When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clarke is a beautiful poem of the heart explaining, affirming and encouraging equal rights, black pride and black joy across a picture book filled with silhouettes and blanked faces of many shades of Black skin so that the reader sees every individual and all Black people in its images rather than as a fictional character in the book. A powerful choice.
The book as a whole could be taken as a parent, or ancestor song or letter to a young black child like Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman is for daughters, but explaining the road that black people have been on and why this movement exists, yet equally it stands as an education, demystification and above all builder of empathy with black experiences. This is fundamentally important for all children of all heritage to hear, quite literally When We Say Black Lives Matter it says why and how, but importantly the emotion of it too and calls to activism if you believe too.
Black Lives Matters is not a topic that should be doffed cap to in public to and perhaps wheeled out for show in social media bios or to title special programmes and assemblies in Black History month nor a ‘thinking point’ for diversely populated schools. It’s a reality that reflects the saying that when one of us (and by ‘us’ I mean humanity) suffers, we all suffer whether we realise it, recognise it, have the courage to admit it, or not.
Furthermore, the segregation, stereotyping, ghettoisation and criminalisation upon black communities, culture and black children is something we all have to understand has undeniably happened, has long lasting consequences and also recognise that whatever our personal politics and stance, the continuation of the status quo and stigma reflects back on the whole of society and can further mistrust and disenfranchisement.
It is important to endeavour for all children to feel represented, heard and crucially, their worth AND that of others. We also hope them to grow with open eyes and hearts, and informed minds, to respect culture and heritage but to look at the content of character. The equal powers of representative and inclusive toys and books for all children, and those with a social awareness such as When We Say Black Lives Matters can be powerful tools for change.
Maxine alludes to the oft-quoted Emma Lazurus who wrote about the Jewish experience in America ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’ it stands for more and all today, including women’s and LGBTQ+ but remarkably so, the experience of black people.
By accepting this and choice to support Black Lives Matters doesn’t dismiss, diminish nor negate the experience and struggles of other persecuted groups nor indeed impoverished and disadvantaged people of any racial heritage, but it recognises how the particular persistency of lack of access to rights, social mobility, life expectations, persecution by others and perpetuation of poverty continues remarkably towards black communities and how little seems to change generation to generation and how pride and self worth can be catalysts for change.
As Maxine says ‘When we know Black Lives Matter’ to all is the aim.
And yet, despite the history and context there is such love in this book. There aren’t pointed fingers, no direct blame, shaming or guilt assigning, there isn’t malice, only celebration of blackness and empowerment to be equal and the chance to shine like others though clearly not at the loss of liberties for others because Black Lives Matters means that this shall happen no more for anyone because when black lives matter, they will be to all
‘as precious as every soul whose story has journeyed the Earth’ .
For black children especially it’s a beautiful gift. It’s vibrant and joyous and empowering giving hope and pride in blackness and heritage particularly speaking musically of jazz and djembe but meaning much more and also strength from the voices who have chanted before is all for ‘you’ and other black children of the future.
For children of other heritages it’s inclusive as Maxine calls ‘all’ to end the monster of racism and inequality, it’s encouraging empathy and explaining why they see or hear on the news about people calling for change and say this slogan that some people, perhaps in their own homes or community misinterpret badly.
This is why this book is so powerful; whilst rumbling with strength, it doesn’t blame or attack, it states facts and doesn’t pretend things are nice nor easy but Maxine speaks with tenderness to the age of a picture book reader of hope and pride, and perhaps, hopefully, igniting the fires of real change by encouraging anti-racism and activism.
This book belongs in every classroom, not simply put on a library shelf somewhere in the non-fiction section, and it deserves to be in homes, it needs to be read and explored, to vocalise feelings, to empower and foster pride, and encourage questions, understanding, and honesty.
Thank you to Maxine and the Wren & Rook team for my copy and organising this tour. Make sure you check out the other stops!
When We Say Black Lives Matters by Maxine Beneba Clarke is published in the UK by Wren & Rook and in Australia & New Zealand by Lothian Books.