Ella Stern Interviews Penny Mickelbury

Penny Mickelbury
Ella Stern Interviews Penny Mickelbury
Part One: Politics and the World Today

Ella Stern: Can you start by giving me a rundown of what your career has been like, both in journalism and out?

Penny Mickelbury: I wanted to be a reporter since I was very young and recognized the impact that newspapers had on my parents. I grew up in Atlanta in the bad old days. And the editor and publisher of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Eugene Patterson and Ralph McGill, started writing in the 1950s, saying to Southerners that, “We have to change, we have to stop. We cannot continue the way we’ve been going.”

And morning and evening, before anything, [my parents said], “Let’s see what McGill and Patterson have to say today.” I [thought], “Wow, I want to do that. I want to be able to have a positive impact on people’s lives.” As a child, I didn’t fully understand the danger that they were putting themselves in because they were saying to white Southerners in the ’50s, “You guys gotta cut this crap out. We’ve got to stop it. We can’t keep treating people like this. We can’t keep living like this.” And it was not well-received any more than it’s well-received today.

But I wanted to do that. I thought that that was just about the best thing that a person could do. In Atlanta, there was a Black daily, the Atlanta Daily World. And then there were two weeklies. That was at a time when most cities had two newspapers: a morning and an evening daily. And people subscribed to them. Now, we have no newspapers in the country. [In high school] I knew the editor of one of the weeklies, and I asked him if I could work there, and he said sure. So [in the] summers, I went to work there. I thought I was going to be writing, but no, I was learning layout. I taught journalism at a middle school in Los Angeles many years later, and I was able to teach layout to the students because it makes a difference where you place a story.

I was the first Black reporter at the Athens Banner-Herald [in] Athens, Georgia. [Earlier,] I had applied for a job there, and the publisher didn’t hesitate to tell me, “No, you can’t be a reporter here.” So, I got a job overnight copy editing and rewriting during my senior year. And then, the guy called me into his office one day. He said, “Okay, you can have a job as a reporter now.” And I said, “Really? Why?” Students were demonstrating. There was a lot of demonstrating going on, and I used to participate until I started working. He said, “They said they’re going to burn down my newspaper if I don’t have a Black reporter, and you’re the only one I know.” And that’s how I got a job as the first Black reporter at the Athens Banner-Herald.

And then, after almost a year of doing that, I got a call from the Washington Post. Eugene Patterson had been following my career. And he said, “You want a job at the Washington Post?” Well, hell yeah, I want a job at the Washington Post!

So that’s how I got to the Post. Just from knowing from my parents’ reactions to what these men were saying and the changes that were beginning to be fomented in the South then, [I knew] that I wanted to be able to have that kind of impact on everything, everybody—righting wrongs. Journalism to me was a place to right wrongs.

I look at journalism now, and I don’t recognize it as the same profession that I worked at. But we took that stuff seriously. The Fourth Estate is given protections under the Constitution. So I think we have an obligation to that. Now, you got members of Congress and on the Supreme Court who don’t know what the Constitution is. They don’t know what it says. And they certainly don’t take seriously the oath that they rose their hands and swore to uphold, to protect and defend the Constitution. They don’t even know what that means. But we took that stuff seriously.

Ella: What has it been like for you to see how much journalism has changed and declined in the decades since you were working as a journalist?

Penny: Painful. It’s painful. I have just resumed trying to watch the news. I recently canceled my subscription to the New York Times—and I’ve been a subscriber for over 50 years—because they have normalized the behavior of that fool who was the former president and all his sycophants. And I was on the verge of canceling my subscription to the Washington Post. But lately, it seems like they’ve grown a pair. I’ve been reading some stories, and it’s like, “Wow, is somebody really paying attention?” And so they really seem to be. I read the LA Times, but then the LA Times just fired all of its Black and brown reporters, so I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep that up. I am horrified, I am terrified because a country where the press doesn’t respect what it means to have the power and the authority that the press has frightens me because who’s going to tell us what we need to know if it’s not the Fourth Estate? Yeah, I’m scared. I’m really scared.

PBS is about the only news that I can listen to on a regular basis and get some truth, some understanding of what’s going on. There’s a part of me that is glad I’m old. I’m glad that I don’t have to live through another 15 or 20 years of this. I’m not trying to die, mind you, but I’ve been here longer than I will continue to be here. And if this country keeps going the way it’s going, I can say I won’t cry when I have to leave here.

Ella: What have been some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen over your lifetime? In politics, in human rights, in anything?

Penny: The biggest change is in people’s willingness to ignore the truth. I don’t think that, even in the middle of the civil rights movement, the most virulent racist would have said, “Oh, well, that didn’t happen to them. There was no slavery.” They knew it happened. Their parents were there. Their parents were the slave owners. They would never have tried to say it didn’t happen. And now you have this rewriting of fact, of truth. You have people banning books from libraries. My mother was a librarian, and I am truly glad that she did not live to see this. It’s something I never would have thought possible. How do you ban a book? And not just a book, but a whole collection of books? You don’t like what they say, so [you say] we’re not going to teach it. Or, “My kid didn’t like this book because it made him ashamed to be white.” That really ranks among the stupidest things I’ve ever heard in my life. “It made him ashamed to be white.” No it didn’t. It may have made him think, “Oh my goodness. Do my people really do this?” Yes, son, they do. But you can stop it. You can make sure they don’t.

And I think we all have those things happen to us. We were just listening to whatever happened in the Super Bowl in Kansas City. And they have arrested some people. I would be willing to accept somebody saying they were probably Black. They probably were. And that hurts me to my heart. But I would never say, “Oh no, they weren’t Black.” Sure they were. I don’t like that that’s the truth. And I don’t like what is happening to young Black men in America. And it needs to stop. But to say that, “Oh, well, they’re not doing these things.” Yeah, they are. Somebody’s sons and grandsons who look like me are doing these things, and we gotta stop it.

Those are the things that upset me, that make me not feel so good, and that have me questioning really and truly what I do next. I’m going to keep writing books, but I want to feel like I’m doing something useful in my community. And I don’t know what that is. I don’t know at this point, and I’ve been discussing it with friends, all of us of a certain age. And I don’t have the answer. And if you have any thoughts, I’m happy to hear them.

Ella: What are some of the things you’ve talked about with your friends about what you can do and what you can’t do?

Penny: Well, one of my dearest friends [suggested having] Black history taught from Black churches? Because nobody can go into a Black church and go, “Oh, you can’t teach Black history.” They sure can. Try to stop them. I think that is as good an idea as I’ve heard. Now, we’ve got to figure out how to implement it. And you start with one church at a time, but you start with the churches that have been on the forefront. For instance, Abyssinian Baptist Church or Ebenezer—that’s in New York, that was Adam Clayton Powell’s church. Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta. These places where the ministers made a difference. Teach Black history, and goodness knows there are enough teachers who will go in and teach those things and teach children. And all of these books that have been banned? Let’s go get them and let’s make them available in the Black churches. Nobody can tell them, “Oh, well, you can’t have any gay books in there.” Sure they can. They can do anything they want to do. And people can teach children what these things mean. Because there are gay people everywhere, and it ain’t a shock or a surprise, and it shouldn’t be. And if you don’t know any, you just think you don’t, maybe, you probably do. But [we need to teach children] how you interact with people. And you don’t call people names. No matter what the name is, whether it’s a racial or sexual epithet, you don’t talk to people that way. And that’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard. I don’t know how to make it happen, but I talk to people about it. I’ve mentioned it to several people, and everybody says, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea. How do we do it?” I don’t know. So, Ella, if you got a thought about how we do this, I’m all ears.

Ella: I agree that it’s a great idea. And it seems, like you said, like something that would have to be each church at a time, but it seems like something where if you went and talked to a church in your community, then they would probably be able to pass it on among other churches that they’re affiliated with.

Penny: A church at a time. And maybe you pick a couple of cities. Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Atlanta, where there are these very strong Black communities. And then, get entertainers involved because the civil rights movement was full of entertainers, singers, and writers, and people listened to them. Can you imagine if Beyoncé said, “Okay, I’m going to give a concert at Ebenezer Baptist Church,”—you wouldn't be able to get down the block. Because it's Beyoncé! I don’t know what she knows about history, but she could certainly be an advocate. Or whoever the hip-hop people are. You know, you get people involved.

Ella: Yeah, absolutely.

Part Two: Gay Rights, Writing, and Sinister Wisdom

Ella Stern: You talked a little bit about the banning of gay books. Can you talk to me about how you’ve seen queer rights change throughout your lifetime and where you think things are going in terms of queer rights?

Penny Mickelbury: Well, let’s start from the fact that when I was your age, we didn’t have any rights. And you did well to keep your sexual preferences and orientations to yourself. You could lose your job. Not “could”—you would lose your job, get kicked out of school. Some kids—and more than a few—got kicked out of their homes. There were no rights.

And there certainly weren’t any books. And I think that’s one of the most important differences. There was no place to learn about who you were. I knew I liked girls, but there was nobody to tell it to. Until, as I got older and left Atlanta and moved to Washington, I met other women like myself. But it was still just this small group of people. And it was to our advantage to keep that information to ourselves because we could all lose our jobs. We’d all be fired and there was nobody to talk to. There was no information.

And then, I learned about Lammas bookstore. The women’s bookstore; it was on Capitol Hill at that time. And I was sort of intimidated and afraid to go in there. I mean, I loved bookstores and I loved books, but how do I ask them, “Where are the books for those of us who love women?” Well, half the books in that store were books [for those of us who love women]. And the women who owned and ran the store offered information and help. I was out of college, I was working, and that was the first time I knew that there was a place to go.

And it has evolved to what we have now. Now, you say “LBGTQA” and some other stuff, [but] we didn’t know all that stuff. There were boys, and there were girls. And then there was another category, and we all knew who these people were, who were what we would now call transgender. We didn’t have a name [for that back then]. They just were as they were. And some of us were part of a social network that included those people, and some of us knew that there were places where they absolutely were not included or tolerated. And so we had our own discrimination within our own group. There were people that we discriminated against because they weren’t—and this is going to sound weird—they weren’t normal. What was normal? We’re not normal to most people. I mean, [are you] going to go to your job and go, “Oh, excuse me, would you like to meet my girlfriend?” I don’t think so. “Can I bring my girlfriend to the office Christmas party?” I don’t think so.

And so the change that exists now, we never could have imagined. We never could have imagined being able to be open and accepted in many places. Elected officials, gay judges and lawyers—what? We never would have [imagined] it. And being called, being able to say “queer” without it being a provocation, without it being a slam. You didn’t call anybody queer, you know? But within our community, we appropriated that term. I personally don’t like it for myself. I am a lesbian. But I’m not going to get mad at somebody because he says, “Okay, you go here with the queer people.” Okay, if I must, I will, but I’d much rather be where the girls are, you know, where are all the women? That’s where I want to be.

Ella: And what do you think are some of the most important things for society to keep doing in terms of gay rights? What are the places where we most need improvement?

Penny: Well, people have got to stand up en masse against this book-banning crap. And people have to not be afraid to normalize those people in their communities who are same-gender loving. Nobody said you had to be gay. You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything. But you can’t stop me. And that’s what I think needs to happen: people need to stop being afraid, stop worrying about what somebody else thinks.

And this whole evangelical crap is just another way of giving people permission to discriminate against everybody—and they hate everybody. People need to start standing up [against] that. We [need to be] saying, “No. Not where I live. Not on my watch. No, I do not accept your position on this.” You can believe what you like, but you don’t have the right to inflict it on other people. I don’t care where you go to church, but you don’t get to preach your thing as a blanket, “This is the way because God said.” To whom? God told you of all the people God could tell something to? I don’t think so. Whatever God you believe in, she didn’t tell you. There were some other people she might have told, but not you. Everybody says we can’t criticize it. [But] we can, and we must. We’ve got to stop letting people get away with that crap. Because then it becomes normal. It’s the same thing as Trump and those fools. We have normalized this evangelical whatever-they-are. Ain’t nothing normal about that. What you believe is your business; I don’t want to hear it. I’m not trying to convert you to Buddhism. I'm a Buddhist, but that ain’t nobody’s business but mine. I’m not trying to convert you.

Ella: Yeah, absolutely. People who are using their religion to hate others are not using it right.

Penny: Absolutely. And there’s nothing normal about that. Why is religion in this conversation anyway?

Ella: Exactly. And you talked about the importance of fighting against the banning of LGBTQ+ books. Especially given that, how does it feel to be working on this Lesbian Stories edition of Sinister Wisdom?

Penny: There are times when I feel a little bit out of my element because all of these wonderful women that I’m working with have tremendous experience as editors. I’m comfortable holding my own among writers, but I’m not an editor. However, I can say that I have been edited by some of the best, so I know what it’s supposed to look like. Katherine Forrest was my first editor, and I am never too far away from her advice. And the editor that I have now at Bywater, Fay Jacobs—I would walk to Delaware [where she lives] if she said, “Look, we need to have a meeting, and I need for you to walk here.” That is how unwavering I am in my belief in her ability. She does what a good editor is supposed to do, which is help a writer make a better book. And I have Rachel and Katherine and Judith to guide me along the way if I feel like I’m out of my element. I am very, very happy to be a part of this effort.

Ella: This issue of Sinister Wisdom centers on how lesbians of different ages are building off of each other’s work and stories. How do you feel about that? What excites you about it?

Penny: I think it’s brilliant because that may be the best way, maybe even the only way, for me to access young lesbian writers. I don’t know any. And I certainly am not likely to encounter them in a social setting. We don’t hang out with the same people, not because we don’t like the same people, but they don’t hang out with people my age, and I don’t hang out with people your age. Even my nieces are older than you are. And the great-nieces are too young to be hanging out with anybody right now. And I think I can speak for my contemporaries [in that we would love to be introduced to and meet with young women writers.]

I’m excited about being able to read the writings [in Sinister Wisdom]. I want to know what [young writers] are thinking, if it’s any different than what I thought in my 20s. I’d love to be able to communicate with them, but in this format, most of my communicating will be with Catherine and Judith and Rachel because we will be talking about the work and what it’s saying. I have no idea what to expect. But I’m open to it, as are we all. We’re all of a different generation, but we love writing. And we were once 20- and 30-something, so we know how it felt to have somebody’s eyes on your work and [be] waiting for the judgment. I don’t think any of us have gotten so old that we have forgotten that, you know?

Ella: Yeah. And people of my generation don’t [often] get to talk to any older gay people, so it’s always really special to be able to do that and thank your generation for everything you did that gets us what we have today. I think there’s not nearly enough intergenerational communication about that sort of thing.

Penny: There isn’t. And I love hearing that from you. And I’m going to speak for myself, but I think I can also speak for Catherine and Judith: reach out. You know how to find us. And then ask us who else we know. “I know you know some more writers. Introduce me to some.” Happy to do that. Because it’s important for us to know that all that stuff, all those years, didn’t just vanish, evaporate. That people still read it, that young people are still reading and going, “Wow, that’s a pretty good story. Even if it is written by somebody older than my grandmother, [it’s] still a pretty good story.” So reach out, talk to us, let us know what you need to know.

Ella: That’s awesome. And one last conversation topic before we wrap up: can you tell me more about your career writing books? I feel like we’ve been circling around it this whole time.

Penny: Oh, my. My career writing books. I left journalism because it had become the news business and not the profession of journalism. Well, that ain’t what I signed up for. But writing has always been a part of my life. I mean, I’ve always written, always. So I’m going to try to write a book. And a friend of mine said to me, “Well, write a mystery because you read them all the time.” And I did. My parents read mysteries; I’ve been reading mysteries since I [was young]. So I said okay. And the first lesbian mystery I read was a Katherine Forrest book. I didn’t know lesbians wrote mysteries. And [from] the women’s bookstore in Westwood [called Sisterhood], [I] got a bunch of books by lesbians. I was like, “Holy crap. I didn’t know this existed.” And I have been at it ever since.

I've got 15 or 16 novels published, most of them lesbian-focused and lesbian-centered. But I know I am not everybody’s cup of tea. I don’t write romances, and I don’t write the easy way out because life just ain’t that easy for so many people. And people have told me they don’t want to talk [or hear] about this stuff. Okay. But it’s what I write. I was talking to a friend recently who was being published by one of the big lesbian presses that wrote a lot of romances, but she couldn’t get her book published because she was told—by the editor—that nobody wanted to read about young Black girls finding themselves as lesbians, as youngsters. And it didn’t bother her to say that to a Black writer. Well, there are lots of people who want to read about this.

I love writing it; I love reading it. When I used to teach, I loved teaching it. And I’m always on the lookout for a good writer. It’s like, “Where’s this story that I haven’t read, for somebody to give me?” That’s one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to this process. What are young people thinking about? What do you think about? What do you want to write about? And, [I know this] because I do it, you write about stuff you’d like to read about. So I’m looking forward to it.

Ella: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Penny: I really do hope that you and the other young people in this program will reach out to us, that you will access us when you think we can be helpful. As I said before, I think I can speak for Catherine and Judith—and Rachel, although Rachel sees you guys on a regular basis because she teaches you—[in saying that] we not only want to hear from you, we need to hear from you. Most of us don’t have children and grandchildren. Unless we teach, we have no idea what you all are thinking, or what you’re feeling, or what you’re reading, or what you think about what we write. I’d love to know what you think about what I write. The issues that I write about [are faced by] everybody in this society. But if you’re not feeling represented, I’d love to know that. I really would. And tell your friends. If I’ve written a book and there’s a young person [in it] and you think I don’t know anybody who acts like this, please tell me. I’d like to know. I appreciate the opportunity to interact with young people and I miss being able to do it. I used to teach, [but] I don’t do that anymore. So I’d love to have the experience.

Ella: I’m hoping to read some of your books because I’ve been looking for more mysteries to read, so what better place to start?

Penny: Okay, well, mysteries I write, and historical fiction. That’s what I do now, is historical. So please read them, and let me know.

Ella: Awesome. I will. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been incredible to talk to you.

Penny: You’re very welcome. And please feel free to reach out anytime.

Ella: I will.

Ella Stern conducted this interview on February 14, 2024.

Penny Mickelbury is the author of 15 novels, a collection of short stories, and a contributor to half a dozen short story collections. She is a Lammy and Goldie finalist. She is the 2020 recipient of the Alice B Medal. She was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2019.

Ella Stern (she/her) is a first-year student at Macalester College in St. Paul. She is interning for the upcoming “Lesbian Stories” issue of Sinister Wisdom. Ella loves writing, interviewing, intergenerational communication, and lesbians, and she has loved incorporating all of these into this project.

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

“And the metaphorical lenses we choose are crucial, having the power to magnify, create better focus, and correct our vision.”
― Charlene Carruthers

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

“It’s revolutionary to connect with love”
— Tourmaline

"Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught."

― Leslie Feinberg

“The problem with the use of language of Revolution without praxis is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. “
— Leila Raven