Intimate Conversation with award winning writer Katie McCabe
Katie McCabe is a National Magazine Award winner whose Washingtonian article on black surgical legend Vivien Thomas formed the basis for the HBO film Something the Lord Made, one of the highest rated original movies in HBO history and the winner of the 2004 Emmy and 2005 Peabody Awards. McCabe’s 2009 book Justice Older than the Law, co-authored with pioneering lawyer Dovey Roundtree, won the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize. For her work in science and medical journalism, McCabe has been honored with awards for investigative reporting (William Allen White Award, 1991) and public service (National Magazine Award finalist, 1986).
» First Lady Michelle Obama saluted Dovey Johnson Roundtree on the occasion of the book’s Washington, DC launch.
“She [Dovey Johnson Roundtree] has clearly demonstrated that even in the face of enormous challenges, an unblinking belief in equality and justice will spur real change. I am inspired by Ms. Roundtree, and I hope that her story continues to motivate all Americans to fight for our shared values. It is on the shoulders of people like Dovey Johnson Roundtree that we stand today, and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow.”
— quote from First Lady Michelle Obama, July 2009
AUDIO SNEAK PEEK FROM THE BOOK
» Katie McCabe reading from Chapter One, “Walking Unafraid,” about Dovey Roundtree’s courageous Grandma Rachel, the woman Dovey calls “the greatest warrior I ever knew.”
Listen here now: http://www.audioacrobat.com/sa/WC3S5tj4
BPM: Katie, what can readers expect when they open a book created by you?
KM: I believe my power as a writer derives from my lifelong love affair with words and literature, my sense of the compelling stories hidden beneath the surface of outward events, and my fascination with unsung heroes. These passions came from my late parents, John and Kathleen Burns. They exemplified for me the kind of nobility and courage I endeavor to portray over and over again in my non-fiction as I seek out heroes and heroines whose lives have profoundly altered our world but whom history has forgotten or marginalized. My goal is to portray these history-makers with the vividness of fiction, and to bring them alive for future generations.
BPM: Discuss your approach to writing and your latest book, Justice Older than the Law, in particular.
KM: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.” – Nicolo Machiavelli
As a writer, I’ve chosen to portray individuals who defied existing systems and conventional notions of power, and in doing that, I’ve challenged my readers’ assumptions about the way that history is altered and the world changed.
One of my first articles for Washingtonian magazine, “Like Something the Lord Made,” told the little-known story of black heart surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas, a man who had changed the course of medical history so quietly that he was virtually unknown outside the rarefied circle of Johns Hopkins surgeons he trained. In my article, I brought from obscurity the story of this extraordinary man who changed the course of medical history without ever having obtained a medical degree or even attending college. It was the sheer force of his brilliance and the power of his character that enabled Thomas, in his capacity as laboratory technician to the powerful white surgeon Alfred Blalock, to carve out a revolutionary role for himself and to propel heart surgery into the modern age. At a time when the only black employees at Johns Hopkins Hospital were the janitors, Vivien Thomas ran the surgical lab, trained dozens of white med students who would go on to become the most famous heart surgeons in America, and most importantly, partnered with Dr. Blalock in an extraordinary interracial collaboration that defied every stereotype of their time and place. Together, the two made medical history, accomplishing things together that neither one could have done alone. Vivien Thomas shattered stereotypes for black men during Jim Crow, proving by the sheer force of his intellect and his character that he could contribute mightily to medicine at the most complex level. He challenged the status quo by excelling and by surviving within a deeply flawed society, and in so doing he lodged a powerful and eloquent protest against the evil of segregation.
KM: Pioneering lawyer, veteran and minister Dovey Johnson Roundtree, the subject of my 2002 Washingtonian article “She Had a Dream” and my 2009 book Justice Older than the Law (which I co-authored with Dovey Roundtree), was a woman who challenged deeply entrenched racism and sexism on a number of levels over her 50-year career. She shattered the color and gender bars in the World War II military as one of the 40 women selected by the great activist Mary McLeod Bethune to integrate the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. As one of only five women in her class at Howard University Law School (1947-1950), she challenged gender stereotypes in the law, and went on to transform the rigidly segregated legal system of the Nation’s Capital as the first black member of the DC Women’s Bar. Even as she overturned hardened prejudice in Washington’s legal community against blacks and women, she led the vanguard of women ordained to the ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had resisted the ordination of women for decades. When Dovey Roundtree was ordained to the ministry in 1961, she was among the first women to rise to that status within the male-dominated church.
I believe I am drawn to stories of unconventional heroes and heroines because I myself defy classification as a white woman who has chosen to celebrate the life stories of African Americans. I have learned that this unsettles some readers because it challenges existing systems, but I have also seen that many people have been inspired by the way in which I have crossed racial lines in the course of my career. In choosing to bring to the world the stories of quiet revolutionaries like Vivien Thomas and Dovey Roundtree, I believe I have illuminated a particular kind of power that is very different from that which we see in our politicians and big business entrepreneurs. Those who change the world by the force of their nobility and tenacity, who quietly challenge the status quo and manage to hold onto their sense of selves in the midst of a hostile society have much to teach all of us about how to live our lives.
BPM: What social issues do you address in your latest book, Justice Older than the Law? How is this book affecting the public?
KM: I have never been a “political writer” in that I have never set out to address any social issues. I am a storyteller, and my goal is to pass along stories that matter, that illuminate lives that exemplify nobility, courage, tenacity, faith and goodness. All truly great stories change the world, and they do so precisely because they come in “under the radar” of our critical sense and move our hearts and minds. When I set out to write Dovey Roundtree’s story, I did so because I was enthralled with her life experience and with her personal charisma. Having said that, I do believe that Justice Older than the Law speaks importantly to some of the most critical issues of our time. Contemporary America urgently needs this book. As we contemplate at fifty years’ distance the meaning of Brown v. Board in the light of recent Supreme Court rulings, as we struggle with issues of race at every turn, there is a sense that we’ve lost our bearings. What is justice? What sort of a society are we aiming toward? How can we capture the values we seem to have lost? How do we arrest what Dovey calls “the demon of violence” that is destroying our cities? To be able to tap into the world view of a 96-year-old living legend who brought her fight into the streets, the jailhouses, the churches, and ultimately, into the hearts of the individuals to whom she ministered, is an extraordinary opportunity, I believe, for people of all races.
BPM: What are you most proud of as a writer in today’s market?
KM: I have endeavored to pass on to the next generation of readers the stories of men and women who have prevailed over almost insuperable odds to achieve greatness in medicine, in the law, in athletics, and in public service. I believe that my legacy as a writer is that I have brought to life some truly extraordinary examples of the triumph of the human spirit. These examples speak to people of all races and backgrounds about what is possible when one draws strength from mentors and taps into one’s own well of courage, faith and tenacity.
In today’s market, which is dominated by books and movies that glorify violence, brutality and sexuality run rampant, I choose to tell stories that celebrate the eternal values, and I think that sets me apart from the mainstream.
BPM: How may readers contact you for more information and to find out more about the book?
KM: Visit us at http://www.justiceolderthanthelaw.com, the web site address for the book, and there is a link there to email Katie McCabe (at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Justice Older than the Law by Katie McCabe
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Hardcover: 288 pages