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IU Professor’s book “Homeward” examines the tragedy and triumphs of 1963

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IU English professor Angela Jackson-Brown loves talking about history. Her newest historical fiction book, “Homeward,” launched Oct. 10 at the Indiana Memorial Union. The book is set in 1963 Georgia and features recreations of famous civil rights leaders such as John Lewis, Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Jackson-Brown said she wanted to ensure when writing these iconic characters, she got the facts as accurate as possible. While writing a scene where King speaks at the church in the fictional town, she said she looked through multiple newspaper articles at libraries, spoke with King’s former secretary and even looked at his appointment book.  

“Dr. King was a terrible record keeper,” Jackson-Brown said. “The March on Washington was not in his appointment book, but I’m pretty sure he was there.” 

However, when attempting to write the sermon King delivers in her book, Jackson-Brown was faced with the fact she would have to deviate from the historical record. To use one of King’s original sermons, which the King Center holds the copyright for, she would need to pay $20,000 to $30,000.   

Steven Spielberg owns a few King sermons for a prospective movie, but would not discuss the matter. Both Jackson-Brown and her publisher, HarperCollins, emailed him and received no response. Jackson-Brown jokingly said she is now boycotting Spielberg. 

To solve this issue, Jackson-Brown followed in the footsteps of filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who was denied access to King’s sermons for the movie “Selma.” The author and filmmaker both wrote their own versions of King’s sermons.  

When Jackson-Brown read the sermon aloud, it seemed as though she was reciting a spoken word poem, not reading a book, with her wording reflecting King’s rhetoric. Throughout the talk, she discussed how important it was to her that she stick as close to history as possible. 

“I have a lot of moments where you think, wait a minute, you’re going a little bit too far off, and then, just before I do that, I pull back,” Jackson-Brown said. “I’m willing to allow fact to veer off but ultimately come back to the main road again.” 

Not everyone was pleased with Jackson-Brown’s inclusion of Civil Rights history. She said one early reader told her if people found out about her book, it would be banned.  

Jackson-Brown’s response was gratitude. She was proud to have written something worth banning.  

Still, she was confused by the idea history was harmful to America’s youth and disappointed the latest book she is working on, an unfinished vampire novel, has a smaller chance of being banned than “Homeward.” 

Yet Jackson-Brown’s supporters outnumber her detractors, as was evident by the turnout from the event. Organizers had to bring out more chairs to accommodate the large crowd.  

IU junior Hanh Bai, who is in one of Jackson-Brown's creative writing classes, said she saw a flyer promoting the event and recognized the cover of “Homeward” from a sneak peek Jackson-Brown showed her class. Although she said she is busiest on Tuesdays, she decided she had to go. Bai said that to her, Jackson-Brown is an inspiration. 

“The fact that I have direct access to an aspirational professional writer’s process and thoughts is such a privilege and such a highlight of my academic career here at IU,” Bai said.  

Bai said Jackson-Brown is different from some experts who are not always good at teaching.  

“She really meshes being a craftswoman but also a teacher,” Bai said. “It’s not always interchangeable because there could be people who are really smart and really bad at teaching, but I think she marries the best of both worlds.” 

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