(1941–2005), author of nonfiction books for juveniles and adults, biographer, educator, critic, editor, and educational consultant.
Born into a large family in a racially segregated middle-class section of Demopolis, Alabama, where he was not allowed to visit the town's public library, James S. Haskins was deeply affected by the swirl of events related to the mid-century civil rights movement. He received his bachelor's degree in history at Alabama State College, but limited career opportunities in the South in the early 1960s led him to seek employment in New York City. Two years of selling newspaper advertisements and working as a Wall Street stockbroker brought him to the realization that he was better suited for a career in education and thus he applied for a position in the New York City public school system. After teaching music at several locations, he found a job teaching a special education class at P.S. 92. Obsessed with the plight of his inner-city pupils, he was glad to discuss their problems with anyone who would listen, including a social worker who encouraged him to write his thoughts and experiences in a diary. This resulted in the publication of his first book, Diary of a Harlem Schoolteacher (1969), which was widely acclaimed. This initial success attracted the attention of major publishers who approached him to write books for children and adolescents.
An admitted need to reconcile social disparities and a desire to interpret events to young people and to motivate them to read and be influenced by accomplished individuals—particularly deprived youth whom he felt had far too few role models to read about—led him to author more than one hundred books on a diverse array of topics. Written for a general audience of juveniles, his titles include The War and the Protest: Viet Nam (1971), Religions (1973), Jobs in Business and Office (1974), The Consumer Movement (1975), Your Rights, Past and Present: A Guide for Young People (1975), Teen-age Alcoholism (1976), The Long Struggle: The Story of American Labor (1976), Who Are the Handicapped (1978), Gambling—Who Really Wins (1978), Werewolves (1981), and The New Americans: Cuban Boat People (1982).
Haskins launched his college teaching career in 1970 and continued lecturing on psychology, folklore, children's and young adult literature, and urban education at schools in New York and Indiana before landing a full-time professorship in the English department at the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1977. That same year he authored The Cotton Club, a pictorial and social history of the notorious Harlem night club, which seven years later was transformed into a motion picture of the same name directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Among his books intended for adults or college-level readers are The Psychology of Black Language (1973) with Dr. Hugh Butts; Black Manifesto for Education (1973), which he edited; Snow Sculpture and Ice Carving (1974); Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Rag-time (1978); Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual Practitioners (1978); Richard Pryor, A Man and His Madness (1984); and Mabel Mercer: A Life (1988). He has contributed numerous critical essays and reviews to periodicals. Still, he is best known for his biographies, tailored for elementary and high school students. Most of these recount the triumphs of well-known contemporary African Americans, with whom many young people readily identify. The long list of persons he has profiled (often using the pen name Jim Haskins) include Colin Powell, Barbara Jordon, Thurgood Marshall, Sugar Ray Leonard, Magic Johnson, Diana Ross, Katherine Dunham, Guion Bluford, Andrew Young, Bill Cosby, Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, Shirley Chisholm, Lena Horne, and Rosa Parks. Biographies of prominent individuals who are not African American include Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Shirley Temple Black, Corazón Aquino, Winnie Mandela, and Christopher Columbus.