How do we teach young people about the history of slavery? That fraught question—at the forefront of the national conversation as states like Florida legislate how we teach American history—is the subject of An American Story by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter (Little, Brown; Jan. 3). This powerful book made our list of the Best Picture Books of 2023; we joined the bestselling, award-winning author on Zoom to talk about the origins and the impact of the work.
What was the inspiration to write An American Story?
When my daughter was in the fourth grade, a classmate of hers, a white girl, essentially asked her to be her slave. The teacher didn’t know how to handle it, and she ended up asking both kids to apologize to each other. I didn’t feel like my kid had to apologize for anything. I scheduled a meeting with the teacher, and before we could even have a conversation about what had gone wrong, she started crying. We never got to have a productive conversation, and nothing got resolved.
While I was pissed off at the teacher, she really was not equipped with the tools to talk about slavery, let alone teach it. There are lots of teachers like this in our school systems, and I thought perhaps I could create a piece of literature to help teachers who are afraid, who are ignorant, who just don’t know how to broach the subject—the very horrific subject—of slavery. I came home after that meeting and wrote the first draft.
There’s so much backlash and resistance to teaching about slavery and racism in American classrooms now. Was that another reason for writing the book?
This is not anything new. I’ve been out of public school for 34 years, and back when I was in school, teachers didn’t teach it. The little bit of Black history we got in K-12 occurred in February: Slavery happened. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That was it. There was no intentional, concerted effort to teach Black history. The books my parents had on my shelves when I was a kid—books written by and about Black people—they weren’t in libraries or school classrooms. One of the reasons I write is to ensure that our stories, our humanity, are front and center.
Did you do any school visits to promote the book?
We probably did about 30 to 40 different events over the course of two or three weeks. Whether we were with 500 Black kids in Wilmington, Delaware, or in Charleston, South Carolina, with a couple hundred white kids, it didn’t matter—the book resonated with every kid. They understood what was happening. They didn’t feel guilty. They had questions. They couldn’t believe this thing [slavery] happened. And ultimately, by the end of the story, everyone felt like we were a part of one community, like the words had united us. That’s what I’ve come to expect. I talk about it a lot: I believe that words can bring us together.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.