As author Angela Johnson's mother awaited a kidney transplant, she traced the family's history as a hobby. Looking through the records, Johnson says she was struck by the way slave owners stripped African Americans of their identities in subtle and overt ways, including in the paperwork of the 1880s her mother uncovered. "The devastating part was there was no name," she says. "You're in an entire population of people who have just become numbers. What would it be like if suddenly, you weren't just a number? If all of a sudden, someone said, 'We think we believe that you are a real person. Go on, go forth.’ ”
Their family learned that Johnson's great-grandfather was 4 years old when slavery ended. Johnson's response, with illustrator E.B. Lewis, is All Different Now, the quietly jubilant story of Juneteenth. The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were notified that they had been freed at the end of the Civil War.
Johnson and Lewis focus on one girl's experience with her community of slaves transformed on the day they learn they are free. All Different Now depicts the difficult-to-imagine emotional state of people bartered as property learning that they have finally received the gift of freedom. Johnson has written over 40 books, but the theme of All Different Now, with the transition from slavery to liberation, moved her in a unique way. "When I opened the book, I almost started crying because E.B. really captured it," Johnson says.
Lewis, who has illustrated more than 65 books and has collaborated with Johnson on other books, says that he used live models in Greenville, South Carolina for his remarkable paintings. It was important for him to get the scenes right—he says he had confirmation that he'd been successful upon viewing 12 Years a Slave, a movie that tells a different narrative but is set in a color palette that is warm and bright like All Different Now.
"It's impossible for anyone to understand what it was like," Lewis says. "You're in a dream and something is not quite right. In order for me to get that point across, I change little details." For instance, the sky is not rendered as blue in the story until after emancipation, which restores a certain normalcy after sand-colored and granite-tinged clouds.
Lewis says that working on the book took him through a range of emotions but that he generally felt that he was being guided by his ancestors—people just like the characters he drew who were people brought to America and enslaved. "There were times when I was painting that I was crying," Lewis says.
His emotions, like those of Johnson's, were not just tears springing from pain but also from hope. He thought of his sons and All Different Now was another way for him to give them "something to look up to, something to look forward to and something to chase," Lewis says, paraphrasing Matthew McConaughey's speech from the Academy Awards ceremony. "Hopefully we've planted another seed for the next generation" and its awareness of the holiday.
For decades, Juneteenth was mostly celebrated solely within the African American community but became an official state holiday in Texas in 1980. It is now celebrated in many states as a cross-cultural event.
"Everyone understands the devastation of change and sometimes the celebration," Johnson says. "All Different Now is a quiet story and the illustrations allow for it to keep that dimension. I can see small children sitting on the floor and listening to this story and learning the story of who we are, who we were and who we can be."
Johnson also says that she wants the celebratory tone of the book to underscore the universal nature of the narrative. "I want children to remember that this is not a judgment, this is history. To me, it's a shame we have to have Black History Month because our history is the history of this country. Just like the Daughters of the American Revolution are part of the history, we are. In a perfect world, all our histories will have to be combined. Until that can happen, we'll have to keep writing and illustrating these books."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C.