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A Different Black American History

Storytelling with Michelle Dobbs

Mar. 21, 2013
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Milwaukee author Michelle Dobbs describes herself as an artist first and then a storyteller. She quit her job in the nonprofit world in 2009 and dedicated herself to publishing her first book, The Rock Island Line.


Tell me about the book.

It’s about a racially blended African-American family living in Rock Island, Ill., and adapting to the changes as that small town grew into a hub for a booming railroad industry.


How did it come about?

When I was in college, my grandmother began telling me a story about this lady who used to be a maid for our family. She was kicked out because she had an affair with my grandmother’s uncle. I told my grandmother it would make a great story and she said, “Write it and I’ll tell you about it.”


Why was it important to tell this story?

I wanted to add variety to the African-American stories that are told, both currently and historically. When I talked to publishers, they told me it wasn’t a believable story, which is weird because it’s a true story. One agent told me if I could make them talk a little “blacker,” it might be more believable. This is a story of people who have been Northerners forever. They live in a rural area. There’s no urban living to it. I’ve read so many Southern stories and I just felt like adding something different to the mix. I also wanted to own my whole heritage: my grandpa was Native American.


Would you say it’s creative nonfiction?

Yes. We had to build this particular family using elements of our whole family. Some of the stories are hearsay. My grandmother didn’t remember it all. We had to fill in the blanks.


Why did you decide to self-publish?

I started writing it in 1998 and finished in 2004. I sent out the manuscript and started to get the rejection letters from publishers who liked my writing but weren’t interested in the story. It wasn’t that I was fed up, so much as feeling misunderstood. I thought no one would care for this project the way I would. In 2010, I decided to publish it myself, and by 2012 I launched Sugarfoot Publishing. (My grandmother used to call her grandchildren “sugarfoot.”) The hard copy is now sold nationally at Barnes and Noble, locally at Boswell Book Company and a Kindle version is available on Amazon.


Do you think this story will inspire others to tell theirs?

It already has. I want to use this book to educate and entertain the next generation of African-Americans. I want more people to get their elders to talk about their history and to at least start to reflect on what their own black American history is.


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