Picture yourself as a Black elementary school student who was just assigned a project to trace your family’s roots. You notice that your white peers have no problems at all going back hundreds of years to document their lineage, but outside of your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, you have no clue what your family history looks like.
Sadly, as a Black dad I remember how that was the case for me as a child, and I know it still is the reality for many Black children across America — including my own. It’s just another way that we feel “less than” or unworthy as we try to navigate our way through a country that doesn’t love us in a way that we wish it did.
“Ours is no immigration story” is a powerful line that the authors insert many times throughout the book to remind readers that Black people didn’t arrive here of their own volition. My ancestors were stolen from a land where they thrived and taken to a foreign place where they were treated as sub-human.
Authors Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson masterfully describe the way of life of West Africans prior to their enslavement. These were people who loved math and science, who enjoyed music and dance. People who were incredibly resourceful with their hands regarding crafting or caring for babies. Oftentimes, that part of the story is skipped when discussing slavery. They were people first and foremost, the authors remind us. Human beings with hopes and dreams, not property.
Illustrator Nikkolas Smith uses breathtaking artwork to capture the pain and heartache of the kidnapped people during their journey to this foreign place. How the white people loaded them on a ship called the White Lion — and how some of those kidnapped refused to eat, or threw themselves into the ocean in order to escape the pain. The ones who survived were packed into the bottom of a ship, chained next to strangers for weeks like sardines — only to realize that once they arrived on land, their lives would become even more painful. “But those who did not die resolved to live no matter what,” the authors write.
Maybe you’re thinking this story is too harsh for children aged 7 to 10 to read, but I would argue the opposite. On an individual level, this is the exact story kids need to know about so it can inspire them to greatness — especially Black kids. When things become difficult for these children (and things will become difficult for them), they can be inspired by their ancestors’ determination to thrive. Systemic racism is a virulent reality, but kids also need to develop a sense of agency grounded in the stories they tell themselves about who they are. Born on the Water, with its narrative of pain and perseverance, forthrightness and freedom, can be an anchor for them in their own hard moments.
This is the exact story kids need to know about so it can inspire them to greatness — especially Black kids.
On a wider level, all non-Black children can learn from this book, particularly white children who hear conflicting messages about allyship. In order to truly become allies to the Black community, white children need to know the unfiltered reality of its roots. They may be descendants of white people who committed unspeakably evil acts during that time in American history. Or their white parents today may refuse to acknowledge or discuss those atrocities, or admit how they shaped the course of racial equality in the U.S. But kids can handle these truths, especially if we help them.
Born on the Water is not a bedtime book. It’s a book that will require scaffolding, especially for children unfamiliar with these stories and history. The
Kids can handle these truths, especially if we help them.
America is in the middle of a culture war in which many of its citizens want schools to ignore the truth about racism and slavery, leaving many Black children feeling confused and ashamed in and out of the classroom. The context is critical to remember as the coverage and reception of Born on the Water will be influenced by debates over how race and American history should be taught in schools. But ignorance of this “hard history,” as the teacher’s guide calls it, does no children any favors. I believe lack of education is a major reason why racism is still alive today, and Born on the Water is a powerful tool to have at our disposal to rectify it.
As a children’s author and Black man in America, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand and feel the real story of how Black people came to this country. As I read it, I found myself getting emotional, because I instantly knew how many it will impact in a positive way — including my two young daughters. My belief is that it will inspire white children to step up to ensure that Black people are treated with kindness, respect, and dignity. It’s a process that will take some soul-searching, bravery, and a commitment to being better going forward – exactly what people who want to ban these books resist the most.