Artist StatementArts & Culture

Jean E. Caldwell Takes on Bullying with ‘Yusef and the President’

It’s hard to take the expression “Be Best” seriously when it’s coming from the worst.

First Lady Melania Trump’s public awareness campaign purportedly advocates for American youth by stressing the evils of cyberbullying — among other planks — but most Americans know they will be holding their breath a long time before the former model addresses the bully-on-steroids in the White House who’s launched Twitter tirades against children and teenagers like environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

In the meantime, local author Jean E. Caldwell is tackling the bullying issue with sharper focus, authenticity and sincerity through her recently released children’s book, Yusef and the President, an in-depth look at the impact of hurtful words and how they can be just as harmful as a physical attack.

Illustrated by Netha DeVoe, Caldwell’s first book is published by Broken Vessel, a company run by Latise M. Howey, author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and Caldwell’s daughter. The book is currently available on Amazon and at

While her story is pitched to a young reading audience, she hopes parents take heed of its message of diversity and inclusivity.

“We as parents should be more mindful of what we say around our children, because they’re like sponges,” Caldwell says.

From the crib, our offspring rely on us to tell them what is right and what is wrong, she continues. If we tell our children that they are better than someone else because of our social status or our skin color, those children walk out of the door to reflect and inflict those views on other children.

A retired employee of Concord’s city manager and mayor’s offices, graduate of Barber-Scotia College and longtime resident of the Sidestown-Shankletown neighborhood, Caldwell has deep roots in Concord.

She credits her philosophy on child-rearing and community to growing up in that tight-knit neighborhood, where neighbors kept an eye on each other’s kids.

“It was nothing for us [children] to be chastised by our neighbors if we got out of hand,” she says. “I wouldn’t take that back for love nor money. It helped me realize that it is indeed a village that is required to raise a child. We’re all extensions of each other. I am you and you are me.”

We caught up with Caldwell to chat about the inspiration behind her book’s deep themes and how the election of Donald Trump has made it all the more relevant.

What was sparked the idea for this story?

Jean E. Caldwell at a recent book signing at Oshuns Botanica. (Photo by Solomon Hall)

When I was living in Maryland in 2009, three of my grandchildren would come up and stay with me. President Obama had been elected the previous November. [My grandson] Yusef was with his mom, my daughter Latise, when he saw President Obama speaking at a news conference. Yusef had an ‘aha’ moment.

He said, “Wow, mom, he has brown skin just like mine.” My daughter said it had such an impact on her that she burst into tears. She saw how Yusef identified with the President of the United states that looked like him.
I was in Zimbabwe in 2012, and when President Obama was reelected, I thought about Yusef and how he recognized that the president had the same skin color as his.

But I also remembered an incident where my daughter said that Yusef’s friends told him that they could not play with him anymore. Yusef asked them why and they said [it was] because their parents had told them that Yusef had a name that was associated with people that did bad things. Yusef’s full name is Yusef Jassiem Shah. They just associated that name with terrorism.

Because it sounded Muslim?

Exactly. His dad practices Islam. Yusef always took such pride in his name, and then for someone to say that because of his name he would do bad things, it really hurt him. But he came home and told his mom that he really didn’t care.
In the book I wrote it like it really affected Yusef. The story develops from the boys not wanting to play with Yusef. He comes home and talks to his mom. Then his mom reminds him that he was just like the president. He was in good company. If somebody didn’t like him because of his name it is their loss because they didn’t take the time to know Yusef. They were the ones that were missing out.

I thought the same thing about President Obama. I thought he was an example of inclusiveness and treating people the way you wanted to be treated, and not judging other people. In spite of all the things that were thrown at him, he always took the high road. So, that’s the way I developed the story.

People claimed they had similar problems with the president’s name – Barack Hussein Obama.

Exactly. I thought about when John McCain was running against President Obama. At one of his campaign gatherings a lady came up and started saying bad things about President Obama, and McCain took the mic from her. Other people in a similar incident would let that lady stand there and say those things even though they knew that she was wrong.

Now we don’t try to defend each other or come to each other’s aid in incidents like that. It’s like we’d rather try to keep the peace. I think of the quote [by Eve Curie Labouisse], “Peace at any cost is not peace at all.” I honestly believe that. If we don’t try to stand up for what is right, we will indeed fall for anything.

We have a very different president now from the one in your book. How do you think your message resonates now?

The only thing I can do is make the comparison of the two presidents. You never heard President Obama speak negatively about anyone. He wanted to sit down and talk about differences. The president we have now wears his bullying as a badge of honor. He speaks negatively and puts out all this negative energy. Then the people that think like him, it’s like he’s condoning [their behavior], and they think how they feel is right because of him. It is all about the leadership.

That is the message that is in Yusef and the President. It’s all about what we see and hear from our leaders. When we’re children, our parents are our leaders.

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