Kwame Alexander and Dare Coulter’s extraordinary book Unspoken is so many things at once: a poem, a picture book, a history of slavery, a manifesto and, perhaps above all, a series of questions. It begins with the question ‘How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror?’ These questions serve as a refrain throughout the book: ‘How do you tell a story about slavery?’ ‘How do you tell that story and not want to weep for the world?’ ‘How do you tell a story this hard to hear, one that hurts and still loves?’
Unspoken thus acknowledges the difficulty of telling the story of slavery but also the necessity of finding ways of doing so. As in Alexander’s recent YA verse novel, The Door of No Return, a crucial part of this is reminding us that this story does indeed start in Africa before the arrival of slave traders: this book celebrates the richness of pre-colonial cultures with their ‘old tales of trickster spiders and talking drums‘. Alexander does not flinch from describing the evils of slavery, from being ‘shackled below crammed in small, hot spaces’ on slave ships to ‘picking cotton and growing sugar under the burning sun’ and runaway slaves ‘being caught by the searing lash of night riders’. But enslaved people are never viewed as passive victims: instead, their courage and resilience is constantly highlighted through their ‘strength and pride and refusing to be broken and refusing to stop smiling and loving‘ as well as celebrating individuals such as Sojourner Truth and Robert Smalls.
This historical account of slavery is punctuated with scenes set in a modern-day American classroom where predominantly Black children interject with their responses while the teacher expresses her reluctance to continue telling the story (‘I don’t think I can continue. It’s just too painful. I shouldn’t have read this to you. I’m so sorry, children.’) In his author’s note, Alexander explains that this book was inspired by a discussion with his daughter’s Year 5 teacher about why the class was not taught about slavery when studying America’s colonies. Unspoken shows empathy for teachers’ reluctance to share such painful stories with children – but it is the children themselves who provide the answers to the teacher’s questions: ‘But don’t you tell us to always speak the truth, Ms Simmons, even when it’s hard?’ Ultimately, Alexander’s argument is that we must tell the truth about the past in order to create a better future.
Alexander’s powerful words are further amplified by Coulter’s stunning artwork. In her illustrator’s note, Coulter explains the painstaking historical research she undertook in order to make her illustrations as authentic as possible. Her life-like paintings and clay sculptures lead us to care deeply about the people depicted, showing both the vibrancy of pre-colonial Africa and the horrifying realities of slavery. Many images will stay with me, perhaps above all a row of six shackled wrists across a double page spread against the blue background of the sea. These paintings and sculptures are juxtaposed with charcoal drawings for the present-day classroom scenes – sometimes with deeply moving effects, for instance when the clay sculpture of an enslaved man in the verso is mirrored by the drawing in the recto of a Black schoolboy reflecting on the stories he is hearing about his ancestors. But these pages of charcoal drawings also offer hope as we see children being inspired to take action, for instance by creating Black Lives Matters placards.
This is such an important book which deserves to be shared as widely in the UK as with its original American audience. It is not in itself a comprehensive history of slavery but rather offers a way in to studying this topic in more depth through other books and resources. Central to this book is the idea that children should not be shielded from learning about the slave trade just because it is too distressing; thus, while I can see lots of ways for secondary English and History teachers to use this book, it feels particularly targeted at KS2 classes and should empower teachers to approach this topic sensitively with children of this age. Through the children’s voices within the book, it invites children and adults to enter into an honest dialogue about their feelings around this subject and reminds us that hope can still be found amidst the horrors described.
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