Before and After The Water

Where do I begin.

When I first read the ARC for The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, all I could think was, “Wow.” My mind was overwhelmed by the power of this breathtaking book, and though I’d expected to love it all along, I had no idea how picture book-perfect it would truly be.

The story begins in a classroom, with a young girl feeling dejected about the ever-enduring “trace your roots” assignment. At home, she expresses shame to her grandma about not being able to trace her family back more than three generations. Grandma gathers the family and shares a fire history lesson about the people folks say were “born on the water”. A brilliant and dignified people. Their people. It’s a lesson that fills the girl with pride and a desire to continue her ancestors’ legacy of greatness.

The way Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson crafted the text for this story is a master class on truth-telling in children’s books. They touch on realities of the African American experience that run the gamut: from the brilliance and buoyancy of our West African origins; to the heinous reality of the Middle Passage and its generations-long aftermath; to our enduring spirit as an ingenious people committed to thriving and blossoming over and over again, despite whatever rocky ground we find ourselves on. The narrative free verse used to tell the story is magnificent. Every title, line, and word flow flawlessly…enriched even more by Nikkolas Smith’s jaw-dropping illustrations.

Smith captures the essence of every poem with skillful intensity, expanding the emotional impact of the text. His depiction of joy feels triumphant, his sadness, searing. He is a self-described artivist, and his passion for liberty and justice are obvious on every page.  I can’t imagine a more well-suited creative to bring Hannah-Jones and Watson’s words to visual life. It’s not exactly soothsaying to predict a great number of coveted stickers will end up decorating this book, and deservedly so.

What I hated most about learning history in school (especially elementary school) was that it seemed intentionally designed to make African Americans feel ashamed and innately powerless. To this day, I have a visceral reaction to the word “slave”. What I love about Born on the Water is that it puts the onus of American slavery and its centuries-long ramifications squarely on the shoulders of those who deserve it, and it does so in an honest way that will inspire pride, empathy, and, hopefully, activism in readers.

That’s an excellent place to begin.


The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, and published by Kokila, will be released on November 16, 2021. It is available for pre-order now.

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