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Jabari Asim celebrates the African American experience

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

Critically acclaimed local author Jabari Asim published his ninth children’s book, “A Child’s Introduction to African American History,” in January. The publisher Black Dog & Leventhal commissioned Asim to create an overview highlighting impactful moments and stories in black history for the 96-page illustrated book.

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Asim, who also is an associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College, is known for his writing on race, so the subject matter was straightforward. His adult books include “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” and “What Obama Means: …for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future,” among many others. More challenging for the author was adapting the often-violent African American experience for juvenile readers ages 9 to 12. “You don’t want children to run screaming, but you want to honor the ancestors by telling their true stories,” says Asim.

After a number of industry controversies, including children’s books depicting happy slaves and Texas textbooks describing slaves as “workers” as though they were paid, children’s books are trending towards honest representations. Asim found a middle ground by writing honestly about slavery and police brutality, but also including many stories of success.

The book spans the early days of slavery to the present day, and includes Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Trayvon Martin, among other modern figures. It’s part of the publisher’s “A Child’s Introduction To” series, but unlike the other books in the series, features black illustrator Lynn Gaines. Asim notes the importance of the breakout sections on arts and sports. “Arts and athletics were two disciplines where African Americans were able to ascend society’s expectations,” he says.

Boston plays a significant historical role in the book. One standout story of the city tells the tale of Anthony Burns, a slave who escaped to Boston from the South. He was captured and put in jail despite the protests of abolitionist mobs outside. Eventually his abolitionist friends raised the money to buy his freedom and he went on to attend Oberlin College in Ohio and became a minister.

“A Child’s Introduction to African American History” is available online, in most bookstores and at 10 branches of the Boston Public Library. Asim’s next five children’s books are under contract and he hopes to release “Going to Meet the Greatest,” about Muhammad Ali, in October 2019.

Asim comments that although there are increasing numbers of children’s books with black characters, the numbers of published black authors remain low. This continued disparity is another reason increased awareness of the African American experience is essential. “The current political trend suggests that history is being rewritten as we live it,” Asim says. “I want this to be a reference book, an argument solver.”

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