Director of Communications
When the credits came up every week at the end of the hit 1970s series “Good Times,” 11-year-old Don Tate sat mesmerized by the painting displayed in the background. It inspired him to become an artist and storyteller himself, one who highlights little-known stories from African American history and brings them to life for a new generation. Don joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss the people who led him to become a successful author and illustrator—and also his Christopher Award-winning children’s book “Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton.”
In the context of “Good Times,” the painting at the end was done by the character JJ Evans. But in real life, it was a work of art called “The Sugar Shack,” by former football player Ernie Barnes. Its images sparked young Don’s imagination, inspiring him to start drawing himself. His uncle, who ran a barber shop in their community of Des Moines, Iowa, hung his pictures around the shop. In addition, Don’s aunt became one of the first African American writers at the Des Moines Register. She went on to author young adult novels and even had one of her stories adapted into a movie. Her success taught Don that he could also make a living being a storyteller some day.
The story by Don that first caught The Christophers’ attention was “Poet” about George Moses Horton, who was born into slavery, but taught himself to read despite all the obstacles in his way. Horton enjoyed composing poetry and eventually began writing and selling romantic poems to the students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so they could give them to their sweethearts. In fact, he made so much money that he was “able to buy time away from his enslaver to work full time on campus,” explained Don. “He became the first African American in the South to publish a book…That first book was called ‘The Hope of Liberty,’ published in 1829.”
Horton often incorporated his religious faith into his work. Don said, “Horton…found happiness on Sabbath Sunday. Typically, not always, that was a day off for enslaved people. And on that day, George attended church services. He was happy listening to the preacher read the Bible. He was happiest singing and dancing to lively music. And he was in seventh heaven when in relationship with God.”
That relationship is highlighted in two stanzas from Horton’s poem “Heavenly Love”: “Eternal spring of boundless grace! / It lifts the soul above, / Where God the Son unveils his face, / And shows that Heaven is love. / Love that revolves through endless years / Love that can never pall; / Love which excludes the gloom of fears, / Love to whom God is all!”
Faith remains a vital part of Don’s life as well. Though he grew up around a hellfire and brimstone version of God, his spiritual journey as an adult led him to the gospels and their message of redemption and love.
Don’s career continues to thrive and includes a book about the artist that first inspired him: former football player Ernie Barnes. Ultimately, he hopes his stories make a difference. Don concludes, “Reading and stories are how children learn about the past…how children put today into context, and how they can dream about the future. That’s not going to happen if we can’t get them excited about going to the library and picking up a book. So that is the most important goal when I sit down to write a story: to get them excited about literature.”
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