Take two fine memoirists to lunch, and before long they will be trading moments from their childhood when a door opened, as Graham Greene put it, and let the future in.
President Jimmy Carter, 90, grew up in Archery, Ga., in one of just two white families in an African-American community of 200. He went on to distinguished careers as a naval officer, a peanut farmer and businessman, a governor of Georgia, and the 39thpresident of the United States, from 1977 to 1981. In his post-presidency, perhaps the most impressive in American history, he and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, founded the Carter Center in Atlanta with Emory University, dedicated to advancing human rights through conflict resolution, global health and fair elections. Mr. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He published a memoir, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” this month.
The author Jacqueline Woodson, 52, won the National Book Award for young people’s literature in 2014 for “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a best-selling and critically acclaimed memoir of growing up in Jim Crow South Carolina and Brooklyn, told in exquisite free verse. She has written more than two dozen books for children and young people and won numerous awards, including four Newbery Honor Awards, two Coretta Scott King Awards and the N.A.A.C.P. Image Award. She was recently named young people’s poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and two children.
Over Caesar salad and white pizza at the restaurant Clement at the Peninsula Hotel, the pair spoke candidly about their earliest memories of race, the importance of organized religion in their worldviews and their assessments of such divisive issues as race relations, the Confederate flag and same-sex marriage.
Philip Galanes: Let’s start with a line from Jacqueline’s book: “Somewhere in my brain, each laugh, tear and lullaby becomes memory.” How did you mine memories from 85 years ago?
Jimmy Carter: Well, I’m an expert typist. I learned in high school. I would close my eyes and just type without worrying about mistakes. I tried to penetrate my heart, and as I let my thoughts drift, things bubbled up to the surface.
Jacqueline Woodson: Memories don’t come back as straight narrative. They come in little bursts with white space all around them. It felt more realistic to write mine as poems.
PG: I was surprised that you included poems in your book too, President Carter.
JC: Oh, I’ve been writing poems since I was in the Navy — to Rosalynn. I found I could say things in poems that I never could in prose. Deeper, more personal things. I could write a poem about my mother that I could never tell my mother. Or feelings about being on a submarine that I would have been too embarrassed to share with fellow submariners.
PG: Let’s explore some of those feelings. You grew up as nearly the only white family in a community of African-Americans. Did you think about that much?
JC: It was like breathing. I never thought about it. All my playmates on the farm were black, and later, when I started school in Plains, it was allwhite. But I was always eager to get back home to my friends in Archery.
PG: It’s the perfect inverse of Jacqueline’s experience. Her mother always telling her, “One day you will be in a room, and you will be the only person who looks like you.”
JC: I bet you’ve done that a lot.
JW: Yes, I’ve been in a lot of those rooms. People have a sense that when the laws changed, Jim Crow was simply over. But it wasn’t. It was still very dangerous for blacks. My grandmother still took us to the back of the bus in South Carolina. She didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. And growing up, we were told never to run in a white neighborhood. People wouldn’t know why you were running. You might get shot. And this was in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s.
JC: My understanding of racial discrimination as a child was highly distorted because the most prominent man in Archery was an African-American bishop. When he came home from up north, where he was in charge of A.M.E. churches in five states, it was front-page news. He was the most successful man in my life. I never had any feeling that blacks were secondary.
JW: And it wasn’t just in the South. When we moved to Brooklyn, we lived in Bushwick, right across the line from Ridgewood, a predominantly white community. It wasn’t safe to run in Ridgewood either. We were learning code-switching from such an early age — like a double consciousness almost from the womb.
PG: You both have children. Have you needed to speak with them about race?
JC: My father was a strict segregationist. When I was growing up, all the men were, from the Supreme Court to the Congress to the churches. But my mother paid no attention to it. And I would say my siblings and I all inherited our mother’s attitude. We have 22 voters in the family: four children, 12 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren. And in 2008, we all voted for Obama in the Democratic primaries — not one for Hillary.
JW: A part of me doesn’t want to bring my back story to my kids. I want them to have their own experiences walking through the world. But then something happens, and we end up talking about race a lot. My son was so mad at “Frozen.” He said: “There were no black people in that movie! How could they make a whole movie with no black people in it?” He’s 7. And I’m sure a lot of his reaction reflects the early conversations we had about race.
JC: And you had that unpleasant incident with the watermelon joke.
PG: Exactly. On one of your biggest nights, winning the National Book Award, Daniel Handler stands up and announces to the audience that you’re allergic to watermelon. Then says, “Just let that sink in.”
JC: Was he trying to be ugly?
JW: I think he was trying to be funny. I don’t think it came from a mean place; it came from an ignorant place. But all that energy, all that trying to be funny, comes from the deeply flawed place where racism lives.
PG: Where we want to keep people in boxes?
JW: Well, he was trying to keep me in one. But that gives him a lot of power. Without even knowing it, he was saying: “This is how I understand you. This is where I feel you belong.” But he probably didn’t even know why that was racing around in his brain. It’s so enmeshed with all the messages we get as humans.
PG: Is it possible to make a similar argument about the Confederate flag? Proponents keep talking about their heritage, but it’s a relatively new symbol.
JC: That’s correct. As I understand it, the Confederate battle flag rose to prominence during the civil-rights era of the ’50s and ’60s as a symbol of racism.
JW: As a reminder.
PG: Of those ugly boxes.
JC: Georgia did away with the Confederate battle flag 14 years ago. We had a very good Democratic governor, and he took on that horrible political task. And he was soundly defeated in the next election — strictly because of that flag.
PG: What turned the tide so definitively in South Carolina?
JW: The knowledge of racist brutality is old and deep in African-American communities. And social media gave a lot of people access to that knowledge. We may not be able to stop the microaggressions, or the macroaggressions, against black people. We may not be able to stop the murder of black boys or cops from sitting on a teenage girl who’s screaming for her mama. But we can at least get rid of this symbol of hatred.
JC: Also the South Carolina legislators are not voting to take down the flag because they’ve changed their mind about it. They’re voting for it because South Carolina and Charleston are going to suffer severely, economically, if they don’t make the change.
PG: The so-called Walmart effect. But what about empathy? Shouldn’t we be able to communicate by now? To say, “I get that this flag is part of your history, but can’t you see that it’s part of my deepest pain?”
JC: You’re assuming that a white person who believes in the Confederate flag is listening to his black neighbor who doesn’t like it. There’s very little communication on a sensitive subject like that.
JC: You know, intimacy and knowledge and mutual affection permeated some parts of the South when I was growing up during the depths of the civil-rights troubles. And we were not atypical. Every white family who farmed and had black neighbors, they knew each other, they cared for each other. They shared garden plots and wood to burn in the fireplace.
JW: But that also came from a sense of place and knowing our place — not disrupting it. From the time we were enslaved, there were complicated relationships between black and white people. There was love, and there was family, and so many ways in which it’s impossible to be on the outside and understand it. I even think there could be white people who love the flag and their black neighbors, and can’t understand why someone would make them choose between the two. That’s why I can’t get too caught up in the flag thing. It feels like Northerners trying to understand the South.
PG: Let’s take a leap. Perhaps the most surprising thing you two have in common is that you both went door to door as Christian missionaries. Tell me about it.
JC: It was life-changing and empowering.
JW: I agree.
PG: Even when people slammed doors in your face?
JC: That was very embarrassing, but I soon learned from my companion on these sojourns that we don’t have to worry about the consequences. All we have to do is the best we can. Let people know that the presence of God is available to everyone. The results are in God’s hands. If the door is slammed, it’s no reflection on us.
PG: What drew you to mission work in the first place?
JC: I experienced my first real failure in 1966 when I ran for governor. I thought I was going to win, but I lost.
JW: Your opponents cheated.
JC: Still, I thought God let me down, the people of Georgia let me down. But my sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, who was a famous evangelist, came to me and used Bible verses to show me that failure for a Christian should be a matter of reassessment. When you fail, you should take on a greater goal than you had before, not a lesser one. And that’s what I did.
PG: Jacqueline was knocking on doors at 6 or 7, yes?
JW: I can remember ringing my first doorbell and saying, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, and I’m here to bring you some good news today.” It was a great moment: ringing the bell, finally getting to speak — because we had to wait until we knew what to say — and bringing the word of God into people’s houses. I was in love with that.
PG: Are you still a Jehovah’s Witness?
JW: Oh, no, no, no.
PG: They’re not so hot on gay and lesbian issues.
JW: But I still consider myself a Christian. It’s hard to grow up with such a foundational system and just let it go. I deeply believe in many Christian values:love people; do the right thing; know that there’s good in everyone, that God’s looking out for all of us. Being a Witness was too closed an experience. That’s what I walked away from, not the things I believe.
PG: That reminds me of something you said lately, Mr. President — that Jesus would be fine with gay marriage. It builds on the same kind of neighborly love Jackie was talking about.
JC: Christ habitually reached out to the downtrodden and the outcast. That was the whole pattern of his ministry. Of course, Jesus never said anything about gay marriage in the Bible, but I believe he would be amenable to the union of two people who loved each other and didn’t hurt anyone else. On the other hand, I have never believed that Jesus would be in favor of abortion, unless it was the result of rape or incest, or the mother’s life was in danger. That’s been the only conflict I’ve had in my career between political duties and Christian faith.
PG: But even on abortion, you focused on reducing the need for them, not screaming on Fox News about constitutional amendments outlawing them — or gay marriage, like we have now.
JC: Fortunately, there was no Fox News when I was president.
JW: We were in San Francisco for the American Library Association ceremonies when the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage came down. And let me tell you, it was insane. People were so excited. There was a parade, and so much going on. Of course, my kids were just mortified that their moms might now get married and embarrass them even more.
JC: No one is going to make you get married. At least, not the government.
JW: My kids are growing up in a world where they’re like: Of course, marriage equality is the case. When my son went to kindergarten, he wore a tie. And someone said to him, “You look just like the president.” How amazing! To live in a time when a black boy can look like the president.
PG: Who knows? He might grow up to be another Jimmy Carter.
An earlier version of this article misspelled part of the name of an award that Jacqueline Woodson has won four times. It is the Newbery Honor Award, not Newberry.