When the 1619 Project came out in The New York Times two years ago, it prompted many people to think about how slavery is central to America’s founding. On the surface, it might seem like the material is not suitable for children, with its complicated concepts and stories of violence.
The artist Nikkolas Smith doesn’t think so. He’s illustrated a new book called Born on the Water, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, and published by the new Penguin Random House imprint Kokila. The book translates the 1619 Project into a story for 7- to-10-year-olds. It explores the vibrant, sophisticated cultures of West Africa; how African people were kidnapped by enslavers, thrown into ships, and forced into unpaid labor in the United States; and ultimately, how these Black Americans fought for freedom, pushing America to fulfill its promise of democracy.
Smith said illustrating the book was one of the most challenging endeavors of his career, but he calls it a “dream project.” He was tasked with communicating these ideas clearly through his paintings and helping children understand this dark history without overwhelming them. Smith strategically uses color, African symbols, and carefully drawn facial expressions to help the reader see the humanity of the Black people who endured this fate.
“I think children are brilliant and can understand complex ideas,” he says. “You don’t want to dumb slavery down for them. We should absolutely teach them history as it happened, rather than whitewashing it and telling them things that are untrue.”
Why Children Need to Know This Story
Growing up in Houston, Smith himself remembers being taught a whitewashed version of American history, from one-sided Anglo-centric versions of the Battle of the Alamo to a sanitized explanation of slavery. As a Black man, entire aspects of Smith’s own history were omitted from textbooks. He was lucky enough to have parents who explained their roots in West Africa and brought back masks and artifacts from their trips to the continent.
But even so, reading the 1619 Project helped Smith reframe this history. The project traces the history of American slavery to the first ship, the White Lion, that arrived in the English colony of Virginia in August 1619, carrying 20 enslaved Africans. It goes on to explore how the history of the United States is built on slavery. “I began to think about history in new ways,” he says. “It helped me understand what slavery did for this country in terms of the economy and city building. It is literally how America became the so-called greatest nation on earth.”
Born on the Water is designed to help all children learn about the origin stories of Black Americans, highlighting the strength, ingenuity, and resistance they had to exhibit in order to survive. But as the book’s authors say in a note, they hope the book is particularly helpful to Black American children who have been taught to feel shame from being descended from slavery.
The book is about a Black girl who is asked by her teachers to draw a flag that represents where her ancestors came from; she’s ashamed because she doesn’t know. Her grandmother tells her that her story does not begin with the slave ships; her people were not, in fact, “born on the water.” They had a rich culture in West Africa before they were violently snatched from their homeland. Smith tries to bring these West African cultures to life by incorporating ceremonial masks, musical instruments, and other artifacts from particular tribes in Togo, Benin, Cameroon, and other countries.
“I wanted to represent these tribes accurately,” Smith says. “You have to fully grasp how much joy they had, how rich their cultures were, and how they were full of life to really understand how devastating it was to be taken from their home. These people did not begin as slaves; they were brilliant thinkers, engineers, agriculturalists, who were taken because they were good at what they do.”
A World of Symbols
The book opens with colorful images of African people dancing, children laughing together, mothers cradling their babies, and people chit-chatting at markets. But of course, these happy images will soon be overshadowed by the darkness of slavery.
For Smith, the story of the book could be simplified into three sections: life, death, and rebirth. He wanted to create visual motifs that would usher the reader through these three phases. To do this, he turned to the ritual of scarification, in which some African tribes create scars on their faces and bodies that are imbued with meaning. On the front and back cover, Smith draws three symbols from this tradition. The life symbol features moving in various directions, death is symbolized by crosses, and rebirth is symbolized by three parallel lines that are curving. If you understand this code, you’ll begin seeing these symbols throughout the book. The African village at the start is full of these vibrant lines moving in many directions; the shadowy slave ship is covered in crosses; and the fight for freedom features curving parallel lines.
If you look carefully, the book is also full of representations of the American flag with its stars and stripes. There’s an image of children and adults working under brutal conditions on a plantation. When you take a step back, the fields appear to be stripes, while the Black people working them are huddled together in the corner, where the stars would be in an American flag. In an illustration of the first Black baby born in America from parents who came on the White Lion, his face is covered in freckles and lines that look like the stars and stripes. “I want people to understand that this is a patriotic book,” says Smith. “We’re trying to hold America’s feet to the fire. If we’re going to say the pledge and believe in democracy, we must actually strive for that.”
For me, one of the most moving images in the book is of a man picking tobacco in a field, while looking up at the sky. In the clouds appear three Black people: an elderly woman voting, a young woman marching, and a young man graduating. If you take a step back, the figures also form the letters BLM, for the Black Lives Matter movement. For Smith, the point was that this enslaved man had to fight to stay alive so his descendants could have better lives. “We talk a lot about how we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Smith says. “The visions they had made them not give up. Yes, they were enslaved, but if they didn’t keep going, we would not be able to graduate with advanced degrees and march in the streets. It’s not perfect right now, but if they had quit, we wouldn’t have even these rights.”
Smith understands that readers will not grasp all of this symbolism immediately, although it might register subconsciously, helping them understand the tone of each section of the book. But the beauty of a good children’s book is that the child will return to it again and again, taking in the images and story in different ways. Children also tend to recognize visual patterns, so they may enjoy seeing these motifs that are not obvious at first glance.
Published in mid-November, Born on the Water quickly climbed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. But Smith realizes that the book will not be received warmly by everyone, especially in the current polarized climate, with parents fighting over what aspects of race should be taught in school. Still, he believes it was important to create a children’s book that accurately and appropriately tells the story of American slavery. “I just keep thinking about my education in Texas and all the important things that were omitted,” he says. “Books tell the children of this nation every day what is important and what is not important. If we’re omitting my ancestors’ history, we’re telling children that we don’t matter.”
The next children’s book he’s illustrating is about the Black activist Ruby Bridges, and what it was like for her to integrate her school when she was 6. But there are so many more stories Smith is eager to tell that will introduce aspects of Black history to children in a truthful and age-appropriate way. “I’m not proposing that we tell all the kindergarteners that George Washington owned slaves,” he says. “But we could teach them about the enslaved people who built the U.S. Capitol, and the African man who was the only one who knew how to place the statue on top. There are so many amazing stories in this country about perseverance and resistance.”