From Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006) to How Do You Spell Unfair: MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee (2023), enslavement and systemic racism have been recurring themes in my books. My latest release, the verse novel, Kin: Rooted in Hope, a collaboration with my son, award-winning illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford, continues that exploration. Spanning 1770 to 1920, and set at Maryland’s largest enslavement plantation and in all-Black Reconstruction-era villages nearby, Kin is my most sweeping and intimate work yet.
I am repeatedly asked why I write about slavery. Of the estimated 10 million people enslaved in colonial America and in the U.S. from 1619 to 1865, only 204 had their narratives published. Another 2,500 oral histories of Black Freemen were compiled by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. Countless individual stories of enslavement remain untold.
To make matters worse, many African-American genealogists hit a so-called “brick wall” at 1870, when the census first captured the names of formerly enslaved African Americans. Consequently, the inherited pain of enslavement is compounded by grief over lost lineage.
In Kin, Jeffery and I trace our family’s heritage through first-person poems and dramatic scratchboard illustrations that conjure the marginalized voices and erased experiences of our enslaved ancestors. Although we could not trace our roots to a specific African shore, we did find a passage about my fourth great grandfather in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, a photograph of my great-great grandfather who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops, and some incredible royal lore.
Rife with trauma, enslavement is not an easy subject to confront. In the late1980s, my mother, who was raised in the Jim Crow South, wandered off during a tour of Chinqua Penn Plantation, a sprawling 1920s estate in Reidsville, North Carolina. After viewing a cabinet of collectibles, we caught up with my mother. Of her disappearance, she said, “I didn’t want to see that Confederate money.”
A decade later I took my two children, then ages six and eight, to the exhibition, “Before Freedom Came,” at a local museum. The exhibition examined the lives of free and enslaved Black people before Emancipation. Once again, we temporarily lost a member of our party—this time my son, Jeffery. My daughter and I found him brooding over the replica slave ship. “This makes me angry,” he explained.
These visceral reactions are not surprising. Although enslavement has ended, its legacy of systemic racism pervades every aspect of Black life. The American Psychological Association contends that the stressor of historic discrimination takes a toll.
In 2007, Dr. Robert Carter coined the term race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), for the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. RBTS is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and includes direct traumatic stressors, vicarious stressors and transmitted stressors, which are passed down across generations.
Dr. Joy DeGruy’s 2012 book, "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” addresses the residual impacts of chattel slavery and systemic racism and invites discussion of how the strengths that elders summoned in the past can foster healing in the present. Among the patterns of behavior arising from PTSS are vacant self-esteem, marked propensity for anger and violence, and racist socialization/internalized racism.
Books alone cannot heal trauma, but if healing is a process, then bibliotherapy has a part to play. As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of post-Apartheid South Africa, truth is a necessary for reconciliation. Likewise, healing is a prerequisite for hope.
Children’s books provide age-appropriate explanations of America’s racist past that cultivate understanding, empathy and healing.
As Jeffery and I worked on Kin, I concluded that knowledge of one’s heritage amounts to generational wealth. We should view the family tree as more than roots and branches, more than just names, dates and places. A tree without foliage is dead. The stories that make up history are the leaves on the family tree. Family stories are treasures.
In Kin, I retrace the steps, recreate the voices and reclaim the stories of my ancestors. To do so, I consulted genealogical charts, slave ship databases, plantation ledgers, correspondence, recipes, prescriptions, advertisements, military records, material culture, and the landscape. Yet, for all I discovered, there remain gaps. So, I took creative license to channel the ancestors and their stories.
I am richer for it and I hope that young readers will be as well.
Hailed as “a master” and “the dean” of nonfiction for young people,” Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King
Award winner Carole Boston Weatherford is a New York Times best-seller and two-time NAACP Image Award winner. Since her 1995 debut, she has authored 70-plus books including four Caldecott Honor winners:
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre; Freedom in Congo Square, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Her books have won nine Coretta Scott King Awards or Honors. She writes the diverse books that she lacked as a child.
Jeffery Boston Weatherford earned his M.F.A. from Howard University where he was a Romare Bearden scholar and studied under artists from the Black Arts Movement. A rapper and a fine artist, Jeffery has performed or exhibited in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, North Carolina, West Africa and the Middle East. Jeffery’s first book was You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, and his first picture book was Call Me Miss Hamilton. Both appeared on best
book of the year lists.