'I think you start with honesty': Kwame Alexander on talking to children about slavery
Published on: 07 March 2023
Kwame Alexander visited us at BookTrust HQ to talk about his new books Unspoken and The Door of No Return, how we can talk to children about slavery, and why his books include messages of hope...
What would you say to a teacher who is nervous about talking to their class about slavery?
I would say that's why I wrote the book! The books will do the work. That's the cool thing about writing – it opens up our imaginations and gives us an entry point into having these tough conversations. Read the book with your students. Let your students read the book. Have that readers' theatre, that community reading. I think the power is in the literature and you don't have to do all the work.
I tried to be a teacher. I lasted one year. Teaching is the most difficult job ever! You all should be paid like football players, truthfully, because it's sacred, hard work. I try to write books that supplement what you do, so the only thing I say is let the books do the work.
What advice do you have for the parent of a child who is asking about slavery?
I think you start with honesty. I used to wonder when should I talk to my daughter about slavery, when do I have that conversation? I asked my mother about it and she said, 'You talk to her about it when she asks, or when she gives you the indication that she's ready to learn about it.'
You've got to be truthful and honest and authentic. I mean, you don't want to devastate, you don't want to destroy, you don't want to just make your child feel this kind of pain, and so the goal is to again, find books that are going to help you do the work.
So when I wrote The Door of No Return, I used my 14-year-old as sort of my gauge – how can I write a book that is not going to totally destroy her when she reads it? So you balance the tragedy with the triumph, the pain with the hope, the woe with the wonder. Good books can do that and I feel like I've written a couple of good ones!
Both books end on a message of hope. Why is that so important?
When I wrote The Unspoken and when I wrote The Door of No Return I knew that I was going to be in some rough waters, some troubled waters, as it were. I knew that it was going to be a hard read and it was definitely a hard write. I'd have to stop writing for a day or a week and go walk around Regent's Park or something, just take a break.
Because ultimately I know that I want to write books that are filled with hope, are filled with possibility, and these two books were antithetical to that – they were about the opposite.
But I knew that eventually, as I got towards the end of the book, I was going to have to find my way back to this hope. And I remember one day I was walking in the Rose Garden in Regent's Park and I was like, 'You know what, Kwame, you start off The Door of No Return in this really adolescent period of joy and possibility and dreams, and then you wade in this sort of water that's very troubled, but by the end of the story you've got to come back to that possibility.'
Books have the way of opening up a world of possible. So when I got to the end of Unspoken and The Door of No Returns, I knew I was going to have to come back to that joy or to that possibility or to that hope, because in reality, in life, I am an African-American. I am here because there were many people before me, my great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother, my great-great-great grandmother who's from a place called Sierra Leone, because these people survived. So they made it. So there had to be some hope because they survived. So I've got to focus on that.
That's a long way of saying yeah, when I got to the end of both books I knew I was going to bring it back to this place of wonder and possibility.
Why is it important for all children, not just Black children, to read books about slavery?
I think the goal is for all of us to become better human beings. How do we become better human beings? We've got to be more connected to each other.
Our humanity is measured by how well we treat other people. How well I treat you. How in order for me to treat you well, it requires me to have some appreciation for you as a human being. In order for me to appreciate you as a human being, I've got to understand your humanity, right? In order for me to understand your humanity, I've got to acknowledge it. In order for me to acknowledge your humanity, I've got to know about it. I've got to know your humanity, I've got to know who you are, I've got to appreciate you. I feel like the way to do that is by reading.
We read about other people – books are mirrors, we see ourselves, and books are windows, we see you. And so if we can see you in books, then we can begin to appreciate you, acknowledge you, understand you and ultimately realise that you are just like me. That we are more similar than we are different.
And once we do that, we become more empathetic, we become more connected to each other and ultimately we become better human beings. It starts in a book. The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child. Boom, I said it, right here at BookTrust, Kwame Alexander, don't forget it! Write it down, right now, W-R-I-T-E, right now!