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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

Updated: May 16, 2022

Black History Month, as a recognized annual celebration, ends on February 28th, but thankfully none of the conversations generated and resources shared need to get any less attention come March. Perhaps the displays in bookstores, classrooms, and libraries across the country come down, but the resources we've shared at the Camden Public Library aren't going into dusty stacks. Many of them will be on the new book shelves, because there are quality titles published by Black authors constantly. Others will circulate and circulate and circulate, simply because there is an audience for them. Black history doesn't stop; it extends. It's a story constantly being told.

In August 2019, the New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 Project with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the helm. The dedicated issue, and the work that extended from it, was an effort to reframe American history and provide a new origin story, making the argument that the arrival of the first slaves from Africa in 1619 so profoundly shaped the legacy of America that it should be considered as the most critical point of generation in the nation's history, inextricably bound to everything this country was and has been since. Through essays, poetry, and fiction, published in the magazine and in a full-length bestselling book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (edited by Hannah-Jones), the project has generated conversations about the specifics of the nation's history and Black history, as well as challenged how we conceive of historical narratives at all. The New York Times Magazine also partnered with the Pulitzer Center to offer educators curriculum materials to teach about American history through the lens of the project. The book, the curriculum, the project — all are efforts not just to talk about the past but to talk about how the legacy originating in 1619 continues to reverberate throughout the present day.

While the 1619 Project has received some criticism for approach and accuracy, it has also opened up important discussions, led to the development of many educational resources, and given birth to noteworthy publications. A look at some of these resources poses the question: How do we talk to children about something so sensitive but critical? And what does this reframing potentially offer Black children whose origins are bound up in this wider story? The 2021 picture book The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, written by Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson and illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, is a relation of this "new" origin story that is at once as harrowing as the history it conveys and as beautiful as the people it seeks to empower. In the story, a young Black girl is tasked with creating a family tree in school, but she can't trace her roots back nearly as far as her classmates. Why? Because the family history she knows goes back only as far as her family's time on American soil: the year 1619. Her grandmother lovingly sets the record straight, telling her family, in the lyrical verse that accompanies Smith's vibrant illustrations, that before they came here, her family "had a home, a land, a language." Both the words and the images are able to convey a story that is both devastating and celebratory, that doesn't shy away from the truth (in keeping with the 1619 Project's mission itself) but that also gives Black children a chance to find joy and hope in their history — not just a stunted narrative with generations lost and the past concealed. The book offers readers of any age a chance to come to know this story in new ways. It's one that is and, I suspect, will continue to be on many, many classroom, bookstore, library, and home shelves for children to hear or read, but it's also one of those books that may just be for all audiences to pore over. And maybe just sit with for a little while.

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