Nationally acclaimed poet Kwame Alexander will bring his just-published children’s book, An American Story, next week to Charleston in a fitting stop about its subject: slavery.
As will be illustrated later this year on a global scale when the International African American Museum opens, Charleston’s port received a greater share of the trans-Atlantic slave trade than any other mainland North American port by accepting about 40% of all African captives forcibly brought to the continent.
The subject is difficult to talk about generations later. It makes people uncomfortable. There’s a lot of myth, misinformation, distraction and emotion that have crept into the still closeted reality of what caused and happened in slavery. Kids want to understand it better, but how they learn about it often becomes controversial, particularly when adults get involved.
A few years back when his daughter was in fourth grade, Alexander encountered a struggle by her favorite teacher in teaching about slavery. He offers the 54-page illustrated poem as a “moment to help her” and other teachers.
“The underlying issue when it comes to teaching students about slavery and Black history is in general, most teachers — black or white — are ill-prepared to do so,” said Alexander, 54, during a recent holiday interview. “From different vantage points, they’re confused or ignorant about how to do it.”
At 6 p.m. Jan. 11, Alexander will roll up to Buxton Books on King Street in a big bus as part of a 10-city book tour. He’ll conduct a reading and sign copies.
“The majority of teachers were never taught how to teach slavery, so they are afraid, unprepared and the students suffer for it,” Alexander said. “This book is for all the teachers and parents trying to find their voices, trying to share a lesson that we all find so difficult to discuss.
“An American Story is a story for readers of all ages — a story of a people’s struggle, strength, horror and hope that needs to be told and understood by us all.”
A tip of the hat to Charleston
The name that Alexander gave to the teacher in the book is “Simmons,” which should sound familiar to people throughout the Holy City.
It’s a nod to the late blacksmith Philip Simmons (1912-2009), a world-renowned Daniel-Island artisan whose wrought iron gates fill Charleston streets and are part of a Smithsonian Museum collection.
“I am a poet first and foremost so there is this idea of rhythm and rhyme,” Alexander said. “Poetry is about choosing the right word and putting them in the right order. The name ‘Simmons’ has a certain kind of internal alliteration and rhyme I like.”
He said he’s been a longtime fan of Charleston, visiting the area since 2003.
“Certainly somewhere in my brain and my heart is my affinity for the work and recognition of the work of Philip Simmons,” said Alexander. “When we write, we’re pulling from all sorts of experiences and knowledge and memory. Certainly having been a part of the Charleston arts community for the past 19 years, somewhere in my subconscious memory, I’m going to invoke Charleston.”
Alexander’s poem is illustrated with striking images by Dare Coulter, a North Carolina-based sculptor and illustrator trained at N.C. State University.
“To be able to tell such an important story alongside the words of a man who is objectively modifying the landscape of children’s literature to make it accessible to, and celebratory of and for Black kids and for educators, is such an honor,” she said in a release. “I want there to be these big assemblies of beautiful, hopeful kid faces reading this book, to whom we can say, ‘Yes, this did happen, yes it is terrible; but the way forward is in acknowledgement and understanding.’ I don’t want it to be that people leave from experiencing this book and they feel bad — I want them to walk away feeling resilient.”
On becoming better people
During the Jan. 11 visit to Charleston, Alexander said he likely will make some surprise visits at local schools — something he’s been doing for years when he parachutes into a community.
His message? “The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child and let’s do the best we can do to fill the imaginations of our children with as much appreciation of the world they live in as possible.
“Let’s give kids access to books as mirrors where they can see themselves and as windows where they can see each other. Let’s make sure books are in the classroom and in the library and watch our kids become better human beings than we are.”
Alexander is the author of 36 books, including his Newbery medal-winning middle grade novel, The Crossover. A resident of northern Virginia, he is a regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition.
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