The 1619 Project grapples with the horrors of slavery. This artist bri

When the 1619 Project got here out in The New York Occasions two years in the past, it prompted many individuals to consider how slavery is central to America’s founding. On the floor, it would seem to be the materials is just not appropriate for youngsters, with its difficult ideas and tales of violence.

Nikkolas Smith [Photo: Vanessa Crocini]

The artist Nikkolas Smith doesn’t assume so. He’s illustrated a brand new guide known as Born on the Water, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson, and revealed by the new Penguin Random Home imprint Kokila. The guide interprets The 1619 Project right into a story for seven- to 10-year-olds. It explores the vibrant, subtle cultures of West Africa; how African individuals have been kidnapped by enslavers, thrown into ships, and compelled into unpaid labor in the United States; and finally, how these Black Individuals fought for freedom, pushing America to satisfy its promise of democracy.

[Image: Penguin Random House]

Smith mentioned illustrating the guide was one of the most difficult endeavors of his profession, however he calls it a “dream mission.” He was tasked with speaking these concepts clearly by means of his work and serving to youngsters perceive this darkish historical past with out overwhelming them. Smith strategically makes use of coloration, African symbols, and thoroughly drawn facial expressions to assist the reader see the humanity of the Black individuals who endured this destiny.

“I feel youngsters are sensible and may perceive complicated concepts,” he says. “You don’t wish to dumb slavery down for them. We must always completely educate them historical past because it occurred, slightly than whitewashing it and telling them issues which might be unfaithful.”


Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from his Sunday Sketch sequence on Instagram. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

Why Youngsters Want To Know This Story

Rising up in Houston, Smith himself remembers being taught a whitewashed model of American historical past, from one-sided Anglo-centric variations of the Battle of the Alamo to a sanitized rationalization of slavery. As a Black man, whole elements of Smith’s personal historical past have been omitted from textbooks. He was fortunate sufficient to have dad and mom who defined their roots in West Africa and introduced again masks and artifacts from their journeys to the continent.

Besides, studying The 1619 Project helped Smith reframe this historical past. The mission traces the historical past 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 discover how the historical past of the United States is constructed on slavery. “I started to consider historical past in new methods,” he says. “It helped me perceive what slavery did for this nation in phrases of the economic system and metropolis constructing. It’s actually how American turned the so-called ‘best nation on earth.’”

Born on the Water is designed to assist all youngsters study the origin tales of Black Individuals, highlighting the energy, ingenuity, and resistance they needed to exhibit with a purpose to survive. However as the guide’s authors say in notice, they hope the guide is especially useful to Black American youngsters who’ve been taught to really feel disgrace from being descended from slavery.

Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

The guide is a few Black lady who’s requested by her lecturers to attract a flag that represents the place her ancestors got here from; she’s ashamed as a result of she doesn’t know. Her grandmother tells her that her story doesn’t start with the slave ships; her individuals weren’t, in actual fact, “born on the water.” That they had a wealthy tradition in West Africa earlier than they have been violently snatched from their homeland. Smith tries to convey these West African cultures to life by incorporating ceremonial masks, musical devices, and different artifacts from specific tribes in Togo, Benin, Cameroon and different international locations.

“I wished to symbolize these tribes precisely,” Smith says. “It’s important to totally grasp how a lot pleasure that they had, how wealthy their cultures have been, and the way they have been full of life to actually perceive how devastating it was to be taken from their dwelling. These individuals didn’t start as slaves; they have been sensible thinkers, engineers, agriculturalists who have been taken as a result of they have been good at what they do.”

Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

A World of Symbols

The guide opens with colourful photos of African individuals dancing, youngsters laughing collectively, moms cradling their infants, and folks chit-chatting at markets. However of course, these blissful photos will quickly be overshadowed by the darkness of slavery.


Symbols of life, dying, and rebirth from the African custom of scarification. Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

For Smith, the story of the guide might be simplified into three sections: life, dying, and rebirth. He wished to create visible motifs that will usher the reader by means of these three phases. To do that he turned to ritual of scarification, wherein some African tribes create scars on their face and our bodies which might be imbued with that means. On the back and front cowl, Smith attracts three symbols from this custom. The life image options transferring in varied instructions, dying is symbolized by crosses, and rebirth is symbolized by three parallel traces which might be curving. Should you perceive this code, you’ll start seeing these symbols all through the guide. The African village at the begin is full of these vibrant traces transferring in lots of instructions; the shadowy slave ship is roofed in crosses; and the battle for freedom options curving parallel traces.

Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

Should you look fastidiously, the guide can also be full of representations of the American flag with its stars and stripes. There’s a picture of youngsters and adults working underneath brutal circumstances on a plantation. If you take a step again, the fields look like stripes, whereas the Black individuals working them are huddled collectively in the nook, the place the stars could be in an American flag. In an illustration of the first Black child born in America from dad and mom who got here on the White Lion, his face is roofed in freckles and contours that seem like the stars and stripes. “I would like individuals to know that it is a patriotic guide,” says Smith. “We’re making an attempt to carry America’s ft to the hearth. If we’re going to say the pledge and imagine in democracy, we should really attempt for that.”

Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

For me, one of the most transferring photos in the guide is of a person selecting tobacco in a area, whereas wanting up at the sky. In the clouds seem three Black individuals: an aged girl voting, a younger girl marching, and a younger man graduating. Should you take a step again, the figures additionally kind the letters BLM, for the Black Lives Matter motion. For Smith, the level was that this enslaved man needed to battle to remain alive so his decedents might have higher lives. “We discuss so much about how we’re our ancestors’ wildest desires,” Smith says. “The visions that they had made them not hand over. Sure, they have been enslaved, but when they didn’t preserve going, we might not be capable to graduate with superior levels and march in the streets. It’s not excellent proper now, but when that they had stop, we wouldn’t have even these rights.”

Smith understands that readers is not going to grasp all of this symbolism instantly, though it would register subconsciously, serving to them perceive the tone of every part of the guide. However the magnificence of a great youngsters’s guide is that the little one will return to it time and again, taking in the photos and story in several methods. Youngsters additionally have a tendency to acknowledge visible patterns, so they could get pleasure from seeing these motifs that aren’t apparent at first look.

Illustration by Nikkolas Smith from Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson. [Image: courtesy Nikkolas Smith]

Historical past Issues

Printed in mid-November, Born on the Water shortly climbed to the prime of New York Occasions bestseller list. However Smith realizes that the guide is not going to be acquired warmly by everybody, particularly in the present polarized local weather, with dad and mom preventing over what elements of race needs to be taught at school. Nonetheless, he believes it was essential to create a youngsters’s guide that precisely and appropriately tells the story of American slavery. “I simply preserve fascinated by my schooling in Texas and all the essential issues that have been omitted,” he says. “Books inform the youngsters of this nation daily what’s essential and what’s not essential. If we’re omitting my ancestors’ historical past, we’re telling youngsters that we don’t matter.”

The subsequent youngsters’s guide he’s illustrating is about the Black activist Ruby Bridges, and what it was like for her to combine her college when she was six. However there are such a lot of extra tales Smith is keen to inform that may introduce elements of Black historical past to youngsters in a truthful and age-appropriate method. “I’m not proposing that we inform all the kindergarteners that George Washington owned slaves,” he says. “However we might educate them about the enslaved individuals who constructed the U.S. Capitol, and the African man who was the just one who knew place the statue on prime. There are such a lot of superb tales on this nation about perseverance and resistance.”