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Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Pillars of African American History: Ibi Zoboi’s Kwanzaa Picture Book

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By Ibi Zoboi
Illustrated by Loveis Wise

Like storytelling, memory can carve a path to freedom. As Joan Didion wrote in “The White Album,” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In an often illogical, chaotic world, narratives can be a salve or a method of survival. They can help us grasp what Didion called “the shifting phantasmagoria” of the human experience. But what if a community’s identity is intertwined with the incomprehensible cruelties of human bondage?

In “The People Remember,” a picture book written by Ibi Zoboi, a 2017 National Book Award finalist for her young adult novel “American Street,” and illustrated by Loveis Wise, African American history begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But Zoboi and Wise don’t sensationalize violence or wallow in sorrow. Their collaboration focuses on Black resilience, a cultural inheritance powerful enough to break the curse of generational trauma. Guided by the seven principles of Kwanzaa (unity; self-determination; collective work and responsibility; cooperative economics; purpose; creativity; and faith), Zoboi’s narrative explores both the burden and the strength of collective consciousness.

The book begins “during a time of war,” with the capture and enslavement of Africans across the continent. Zoboi chants the names of the various nation-states of the diaspora (“the Ashanti and the Fulani, the Empire of Mali, the Hausa and Ibo, as well as the Kongo, the Yoruba and Akan, the Empire of Songhai, the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Mende and the Fon”) and recounts how chiefs and kings sold “the people” to white men who forced them into “ropes that bound them.” She alludes to the horrors of the journey across the ocean by noting that “some jumped” into the embrace of the water spirit Mami Wata, who “maybe, just maybe … was their mother.”

Wise’s illustrations imbue Zoboi’s lyrical text with mythological import. A particularly effective spread depicts a Black woman leading another Black woman and a girl with braids through the dead of a blue-velvet night. She points out the constellations above, as a waxing crescent moon glows with soft yellow light. Zoboi’s accompanying text discusses how, when slavery ripped families apart, “the North Star was freedom” and Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner “led the way.” The image and the words work in harmony to emphasize the limitless potential of the human spirit. Later spreads spotlight the innovation and creativity of Black trailblazers in the arts.

As Zoboi moves farther along the timeline of American history, she rejects the belief that Blackness is rooted in suffering and focuses on the sacred refuge of community. “All these people from different African nations had to learn one common language and create a culture that combined their memories of home in Africa with new traditions that allowed them to survive and thrive,” she explains in her author’s note, which is paired with educational back matter. Those on the younger end of the book’s target age group will appreciate Wise’s illustrations more than they will the text’s lessons, but all ages should enjoy the cadence and rhythm of Zoboi’s verse.

“The People Remember” provides an overview of the genesis and evolution of African American culture, but it is not meant to be a definitive tribute. Survival is in part the result of adaptation, of metamorphosis. For Zoboi, to remember is to honor both the wisdom of the dead and the gospels of the living.

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