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'Born on the Water' puts the '1619 Project' into kids' hands


"Born On The Water" puts Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' "1619 Project" in the hands of young readers. It's a picture book she wrote in collaboration with Renee Watson. The book starts off with a young Black girl receiving a homework assignment where she is asked to trace her roots and draw a flag that represents her ancestral land. At first, the little girl feels ashamed. She doesn't know where her family came from. But her grandmother has answers for her and tells her the story of the Tuckers of Tidewater, Anthony and Isabella, enslaved together on a plantation. They married and had a son named William.


NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Renee, we had discussions about the line in the poem about the Tuckers of Tidewater, particularly the line about William Tucker being the first American child. And that really came from this idea that we are a people who was born on the water, that we were a people who were forced across the middle passage, many of us speaking different languages or different dialects and coming from different regions of west and central Africa and from different peoples. But in the hull of the slave ship, we have to become a new people. We were severed. We were kind of born in the womb of the ocean.


HANNAH-JONES: So when I thought about that, I thought, well, the first Black child born in America, or what would become America, doesn't have any other country. It's gone. That is erased. We are starting a new people here - not losing what we brought in our minds from the continent, of course, but that we are a people who no longer have any other country but here, and that that makes William Tucker the first actual American child because he was a product of this new country that was coming to be in a way that an immigrant from England was not, in a way that native people were not. And so, to me, it's a provocative thought, and I wanted to be intentionally provocative there, but also to give us Black Americans a lineage. I mean, everything that this country tried to do to us through slavery, what they didn't realize is they created the most American people of all.

RENEE WATSON: I love the idea of a sense of pride in America, too, because I feel Black Americans can be torn with our love for this country and our ownership of it and believing that we built the country and that this is our country. And so something that was powerful to me in that moment and then, of course, at the end, when we have baby girl thinking about all of the people who've come before her, and now she's joining them, and what is she going to do? And seeing her draw the flag, beaming with pride, was just a powerful moment, too, to say to young people - to young Black Americans, you belong here.


WATSON: And this is your country, and your people built this country and have fought for it and continue to fight for it. And I thought that that was an important thing to include in this story as well.

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. And especially what we took so much care to do was that, yes, the building was physical, but the building was also intellectual, and the building was also cultural, and the building was about creating a country that has, at least in the law, equality because, so often, as we know, the only contribution that is recognized that Black Americans have offered this country is our labor. And that labor was critical, and that labor was important - but that we offered much, much more than our labor in building this country, that we built the architecture of the culture and the politics and even these ideas of equality. And making that argument, I know for both of us, was very important.


WATSON: I respect young people. I don't want to lie to them. I don't want to hide the truth from them. I want to respect how I say things to them. But what I say as far as, like, there's some hardship that has happened in this world, I'm going to always tell the truth and talk about that and just keep their age at the forefront to hopefully do it in an age-appropriate way. But the actual, should we talk about this? - that's an easy yes for me. I needed to talk about it when I was a kid, and I know the young people in my life do, too.

HANNAH-JONES: One amazing thing about having a young person living with me that I interact with every single day is understanding how early they are grappling with the issues of race and injustice and hurt. I don't remember teaching my child about slavery, but she knew about it before I ever introduced her to a text. I think sometimes we forget our children are getting a framework for the world whether we are intentional about delivering it to them or not. And I believe that we can either force them to unlearn a poor understanding of our history later, or we can give them the proper tools to learn and engage with it at an early age and engage with it in a proper way.

WATSON: When you are a child and you are trying to get answers to something and someone silences you or you know that, oh, I'm not supposed to talk about this, that teaches you something, and it teaches all children something. So it teaches a Black child and makes you question, well, am I really experiencing what I'm experiencing? On the playground, when that kid made fun of my skin or my hair texture, what was that, and why did that happen?

But if we can't talk about race or racism, then that child is questioning their actual experience, their lived experience, right? What language will they have to talk about what happened? And likewise, non-Black children are learning what not to talk about and what behavior is OK to do 'cause it never gets checked and there's never a conversation about it. And so I just think it's important to name things and to actually teach young people, this is the world that you have inherited. What do you want this world to be, and how are we going to work towards that world?


HANNAH-JONES: We're having these dishonest conversations where children are just unprepared for the reality because we are spending a lot of time on erasure. And these are great conversations to have with children as they're trying to form their concept of self and their concept of the world. But instead, we just - we lie to our children so often, and that leaves them ill-prepared for the world.

WATSON: I also think that it is talking about the painful things and the tragedy and also saying, you also come from brilliance, the brilliance of Black folks and the talent of Black folks and how that contributed to change. I think that that is an important conversation to have, especially to young people who might be feeling powerless. And teaching them about young activists and artists is a way to help them see themselves as a part of the movement. And that's something that I try to encourage teachers to do all the time.

So no, I don't want you starting necessarily with slavery on the first day of school. You know, I want you to start with the brilliance of Black folks, too. In the curriculum, there should be a balance of books that talk about us as regular folks living our everyday lives and also the history and the biographies. All of those stories are important.

KELLY: That was Renee Watson and Nikole Hannah-Jones. Their book is "The 1619 Project: Born On The Water." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.