In Imani Perry’s excellent new book for adults, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, she points out that, “even if you are a lover of the national romance, integrity requires that the stories be at least halfway honest…Because history is an instruction. And what you neglect to attend to from the past, you will surely ignore in the present.” (228-229). That is why I believe the 1619 Project’s Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, and illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, is so essential to our classrooms and school libraries. A story including slavery, it is, of course, all of the things that so many individuals now say they are opposed to. It is uncomfortable, disturbing, and painful for readers. It is also thought-provoking, powerful, and a catalyst for seeking to create a more perfect union today.
Born on the Water begins with a not uncommon classroom task. The students are asked to draw the flags of their ancestral homelands. Our protagonist is unable to do this, because she is only aware of three generations of her family, all born in the United States, several of whom were enslaved. But when she gets home and explains the project to her grandmother, she quickly discovers that her family tree is more expansive than she ever realized.
Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith have created a truly remarkable picture book together. While in Africa, Watson’s poems and Smith’s illustrations are bright and joyful, full of smiling people. There is an abrupt shift in the colors and the language when the White people come and take the African people away from their homes, their families, and their culture. The bright colors never quite return and the language moves from jubilation, to sorrow, to resistance, but by the end of the book there is a sense that advocacy and pride may be bringing back some of the happiness that existed hundreds of years ago.
I imagine that many of those who object to the inclusion of this book in classroom libraries are offended by the use of the term “White people” when it comes to describing those who terrorized and objectified the enslaved people. But this is a fact, not a notion one can dispute. When it comes to telling the truth about the United States of America, there are many events and ideas to celebrate and there are also dark and despicable actions for which to atone. We delight in acknowledging the great things that have been achieved in this country, even creating annual holidays to memorialize them. We have an equal obligation to continue to acknowledge the actions taken that have led to injustice and poverty. This is the only way that we will prevent ourselves from making similar decisions in the future.
Identity 2: I know about my family history and culture and about current and past contributions of people in my main identity groups.
Diversity 10: I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.
Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others based on who they are and where they were born.
Action 19: I will speak up or do something when I see unfairness, and I will not let others convince me to go along with injustice.