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'Born on the Water' gives Black children in America their origin story

Authors Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson say it's important to be honest with children about the history of race and slavery in America.
Penguin Young Readers
Authors Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson say it's important to be honest with children about the history of race and slavery in America.

Nikole Hannah-Jones wanted to teach children about the history of slavery while giving Black Americans an origin story.

Hannah-Jones began collaborating with renowned children's book author and teaching artist Renée Watson and together they released The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.

It's the latest iteration of Hannah-Jones' Pulitzer Prize-winning "1619 Project," which reexamines America's history by focusing on the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.

This new children's 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, who were enslaved together on a plantation. They married and had a son named William.

In a conversation aired on All Things Considered, Watson and Hannah-Jones spoke about the book's major themes and the importance of being honest with children about their history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On creating "the most American people of all"

Nikole Hannah-Jones: Renée and I had discussions about the line in the poem about the Tuckers of Tidewater, particularly the line about William Tucker being the first American child.

["The first Black child born in the land that would become the United States. The first truly American child," the line in the book reads.]

And that really came from this idea that we are a people who were 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.

The poem is a key part of the story.
/ Penguin Young Readers
/
Penguin Young Readers
The poem is a key part of the story.

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. 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 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.

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. 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.

On having a sense of pride in America

Renée 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.

So something that was powerful to me in that moment and then, 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."

Hannah-Jones: 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 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 Renée and I, was very important.

On talking to children about race

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 there's some hardship that has happened in this world, and 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.

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?

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 because it never gets checked and there's never a conversation about it.

On being honest with children

Watson: So I just think it's important to name things and to actually teach young people that 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 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. Teaching children about young activists and artists is a way to help them see themselves as a part of the movement. That's something that I try to encourage teachers to do all the time.

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