The sun had barely risen when I spoke with author and poet Kwame Alexander in late March. It seemed appropriate. His message is about the power of words and letting the sun shine in on what can be uncomfortable topics.
His new book, “An American Story,” about the enduring legacy of slavery, could be a prime candidate for being banned in some states.
But that’s not why he wrote it. The book was inspired by an uncomfortable incident that happened in his now-high-school-age daughter’s fourth-grade class and is meant to be a primer for parents, children and teachers on how the history of slavery is taught.
“When my daughter was in fourth grade, a teacher was going over a lesson plan on the history of the 13 colonies, and a girl in her class said, ‘You can all be my slaves,’” he said. “The teacher had everyone apologize to each other and moved on. I scheduled a meeting with her, and when we started to talk, she began crying. She didn’t know how to teach about slavery. That’s when I decided to write the book. If we’re going to deal with the history of slavery, we have to acknowledge that we have to be better in the future.”
In the book, Alexander uses poetry to explore the history of slavery. He begins by asking the simple question, “How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror?”
It’s uncomfortable to read, but Alexander’s poetry rises above the horror. He ends the book by answering his question: “You do it by being brave enough to lift your voice — by holding history in one hand and clenching hope in the other.”
That message is underlined by the exquisite and daring artwork of Dare Coulter, an award-winning artist from North Carolina whose work with Alexander will certainly elevate her already meteoric rise. In 2016, she illustrated the children’s alphabet book “My N.C. from A-Z,” which highlights notable African American individuals in North Carolina’s history.
The cover of “An American Story” shows an African American seamstress either creating or repairing an American Flag, and it pulls you into the journey of learning.
That’s the journey that Alexander has been on since his parents, a book publisher and a teacher, instilled in him the love of words and reading.
“I read a lot of books until I was 14 or 15, and then I began to get bored,” he said. “Years later, I was in the garage when I found this book without a jacket, and on the cover, it said, ‘The Greatest.’”
The book was a biography of Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers.
“I began reading it and couldn’t put it down. It reinvigorated within me the power of words,” Alexander said.
Much later in his career, he revisited his love for Ali when he co-wrote a book with powerhouse author James Patterson.
“He’s a student of Muhammad (Ali) and sports in general. He’s a machine. He turns it out but is also so very thoughtful, smart and creative,” Alexander said. “We’d go back and forth. He’d write a chapter, I’d write a chapter. At some point, I suggested some changes. He wrote a polite note saying, ‘You don’t criticize bestselling authors’ and signed it, ‘Love, Jim.’ The cool thing was when the book came out, he’d made the changes.”
Alexander will visit Lansing on Monday (April 17) for a book talk at Everett High School. The message of his speech is simple.
“Words matter, books are cool, and poetry is a sure way to show the power of words and to get kids to want to read,” he said.
Scott Duinstra, executive director of the Capital Area District Library, said that Alexander’s appearance “marks us getting back to pre-COVID times, when we were bringing in noted authors in person. This appearance is especially important because of our focus on early childhood literacy.”
He mentioned that, somewhat ironically, James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series was recently banned by Florida’s Martin County School District.
Alexander said book banning is “not a new thing for the Black community.”
“I went through school without ever seeing a Black book,” he said.
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