Books

The 1619 Project, for Kids

How Born on the Water teaches the youngest readers about slavery.

Covers of Born on the Water.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Penguin Random House.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, first published as an issue of the New York Times Magazine in August 2019, argues for a reframe of American history, dating the story of the country from the arrival of a group of enslaved people in the ship White Lion on Virginia’s stolen shores, rather than from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And that is the story told in The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, a new picture book in verse for young readers in grades 2 through 5, based on the Project, which was published alongside an expanded book-length version of the original magazine issue this week. Joining Hannah-Jones in producing this volume for kids are children’s book author Renée Watson and “artivist” Nikkolas Smith.

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Born on the Water opens with a familiar classroom assignment: making a family tree. A young Black girl is depicted with a look of dismay on her face. In the background, faint sketches of children holding up their ancestors’ countries’ flags with big smiles can be seen. The contrast of their glee with her distress is a testament to the evocative nature of Smith’s paintings. “Most of my classmates can count back many generations,” the girl reflects, “and learn about the countries where their families came from. They draw their flags, but I leave my paper blank. I do not know where I begin, what my story is.”

This is an appropriate place to begin telling the story of slavery for young readers. Long before they learn about slavery in a formal way in history classes (where instructors, as we know, sometimes struggle to teach about the topic), children are informally introduced to slavery from other sources, such as picture books, television programs, and conversations with family. Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith begin Born on the Water in a contemporary elementary school classroom, with a lesson on family that many students will find familiar, but that this girl’s teacher didn’t intend to use as a way into the topic of slavery. Like many younger kids in real life, the fictional protagonist has come up against the history of slavery in a roundabout way.

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How should this little girl begin her project? What’s her family background and identity?  She asks her grandmother to tell her the story of their beginnings. One page turn later, we’re transported back in time.

“They say our people were born on the water, but our people had a home, a place, a land before they were sold,” the grandmother says. This evocative reference to the Black Atlantic reframes where the story of Black America truly begins. It is neither in our African origins, nor on the slave ships, auction blocks, and plantations. It’s somewhere in between, as Canadian poet Dionne Brand reminds adult readers in A Map to the Door of No Return.

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The idea of being “born on the water” is beautifully reparative, after centuries of the topic being depicted problematically in children’s books and textbooks that deal with slavery. Black child readers, as well as their teachers, families, and communities, occupy a unique place when it comes to the importance of stories for children about slavery. The collective trauma of enslavement—what scholar Saidiya Hartman has called the afterlife of slavery—has continuing implications for the descendants of enslaved people living today.

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Three sections follow the little girl’s grandmother’s opening. We are transported to the early 17th century Kingdom of the Kongo in three sections: “They Had a Language,” “Their Hands Had a Knowing,” “And They Danced.” These double-page spreads showcase the brilliance of Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith, working together as journalist, author, and artist to shift the story. Rather than being born in children’s readerly imagination first as slaves, in this book, Black people have a different origin.

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Instead of the more familiar West African setting for such origins (think Roots), Born on the Water correctly shows where the first enslaved Africans were taken from—a Portuguese-speaking, syncretic Christian kingdom whose rulers were in dialogue with leaders in post-reconquista Portugal. The early contexts of New World slavery are rarely touched upon in most K-12 curricula, nor do they show up often in children’s stories. The origins of slavery are traced here in a few pages, rendered deftly through colorful brushstrokes and delightful verse.

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It is difficult to imagine anyone subjecting another human being to the conditions of chattel enslavement. The question of how to depict such trauma and violence for young readers is always challenging. Born on the Water walks this line in the sections “Stolen” and “The White Lion.” Smith’s art here is reminiscent of Tom Feelings’ masterpiece for teenage readers, The Middle Passage, while Hannah-Jones and Watson’s refrain in verse reminds young readers “ours is no immigration story.”

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The middle of the book deals with the conditions that the first enslaved Africans in Virginia found themselves facing, from the tobacco plantations to the slave quarters. The concluding pages leap from the 17th century to the 21st, showing how far we’ve come since then. While some experts may take issue with the book’s focus on the earliest era of American slavery, when the experience of enslaved people was very different than it was later on, as well as with the omission of indentured servants and Native slavery, in Born on the Water, Smith, Watson, and Hannah-Jones provide a nice architecture for later instructors to fill in.

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If, as Toni Morrison reminds us, “the subject of the dream is the dreamer,” Born on the Water recasts the American Dream narrative through the Black gaze, and it wants to leaves the young reader with a feeling of pride. This highlights a common dilemma among those who write and illustrate younger children’s books about slavery. One of the key functions of children’s literature is to teach each successive generation of kids about history, even when it is complicated. This can prove difficult in light of the other functions of children’s literature: to transmit values, to convey a sense of nostalgia and wonder, to spark young imaginations, and to provide a predictable “happily ever after” at the end of each story. The conundrum is especially present when authors try to present this history to younger kids.

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The result is often that Black history for children is retold in ways that reinforce the message that principles of liberty and equality always prevailed over slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. Many authors and illustrators have provided this uplifting message in creative and inspiring ways. However, the takeaway for young people may be that no matter how traumatic and violent our collective national past might have been, the United States has always been a land of freedom, opportunity, and equality under the law for everyone if they just work hard enough.

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But there’s another argument, one I find persuasive, for the inclusion of nuance in stories about slavery for young readers. Stories about slavery for children must do more than transmit information about the past. These stories have a reparative function—they must also humanize and liberate. These stories must uplift, hope, and heal while presenting the truth of slavery’s echoes in the present. Children’s stories about slavery provide a potential space for both liberating and humanizing Black people, just like poetry and narratives written by those enslaved in childhood, from Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs in the 19th century, once did.

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Born on the Water is part of a long storytelling tradition that has been carried on by Black creatives concerned with “how the word is passed” (to quote Clint Smith) to our children. Tonya Bolden, Carole Boston Weatherford, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Tracey Baptiste, Kelly Starling Lyons, and the authors and illustrators of the Brown Bookshelf collective have been creating incredible nonfiction books about Black history for decades. Their stories are used in classrooms and school libraries, and provide the foundation for what kids know about not only the past, but our fractured present.

All of these stories are necessary for not only Black children, but all children. Stories like Born in the Water help them understand an important dimension of how the United States came to be,. Given the multitude of challenges that diverse books for young readers face in today’s anti-critical race theory political environment, it feels more important than ever to ensure all children receive accurate stories about our past, so that we can move into a shared future.

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

By Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, and Nikkolas Smith

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