjected to segregation — those are the things that I think (were the most important things for her).
LCR: I think what I love most though in all my conversations is the direct correlation between the ways in which, historically, we have been disadvantaged in terms of our educational opportunities. And certainly, that has been the case with my mother-in-law and the ways in which her education was timed to go along with the planting season.
So, she could go to school when she wasn’t required to work in the fields. And I feel that when she came here, she so values education… I think that she and many others carry with them this idea that education is not something you take for granted…
But I think often (Black people) are painted as people who don’t value education, and it’s just a historical and present-day inaccuracy.
MT: Why do you think that children need this digestible and engaging version of history and events like the Great Migration?
LCR: Well, I think that all children need an accurate history. And I think that when you’re telling one group that their history is more valued than another group, I think it’s damaging to all groups. If one is valued above another and the history that you’re seeing is through the lens of one particular group, it’s not an accurate version of history.
JR: … We want them to start understanding that history and the power of that history and the power of their ancestors. Because often Black movements are tied to the civil rights movement, which was led by (Martin Luther) King and other people. Well, this is something that Black people did on their own.
There was no leader. There was no one pointing, no one telling them to go. It was a decision they made on their own to better their lives. So it’s often considered a quiet movement that six million people did without any direction.
MT: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a big influence because we literally follow Ruth’s story with parts of his story as she reads about it in her book. Then there’s also a point where Ruth’s mother asks her to read to her on the train. What would you say is the importance of literature and storytelling in Black history?
JR: I just thought when Lisa wrote Frederick Douglas into the story, that was absolutely genius … She’s pulling on this history that we have as people of trying to better our outer situations.
And, my god, as difficult as it was to take a train from the South, imagine if you are running and you have no map and you (have) no way to protect yourself and you’re being hunted and you are just running north. The Underground Railroad. I mean, that was just beyond my understanding — how that actually worked.
But, people did it, and they escaped for their freedom to have a better life for their family. So here we are connecting with that in this book “Overground Railroad.”
LCR: And I think that what’s really important about (literature and storytelling) is just the ability to tell our own stories. I think that, you know, there’s been a long period in publishing, in particular, where Blacks have not been able to tell their own stories or their stories weren’t valued in a particular way. And so now I just think the importance of telling our stories and our own voices through our own lens certainly provides a unique experience to young readers.
And I just think it’s important to have our stories documented and in print. And I think that these are stories that can be passed down and shared and provide us with a great opportunity to discuss our history, our present and our future.
MT: You’ve said you liked the idea of repurposing and recycling for art. Can you talk a little bit more about that and why did that [style] stand out so much for this story, to apply that style to this story?
JR: One thing is for sure when you’re poor, you learn how to be very careful with the things that you have. And you often reuse things that you have. So, you know, these are poor people who are migrating and that’s such a large part of our life — reusing of things. Something has a hole in it, like pants, you take another piece of material, you patch over them and you continue to wear those pants.
And also I want kids to think about the things that they have. You can take something old and reuse it and make artwork with it. That’s really sort of ideal for me. So for a kid to say, you know, to take on an old magazine and cut that up and use those parts for a creation of artwork that they make, that’s really special.
MT: I really like that idea, and I feel like it kind of even relates to the juxtaposition of Ruth’s and Frederick’s stories in the book and the similarities and differences between their experiences… You wouldn’t typically call Ruth’s family privileged, but you would say that she had some different things that even Douglass didn’t. For example, he had the North Star [to guide him], but Ruth has a train called the Silver Meteor. Lesa, was that intentional?
LCR: We could say it was maybe subconscious … I was trying to find as many ways as I could to see the parallel between Frederick and Ruth Ellen and their journeys, both literally and figuratively.
MT: Did you have books like this to read when you were growing up?
LCR: Absolutely not. So a lot of what I’m writing is what I would like to have read as a child. I wish that I had had books that reflected me, like the little Lisa. But I didn’t really have many of those books. I was always seeking out books that reflected my kind of emotional experience, like “Diary of Anne Frank,” where I felt like I was an outsider in an all-white community growing up. But I didn’t have books where children really looked like me and didn’t reflect the experiences of myself or my family or my family’s history. And so these are, to me, just great opportunities to kind of speak to and fulfill the needs of little Lisa.