Painting Black History in the Era of Censorship for Young Readers: A Conversation with Nikkolas Smith, Illustrator of the 1619 Project’s children’s book Born on the Water


Nikkolas Smith is not surprised by the book bans and culture of fear that pervade schools in his home state of Texas.

If anything, recent events make his work as a children’s book illustrator and self-proclaimed “artist” even more urgent.

“I will continue to write books that will likely be blacklisted…because they only tell the truth about the story. And it’s just ridiculous that the exact story should basically be suppressed by those in power who have benefited from racism for centuries,” said Smith, who worked with Nikole Hannah-Jones to illustrate the 1619 project for children.

Growing up in Houston, he was taught to celebrate the stories of Davey Crockett and the Alamo — “whitewashed” stories “always from a perspective”: He glorified those who owned and killed other people, he told The 74.

Now, alongside the words of Hannah-Jones and children’s author Renée Watson, Smith’s art flips the script to teach young readers the legacy of slavery ingrained in humanity; a black story rooted in joy.

in the Born on the water, the Picture book accompaniment for children to The 1619 Project, Smith’s paintings bring West African cultures to life and show the history before enslavement that is often hidden from classrooms.

“One of the things that Nikole and I talk about is that there is so much rich history and culture and so much joy in these tribes and these people that have been stolen from their land,” Smith told The 74. “They really need to understand all of that to understand how hard it was and how tragic it was… We really just wanted to show that life.”

Nikkolas Smith uses a Wacom tablet and Photoshop to paint digitally. Some days he takes the setup outside to work in the sun. (Vanessa Crocini)

In his plant-filled Los Angeles home, Smith combined the poetry of Hannah-Jones and Watson with family traditions, beautiful hair, dances and imagery evoking death and ghosts. With a digital Speed ​​sketch stylehis illustrations began as monochrome shapes and skeletons in Photoshop, impressions of how he felt after reading and internalizing their verses.

The book hit shelves last fall amid a wave of proposed state legislation aimed at preventing students from learning mythical “critical race theory” and “divisive concepts.” in the at least four states, the legislature tried to specifically ban the 1619 project. So far, Florida has succeeded.

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While a vocal minority of lawmakers and parents believe school-age children are too young to grapple with how anti-Black violence was part of the nation’s founding, many do longed for more for the content. Born on the water topped the bestseller lists as families headed into 2022 looking for ways to talk to children about the land they will inherit.


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Smith’s artistic approach seemed a natural fit. In digital paintings, he added layer after layer of color and symbols – clouds modeled after picked cotton, the shape of a person sinking underwater, or a green toy tied to a tree, the only sign of life left after colonizers stole a trunk – to convey anger and fear in a way that young readers could feel without being traumatized by explicit violence.

“WHat Grandma Tells Me” distributed by Nikkolas Smith.

Long inspired by Nina Simone”to reflect the time‘ he spent years balancing trauma and life in children’s illustrations, painting Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain and others killed by police.

his second book My hair is poofy and that’s fineexplored the internalized hatred that young black children develop from racism and micro-aggression.

Through his workIn what he calls “art as therapy,” he seeks to help himself and viewers heal “the broken bones of society.”

“For them to say, we have a book about the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, and all these very heavy things that we as black people in America think about all the time… I felt like that’s one of the biggest flaws in bones.” in America,” he said.

Hidden in the clouds are equations, rockets, the Capitol under construction, showing how black people contributed intellectually and physically to building this country. The painting also acknowledges how “we think about it [slavery] all the time” – iconic American landmarks are constant reminders. On the right, Olympian Lee Evans raises a Black Power fist parallel to the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty, symbolizing that a fight for freedom continues long after the Statue is erected. All figures, spanning generations, are in the same water, tied to the legacy of slavery.

“…Remember these weren’t slaves that were taken, these were brilliant people, and they did some amazing things… They knew how to design and build cities, they built this country, and that’s why they were stolen, because they were brilliant and good at what they do. We just want to remind people of that and how much they fought and resisted and got their freedom back.”

Printed on the inside of the cover are the symbols of life, death and rebirth used throughout the book, modeled after African scarification patterns. “I want people, especially younger ones, to be able to grasp the gravity of what happened without the tragic moments getting too much in the face,” Smith said.

“And [for] the young people that aren’t black, there’s no shame in anything we say. We want people to grow up with an accurate understanding of what happened in this country. I feel like it is only when we speak openly and honestly about all of these things that we will really grow and move forward as a nation.”
Nicholas Smith

A two-page, wordless spread of the White Lion ship, used to transport people to America, lands in the center of Born on the water. Smith’s “X” symbols for death are everywhere here, and the image is framed so you can see the hidden shell underneath. Its “grotesque” nature is conveyed through harsh brushstrokes, shading and colour. Typical of other spreads is the flare of light on the right, perhaps from a sunrise or sunset. Smith says this should convey that even in the darkest of times there is hope.

Smith blurred the linear understanding of time by using intergenerational symbols to help young readers understand that “[ancestors’] Vision of the future, their wildest dreams are now embodied in us – [we’re] having to take this cloak and go forward.”

In this painting it is difficult to see how many figures are in the purple cloud or wave. What is clear is a legacy of resistance: a man breaking bonds, a broom commonly used at wedding ceremonies, a man getting on his knees in protest, commemorating Colin Kapaernick. All are geared towards “an uncertain future” – one that is brighter and more hopeful.

And in Faces, Smith balanced the world of feelings associated with the Black experience: from shame when the protagonist is unable to complete a family tree beyond three generations, to pride after her grandmother discovered the rich history of the tribes before the enslavement told. Their hair in Bantu knots and their clothes refer to past generations.

The first spread Born on the water is a familiar entry point for readers: the classroom.

Ultimately, Smith hopes his work can help the next generation of black youth feel proud. Over the next few months he will paint scenes from Ruby Bridges, the first young person to integrate a Southern school in 1960. And next year he will be collaborating with acclaimed author Timeka Fryer Brown on a picture book about the Confederate flag.

He expects both to end up on blacklists.

“All we can do is keep getting the truth out to the public,” Smith said, “and it’s going to get into the right hands.”

All paintings are illustrated by Nikkolas Smith for Born on the Water, a publication by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers.


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