Biography

BIO Announces New Fellowship in Support of African American Lives

Frances Rollin kept one of the earliest known diaries written by a southern Black woman. Her 1868 diary covers the publication of her biography of Martin R. Delany; a transcript of it is available online through the Smithsonian Institution. Click the image to go to the diary.

By Eric K. Washington, with Sarah Kilborne, Anne Boyd Rioux, and Sonja Williams

BIO is pleased to announce the new Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for African American Biography. The Rollin Fellowship will award $2,000 to an author working on a biographical work about an African American figure (or figures) whose story provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the Black experience. The deadline for applications is February 1, 2021.

The Rollin Fellowship is named for the first known African American biographer—Frances “Frank” Rollin—and aims to remediate the disproportionate scarcity and even suppression of Black lives and voices in the broad catalog of published biography. At its September meeting, the Board of Directors unanimously approved the new fellowship, which reinforces BIOs mission to encourage diversity in the field.

The fellowship’s namesake, Frances Anne Rollin Whipper (1845–1901)—who published as “Frank A. Rollin”—was a 19th-century author and activist. Her groundbreaking 1868 biography, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, presented the life of a Black abolitionist journalist, physician, and Union Army officer. The Black press recognized the significance of the precedent Rollin set and called for more biographies of African Americans. This fellowship seeks to carry forth that call into the 21st century.

The Rollin Fellowship aims to foster the development of biographical works that encourage deeper insight into the complexity of race relations at the bedrock of American history. This fellowship will support any biography that highlights the Black experience in the Americas, and that is set within the vast time period between (and even before) 1619 and the present. It will support any aspect of African American inhabitancy, dispersion, immigration, or emigration. It will support biographies of Black lives often marginalized by gender, gender-orientation, sexuality, or disability.

Please spread the word about the Rollin Fellowship through your networks. For more information, please visit the Rollin Fellowship page on BIO’s website.

Eric K. Washington chairs BIO’s ad hoc Black Lives Matter Committee, on which Anne Boyd Rioux, Sarah Kilborne, and Sonja Williams also serve.

On Being “Frank”

By Eric K. Washington

Carole Ione’s work includes the opera The Nubian Word for Flowers, a co-creation with Pauline Oliveros that debuted in 2017.

One could say Carole Ione, also known professionally as IONE—a playwright, poet, diarist, and frequent co-creator with her longtime spouse, the late composer Pauline Oliveros —has grown accustomed to long waits. As chair of BIO’s Black Lives Matter Committee, I recently had the privilege of informing Ione that Frances Anne Rollin Whipper (1845–1901) would be the namesake of a new $2,000 fellowship next spring, to be offered for a biography-in-progress of an African American figure. Whipper claimed the distinction of being the first known African American biographer in 1868, when just before her marriage she published—under the pen name “Frank A. Rollin”—Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, about a Black abolitionist journalist, physician, and Union Army officer.

Ione had played a key role in reviving her predecessor’s nearly forgotten merit. In 1991, 90 years after Whipper’s death, Ione traversed uncharted bloodlines to an unknown great-grandmother—her book, Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, was at once biography and memoir. (The book was edited by Ileene Smith, winner of BIO’s 2019 Editorial Excellence Award.) Ione’s personally, long-awaited book received good reviews, yet nevertheless seemed ill-timed, for her publisher (Summit Books) went out of business right after its release. But nearly three decades later, Carole Ione appears no less heartened for good news.

Carole Ione’s Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color was a New York Times Notable Book.

Eric K. Washington: What was your thought when you heard your great-grandmother, Frances Rollin, was to be the namesake of a biography fellowship?
Carole Ione
: Oh, it really was like a dream coming true through centuries. When I was working on my book I was obsessed with her. There’s this line in her diary in which she said she wanted to “make her mark in literature,” but many things prevented that from happening fully. She was acclaimed for the book when it came out, and then she had much other writing that was interrupted by the difficulties of the Reconstruction Congress. Her political activism remained intact, and she gave her all [to] raising kids in Washington. Yet I’ve always felt the sort of longing in her remark. And when I heard the news, I felt that it had happened.

EKW: Frances Rollin was a remarkable woman, with whom you had much in common as a writer and a diarist. Yet somehow you didn’t become acquainted with her until adulthood?
CI: Yes, my mother had mentioned that there was someone, but it was very vague. I was a freelance writer in the 70s, scrambling for all kinds of stories. Ms. magazine was happening, and I remembered something about the women in my family . . . something about a diary. My mother had sent the diary to Dorothy Sterling [another writer, then working on We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, W. W. Norton, 1984], who sent me the diary.

So I discovered my great-grandmother [Frances Rollin, who married lawyer William J. Whipper] as an adult with children. I had a good education, but there were no African American studies at the time. When I opened the book, I said “how could I have not known about this woman my whole life?” So part of my research was in finding out, you know, why the women in my family were not forthcoming about their own lives.

The men in the family were quite renowned in their way—William S. Whipper [noted abolitionist, not to be confused with Frances’s husband, William J. Whipper], and my grandfather, Leigh Whipper [Frances’s son, the legendary stage and screen actor] . . . but when I tried to find out about the women, [the family] had very little to say. So as I began to write I looked toward this woman, Frances Anne Rollin, as the mother who would share with me all of her secrets and her needs.

EKW: Did the nonfiction genres of biography or memoir particularly interest you prior to learning of your great-grandmother’s contribution to the field?
CI: Well, I was always interested in personal writing and personal life stories. Colette, for example, was my muse from early childhood, because my mother had a book of hers, and what mother had on her shelf I gobbled up. They were not African American stories, but they were biographies. So, yes, I was very interested.

EKW: Tell us about Frances’s nom de plume, “Frank.” Literary history abounds with instances of women writers masking their gender behind male pen names. Was this her story?
CI: You know, when I was discovering her, I was involved with the early feminist movement in a very deep way. I really was incensed that she had to publish under a man’s name. But as I deepened into my research, I found evidence that the family called her “Frank,” her nickname. Frank A. Rollin was a part of who she really was. I was relieved to find that out, and from then on, she became Frank to me, and I always wrote about her in that way.

EKW: What do you see as the lasting legacy of a 19th-century Black woman first-time biographer on a generation of 21st-century biographers?
CI: I think her perseverance in writing about a very important subject—there have been other biographies of Martin Delany, but her book is the primary source of information. And the concept of her money drying up, which happens to so many writers, then persevering through the harsh times of the political climate. Also, I think her position . . .

[Here Ione evokes her great-grandmother’s rectitude by citing a diary entry on George Washington’s birthday in 1868.]

If things continue as they are, there will be but little country to celebrate it. For myself I am no enthusiast over patriotic celebrations as I am counted out of the body politic.

CI: “Frank” was acutely aware of the worldly events around her, and of taking a stand toward better elements of life for writers and for people of color and for women.

It seems that what Ione once felt to be her great-grandmother’s unfulfilled longing to “make her mark in literature” might now be a source of inspiration. She’s thrilled by the news that next year some writer will receive BIO’s first Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship. “It happened!” she exclaims, conveying a sense that her patience, over a century and a half in the making, has been well rewarded.

Eric K. Washington is a BIO board member and chair of the Black Lives Matter Committee. The New York Academy of History recently awarded his biography, Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, its Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York History.

Gayatri Patnaik to Receive Editorial Excellence Award

At Beacon Press, Gayatri Patnaik co-edited The King Legacy series, a partnership between Beacon and Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate.

Gayatri Patnaik will receive BIO’s 2020 Editorial Excellence Award on Monday evening, November 9, at an online event featuring three of her authors: Imani Perry, Marcus Rediker, and Jeanne Theoharis, along with literary agent Tanya McKinnon.

Patnaik is Associate Director and Editorial Director of Beacon Press, where for 18 years she has edited and published many books on race, ethnicity, and immigration. A native of India who emigrated with her family to the United States as a child, she has focused on African American history, creating Beacon’s “ReVisioning American History” series and its “Queer Action / Queer Ideas” series.

Kai Bird, chair of BIOs Award Committee, with Tim Duggan, Peniel Joseph, Kitty Kelley, and Megan Marshall, praised Patnaik for her work as a very gutsy, courageous editor who has taken on some high-risk, controversial biographies and published so many outstanding authors.”

Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, is the author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radical Life of Lorraine Hansbury, winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, and other awards.

Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, is the award-winning author of numerous books including The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.   

Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, is the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, winner of the NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award of the Association of Black Women Historians.

Tanya McKinnon, founder and principal of McKinnon Literary, represents New York Times bestselling and award-winning nonfiction that amplifies progressive voices, as well as fiction, childrens books, and graphic novels.

BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award is presented annually to an outstanding editor from nominations submitted by BIO members. Past recipients are Tim Duggan, Robert Gottlieb, Jonathan Segal, Ileene Smith, Nan A. Talese, and Robert Weil.

Register for free tickets on Eventbrite and receive a link to join the event on Zoom on Monday, November 9, at 7 p.m. ET.

Fair Use: Q&A with the Experts

On June 9, Brandon Butler and Peter Jaszi took part in a virtual workshop for BIO on fair use for biographers. Here, Butler and Jaszi answer two follow-up questions on the topic. You can see a recording of the workshop here, and read BIO’s Statement on Best Practices regarding fair use here

Q: Taking into account fair use doctrine, when do we—and when don’t we—have to pay licensing fees in order to use photographs and other illustrations still under copyright in our books? And how do we find out if a photograph or illustration is out of copyright and can be reprinted freely?
A: There are two key contexts in which you don’t have to pay fees to use third-party content (such as photographs or illustrative material). The first is when your use is a fair use. We covered the broad contours of the fair use doctrine, and how it applies to some recurring biographical uses, in some detail during our webinar. Another very useful source of guidance on the scope of fair use is the growing body of best practices documents developed by communities of creators and other frequent users of in-copyright works. If your use is a fair use, you don’t have to get permission or pay licensing fees. An excellent case in point, which we described during the webinar, is the Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley case. Among other useful things, the Second Circuit’s opinion informs us that:

Preliminarily, we recognize, as the district court did, that Illustrated Trip is a biographical work documenting the 30–year history of the Grateful Dead. While there are no categories of presumptively fair use, courts have frequently afforded fair use protection to the use of copyrighted material in biographies, recognizing such works as forms of historic scholarship, criticism, and comment that require incorporation of original source material for optimum treatment of their subjects.

This important case also makes clear that fair uses don’t necessarily involve critique or commentary on the work that is being used. In that case, as in many others, the point of the reproduction was to illustrate the author’s narrative—which can be an entirely legitimate fair use purpose.

The other major context for unlicensed use is when the work you’re using is in the public domain, i.e., the work is no longer protected by copyright (or, in the case of some federal government works, it never was protected by copyright). The best quick reference for determining whether a work is in the public domain is the Cornell University Library’s handy chart. And sometimes, of course, text or images you want to use are available under a general Creative Commons license.

Q: How can we talk to our editors and publishers about a more liberal interpretation of fair use, especially in light of what you told us in the Zoom workshop about courts’ evolving and more expansive views on the law over the last 20 years?
A: Most editors and publishers need to understand four key things:

  • Fair use law has changed very substantially over the last two decades, including (crucially) its treatment of unpublished material. The very bad cases regarding unpublished material in biographies that were decided in the 1980s and early 1990s were overturned by an act of Congress, which added language to the Copyright Act explicitly stating that unpublished material shall be susceptible to the same balanced analysis as published materials. More generally, the law of fair use has become much, much more coherent and much more strongly favorable toward legitimate users than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • This change is now very, very well established. Scholars have shown, repeatedly, that if your use is “transformative,” you will win in court. Cases about biography and related scholarly uses, in particular, show a very clear mode of analysis that any author and publisher can apply favorably to their own typical, recurring uses. Plaintiffs now understand this, and they are wary of bringing lawsuits they know will lose. Courts have become quite willing to dismiss cases at early stages when a strong fair use case is evident on the face of the complaint.
  • Fair use makes books better. Arbitrary omissions and alterations that are rooted in legal fear, rather than in the author’s (and the editor’s) judgment about what best serves the story, will always make a book worse. They will lead you to leave out important context, to make assertions without important evidence, to ask the reader to trust you rather than give them the opportunity to believe their own eyes. The publisher that is willing to flex their fair use rights in support of authors will publish more, better books, and they will attract authors who value the freedom to tell their stories to the fullest extent allowed by their First Amendment rights, rather than having to trim their sails in deference to illusory legal risk. For a while, this will give savvy publishers a competitive advantage. 
  • According to Congress, fair use is a right, and the Supreme Court has weighed in to say that it’s closely related to the First Amendment freedom of expression. So, there is nothing sneaky or disreputable about exercising the fair use right where it applies.
Experience in other fields suggests that once one publisher or editor takes advantage of their rights, others will follow eventually, lest they be left behind. As more join the fair use pack and industry norms catch up to legal reality, there will be safety in numbers and everyone will be better off for it. For this to happen, though, authors may have to take the first step, by insisting that the editors and publishers allow them to make responsible use of this important copyright doctrine. 

Race, Racism, and Biography

Six BIO members shared their views on race and biography for the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft:

Black Lives/Young Readers by Ray Anthony Shepard

Archival Interventions: Reconstructing Life on the Margins of History by Pamela Newkirk

Biography Matters by Patricia Bell-Scott

Before There Was Karen, There Was Miss Anne by Carla Kaplan

The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph

Biography Has Mattered to Black Lives by Eric K. Washington

 

Black Lives Matter to BIO

During this historic summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter is garnering support nationally and internationally. For biographers and readers of biography, black lives matter, and writing black lives matters. Six BIO members will contribute essays to the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft about black lives, racism, and how they relate to biography. Here, in the meantime, are biographies of African-Americans by BIO members.

Alexandrov, Vladimir. The Black Russian, 2013.

Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice, 2016.

Branch, Taylor. America in the King Years, 3 Volumes, 1988, 1998, 2006.

Bundles, A’Lelia. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, 2001.

Burgan, Michael: Olympic Gold 1936: How the Image of Jesse Owens Crushed Hitler’s Evil Myth, 2017.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, 2004.

Cooper, Michael L. From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls, 1994

Forret, Jeff. Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts, 2020

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Mr. And Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend, 2008.

Gould, Jonathan. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, 2017.

Henig, Adam. Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey, 2014; Baseball Under Siege: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training, 2017.

Joseph, Peniel. Stokely: A Life, 2014; The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., 2020.

Kaplan, Carla. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2002.

Kelley, Kitty. Oprah: A Biography, 2010.

Kiesel, Diane. She Can Bring Us Home: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer, 2015.

Kranish, Michael. The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor; America’s First Black Sports Hero, 2019.

Meyer, Eugene. Five for Freedom: The African-American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, 2018.

Mikorenda, Jerry. America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights, 2020.

Morris, James McGrath. Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, 2017.

Newkirk, Pamela. Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, 2015.

Parker, Alison M. Unceasing Militant:The Life of Mary Church Terrell, due in December 2020.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1976; The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 Volumes, 1986, 2002; Jackie Robinson: A Biography, 1997; Ralph Ellison: A Biography, 2007.

Shepard, Ray. Now or Never!: Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery, 2017.

Snyder, Brad. A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, 2007

Teachout, Terry. Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, 2013.

Tooma, Billy. The Black Eagle of Harlem (documentary film), 2017.

Washington, Eric K. Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, 2019.

Williams, Sonja. Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom, 2015.

Woelfle, Gretchen. Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, 2014; Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution, 2016.

If you know of a biography by a BIO member that should be added to this list, please email Michael Burgan.

BIO Welcomes New Board Members and a New Vice President

By Linda Leavell

BIO members recently elected a new vice president, Sarah Kilborne, and three new board members: Natalie Dykstra, Steve Paul, and Eric K. Washington. Like BIO’s membership at large, members of BIO’s Board of Directors come from diverse backgrounds and practice the art of biography in multiple print and non-print media.

Sarah Kilborne

Sarah Kilborne has chaired BIO’s Publicity and Social Media Committee for the past two years. Thanks to her initiative and enthusiasm for BIO and the support of her committee members, BIO is upgrading its website and increasing BIO’s presence in the media and publishing world. Kilborne is a performance artist and LGBTQ activist, as well as a writer for children and adults. Her American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster into Destiny was published by Free Press in 2012. Her current project is a group biography of the women musicians featured in her one-woman show, The Lavender Blues: A Showcase of Queer Music before World War II.

Natalie Dykstra

Natalie Dykstra is a longtime member and supporter of BIO. She received BIO’s first Ina and Robert Caro Travel Fellowship and has presented several times at BIO conferences. Her first biography, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Massachusetts Book Award. Her current project, a biography of the art collector and museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner, won support from the 2019 NEH Public Scholar program and is under contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Dykstra teaches in the English Department at Hope College in Michigan during the fall semester and the rest of the year works from her home near Boston.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is a journalist-turned-biographer. Since his retirement as a reporter, editor, and book critic for the Kansas City Star, he has written and published Hemingway at Eighteen with Chicago Review Press, an independent publisher that he connected with during his first BIO Conference. He has just completed the first draft of a biography and literary portrait of the American writer and Kansas City-native Evan S. Connell, under contract with University of Missouri Press. Paul is a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle and for the past year served on BIO’s Caro Fellowship Committee.

Eric K. Washington

Eric K. Washington is an independent historian of New York neighborhoods and the author of Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, just out in December from Liveright/Norton. The project earned him a 2015–2016 Leon Levy Biography Fellowship, a Dora Maar House Residency Fellowship in France, and participation in Columbia University’s Community Scholar program for three years. His profile of AIDs activist Phill Wilson for Out magazine received recognition from the National Association of Black Journalists. Washington is the owner of Tagging the Past, which endeavors to reconnect forgotten history to present landscapes through articles, talks, and tours.

Kilborne, Washington, Paul, and Dykstra will help BIO grow both in numbers and in influence over the coming years.

Linda Leavell is a charter member and current president of BIO. Her biography of the American poet Marianne Moore won the 2014 Plutarch Award and PEN Award.

BIO Workshop: Making Full Use of Fair Use

You can see a video of this workshop here.

This meeting is free and open to all who register. 

Fair use—the right of biographers and other writers, under limited conditions, to quote, paraphrase, summarize, and reproduce the copyrighted words and images of our subjects and others, without paying fees—is embedded in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. Our distinguished panel of experts cuts through the almost universal confusion about fair use to illuminate this necessary and vital tool of our core work.

Panel: Brandon Butler is the director of information policy at the University of Virginia Libraries and was the co-principle investigator on the widely respected Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries.

John A. Glusman is the vice president and editor-in-chief of W. W. Norton & Company.

Peter Jaszi is a Professor Emeritus at American University’s Washington College of Law, where he helped to found the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Clinic. He has served as a trustee of the Copyright Society of the USA and as a member of the Librarian of Congress’s Committee on Copyright Registration and Deposit. He is the co-author of the groundbreaking book, Reclaiming Copyright.

Participants are encouraged to read BIO’s statement on fair use and to email their questions ahead of time to Anne Heller.

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