Deepening Our Definition of American

November 16, 2021 § 5 Comments

We’ll be back with more installments of my Gift Guide later this week, but I’m hitting pause to talk about a book that released today, one that could be the most important book we share with our kids this month. It also happens to be one of the most gorgeously composed and illustrated long-form picture books I have ever seen. Come for the anti-racist education; stay for the exceptional execution.

A picture book stirringly penned in verse for older children, The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (Ages 7-12) chronicles the consequences of American slavery and the history of Black resistance. Co-written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning creator of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and bestselling children’s author, Renée Watson, and exquisitely illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, it’s a book for every kind of American reader. Make no mistake: it’s a book that speaks to the atrocities of our past, but it is not a book that leaves readers in despair. This is a book that educates, inspires, and emboldens.

The social justice protests that swept our country last year quickly gave way to cries for books by Black and other marginalized creators to assume a more prominent place in our homes, libraries, and schools. Parents were DMing me daily, asking for books to introduce conversations about race and racism, even and especially among young children. Seemingly overnight, anti-racist education was valued, if long-overdue.

Now, one year later, conservative backlash has thrown us into a culture war that threatens to undermine anti-racist learning by removing books touching on racial history and discrimination from classrooms, with the alleged accusation that they are “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”

Have the folks who seemingly fear the power of these stories actually read them? One of the books on the receiving end of this vitriol is Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series, semi-autobiographical stories about a Chinese immigrant girl who helps her parents manage a motel and, as Yang said Sunday in a social media post about this backlash, is just “trying to get through school without someone making fun of her for her floral pants!” My daughter was recently asked to list her favorite books, and she ranked this series #2 after Harry Potter. Some might say there is no higher praise.

For my daughter, these and other books starring Brown and Black protagonists are “window” stories; what about children for whom they are “mirrors?” Should only some Americans see themselves reflected in literature? America is an indisputably diverse country with an indisputably complicated history. When we gloss over the experience of marginalized people, we are not giving our children—the hope for the future—access to the diversity that underscores our democratic promise.

Books like Front Desk, which reflect individual immigrant experiences, as well as books like Born on the Water, which address the resilience of a people born out of the forced passage from one country to another, do not illicit shame in the white children lucky enough to read them. These are stories of “determination, imagination, faith,” a refrain repeated in the latter book. They are stories about the will to survive and the power of the human spirit, not at the expense of others, but alongside them. They are books that make me proud to be an American, not for the wrongs of the past, but for the opportunities to right those wrongs, to build a nation that strives for justice and equality for all its people. A place where compassion is valued as much as health and prosperity.

If our children do not have the opportunity to engage in nuanced conversations about oppression, when we gloss over key issues in our history that are deeply intertwined with race and racism, then we fail them as parents and educators. When we take away stories with the capacity to ignite their imaginations, we deny them a chance to know their own minds. When we take away stories that give them language to talk about difficult issues, we silence them. When we take away stories rich in truth, beauty, and hope, we make it less likely that they will be emboldened enough to share their own.

With that in mind, I invite you to take a look at the triumphant Born on the Water. As we head into Thanksgiving, did you know that 400 years ago, a whole year before the Mayflower arrived, there was a ship called the White Lion that brought slaves to our shores? This ship isn’t studied in most schools; and yet, it’s as integral to the history of this country as the Europeans who settled here, not to mention the Native peoples who were here before them. I am grateful to have the opportunity to correct this wrong with my own children.

The book begins with a fictional classroom assignment. A teacher asks her students to trace their roots, to “draw a flag that represents your ancestral land,” which prompts an African American girl to seek out her grandmother’s help. “Grandma gathers the whole family, says,/ ‘Come, let me tell you our beginning,/ Let me tell you where we’re from.”

The first third of the book is filled with joyful spreads of the Kingdom of Ndongo, on a “high, high plateau/ in West Central Africa,” where a free people live without “whips and chains,” where they do not “sing about overcoming.” The soaring free verse pays testament to the rich language of these people; to their mathematical, scientific minds; to their capable hands that knew “how to make something out of nothing”; to their dancing bodies, “a swaying testament to the beauty of creation.” These examples not only fly in the face of racial stereotypes about Black people, but they lay the groundwork for the resourcefulness that becomes critical to Black survival during and following the Middle Passage.

Their hands had a knowing,

They knew how to hold a baby close.

how to rock the child to keep her from crying.


Their hearts had a knowing,

They knew how to make work joyful,

how to create rhythm by pounding the tools against metal,

knew how to make music to keep them company as they worked.


Their minds had a knowing,

worldly, curious, sharp[…]

“Ours is not an immigration story.” This is one of the most telling, haunting refrains in the book, first appearing in a poem titled “Stolen” midway through. We are reminded that these men, women, and children did not choose to leave their beloved homeland.

They did not get to pack bags stuffed

with cherished things, with the doll grandmama

had woven from tall grass,

with the baby blanket handed down

from generation to generation all the way back,

so far back that it carried the scent of the ancestors.

The spreads dedicated to the kidnapping and ocean crossing are the darkest in tone and content. The paintings are ripe with chaos and agony, the poetry direct and unyielding. This is our introduction to the White Lion, the first of the slave ships to arrive on America’s shores.

No matter what some say,

the people fought.

And the white people took them anyway.

Forced them into the bottom of an evil ship,

to sail to a “New World”

they had no desire to see.

“Some could not bear the pain”—more than half died during the crossing—but the emphasis is on those who “planted dreams and hope, willed themselves to keep living, living.” Some of this planting was literal, born of harvest seeds braided into hair to carry over the ocean. Others were acts already woven into the fiber of their beings. Caring for one another, singing in the tobacco fields, learning to read despite the danger of discovery: all of this and more can be traced back to the early pages in Africa, to a drive since birth towards “determination, imagination, faith.”

We are in a strange land, they said.

But we are here and we will make this home.

We have our songs, our recipes, our know-how.

We have our joy. We will love, laugh, sing,

and hug our children as tight as you can hold a child.

We will survive because we have each other.

In 1624, two slaves named Anthony and Isabella, property of the plantation of Captain William Tucker, birthed a boy named William Tucker, the first documented Black child born in the land that would become the United States. Another name that shouldn’t be new to me, that shouldn’t be new to our children…but is.

These two ordinary people gave life

to an extraordinary child.

A child not of Africa,

a child not of Europe,

nor of the Native peoples already here.

But a child of the new people formed on the water.

The final pages of the book are devoted to the legacy of Black Americans, a legacy of resistance “in ways big and small.” The text specifically challenges some of the dangerous re-imaginings of history still taking place today in parts of our country:

When the people were beaten,

they said the people did not feel pain.

When they sold the people’s children,

they said the people didn’t love.

These were lies they made up

so they could feel okay

about slavery. It is wrong, always

and forever, to own human beings.

It is wrong, always and forever, to treat

human beings like things.

The people born on the water not only survived—“the biggest resistance of all”—but they “birthed generations of/ teachers and librarians,/ scholars and authors.” They grew up to become doctors and cooks, inventors and athletes, mathematicians and scientists, people who “passed on their stories/ through the stitch of a quilt,/ shared secret messages through songs.” They fought for their freedom and they fought for their equality, and they continue to fight today. All of this, all of this, is what has allowed our democracy to strengthen and thrive.

When the girl from the start of the book resumes her homework assignment, she draws, not a flag of a people that no longer exists, but the stars and stripes “of the flag of the country that my ancestors built,/ that my grandma and grandpa built,/ that I will help build, too.” She draws the American flag, because she is proud to be an American.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make as parents is underestimating our children’s willingness to understand our collective history, even when that history is egregious or horrifying. I’ll say it again: there is no shame or fear transferred to the young reader here. The shame rests on the shoulders of people in the past; the fear belongs to those who were treated less than human. There is only the history of a people that gave rise to people who are our friends and neighbors, our leaders and our colleagues. There is only strength in the face of adversity, light in the face of darkness, and a call to all of us to remember.

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m most active these days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Book published and gifted by Kokila. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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