Nikole Hannah-Jones Reviews Two Picture Books About Black History

How do you celebrate Black history in a time when books about Black history are being banned and curriculums about this nation’s racist past are being challenged? When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has barred the new Advanced Placement course in African American studies from the state’s public schools. When legislatures are passing so-called “divisive concept” laws that further marginalize already marginalized histories, mandating that educators cannot teach about systemic racism or hold discussions about race that might cause students to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.” With my own work often at the center of the legislative bans, I’ve thought a lot about how the word “white” in front of “students” is implied in these laws. What about the discomfort of Black children that results from what isn’t taught, the distress Black children experience when searching for themselves in an American story from which their people are largely absent, a story in which they learn about the great white men who lived in the White House but not the enslaved Africans who built it?

This Black History Month, two picture books, “We Are Here” and “An American Story,” enter the literary landscape with a particular urgency. Both provide Black children with affirmation that their history — their people’s story of struggle and fight, resistance and resilience, joy and striving — is indeed worthy of explication; that the political challenges are about the people making the challenge and not about the merit of Black people. And they provide all children (plus adults) with a sense of what makes understanding the singular experiences of Black people so necessary to understanding our world.

WE ARE HERE (Orchard, 40 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), written by Tami Charles and illustrated by the Caldecott Honoree Bryan Collier — a companion to their 2020 collaboration, “All Because You Matter,” created to address Charles’s then 5-year-old son’s questions — opens with an ancient legacy, one that stretches back to early astronomy and nods to African contributions to mathematics and scientific knowledge, and then links this past to modern innovations and toils of African-descended people, from creating hip-hop to marching for Black lives.

In storytelling dotted with words in Spanish and other languages, laid against Collier’s lush, gem-toned imagery, the book weaves a unifying and empowering narrative of Black people connected across bodies of water, bonded by a common identity that is “multidialectical, oh-so-intellectual,” one that is “one heart, uma alma … un esprit … muchas lenguas.”

In many ways, “We Are Here” feels like a love letter to Black children, and when one reaches the author’s note it becomes clear why.

Charles dedicates the book to the daughter she lost, calling it a “celebration” infused with the history of her people that she would have taught her baby girl.

In the book’s final pages, one can hear a mother whispering armor onto her child, girding her for a world that so often diminishes Blackness: “Because you and me, we have always been heroes. The same ones who sat to take a stand, the ones who ran so we could fly … So it’s no surprise, dear child, we are all of these things, and so much more … No matter what they say … Because someday, when it’s your turn to rule the world, people will be amazed and they will question the power of you.”

This is why Black History Month exists: not to exclude others but because the contributions of Black people have been, for most of the history of this country, contested and omitted from the narrative of America. Because too many Black children grow up with a sense that their people, and therefore they themselves, are somehow lacking.

The poet and Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander’s AN AMERICAN STORY (Little, Brown, 56 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8) feels like a direct answer to these times, asking, How do you tell the story of “copper dreams wrapped in iron chains”? Alexander channels the story of Black Americans through a Black teacher grappling with how to honestly teach the hard history of slavery to her students.

Alexander’s free verse and the illustrator Dare Coulter’s fantastic multitextured imagery — combining sculpture with painting and drawing — are unsparing in their depiction of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery and its perpetrators. Interspersed between color pictures of the past, charcoal sketches against yellow backgrounds transport us to a contemporary classroom and the musings of students who have not yet been taught to shrug at their history as just the way it was.

Following several pages describing the horrors of slavery, hands fly up, paired with the outcry, “But you can’t sell people.” On another double-page spread, students sit, heads down. “That’s sad. Really, really sad, Ms. Simmons,” they say, while Alexander asks the question in the mind of every adult trying to teach hard histories: “How do you tell that story and not want to weep for the world?”

“An American Story” is exactly that, a story not of Black America but of America, a history we all must own. It is a book that respects children as capable of grappling honestly with our past while also respecting the challenges and discomfort adults feel in figuring out how to teach them the truth about an often hypocritical and conflicted nation founded both on ideals of liberty and on the barbaric practice of slavery. It is an argument against those who believe that the best way to protect our children is by hiding the truth from them.

After teaching her students about the suffering in the bowels of slave ships, about little girls waking to the moans of their mothers as their brothers are being sold away, the teacher falters. She wonders if she’s made a mistake, if this history is too painful.

“I shouldn’t have read this to you. I’m so sorry, children.”

The children’s response echoes those I have heard as I have discussed the legacy of slavery with young people across the country.

“But, don’t you tell us to always speak the truth, Ms. Simmons, even when it’s hard? When I’ve done something bad, my dad always says, ‘You can’t change the past, but you can do better in the future.’”

Source: Read Full Article