On Independence Day, A Love Letter to Black America

03 July, 2019

The Fourth of July is Independence Day in the United States. On this holiday, Americans often remember their country's founders – the English colonists who separated from Britain.

But in a new book, writer Kwame Alexander urges readers to remember all the people who built the country.

"Is there one voice in America? No, there are many voices. And the idea is that we have to recognize, acknowledge, be proud of, pay tribute to all those voices."

Kadir Nelson and Kwame Alexander
Kadir Nelson and Kwame Alexander

His book is called "The Undefeated." It is a love letter to America -- to Black America, Alexander told VOA. Most pages include oil paintings by artist Kadir Nelson.

The pictures show great athletes, activists and artists: Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan; Martin Luther King, Jr; Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

The pictures also show people whose names we do not know: a family, a soldier and bodies crowded onto a slave ship.

"But they represent a community, a culture, a people. They represent America and that's what I was trying to say. That this is America. As Langston Hughes said, ‘I, too, sing America.'"

Horns and chickens

Like Langston Hughes, Kwame Alexander is a poet. On a recent visit to VOA, Alexander talked about growing up in both the city and the country. His words create a picture of two very different places in the United States.

"You walk out your door in Brooklyn, New York, and there's a hundred other people and you're on the street. And there's trash and there's horns and there's honking and there's music and there's somebody break-dancing over here and there's energy. And you're in Chesapeake, Virginia and there's a rooster when you walk outside your house."

He says both experiences helped make him who he is. One thing the two parts of his life had in common were books.

"Books were everywhere in our house. And I think that gave me and my sisters this feeling that anything was possible. That the world was within our reach. We could travel anywhere without having left our home through the pages of a book."

As an adult, Alexander traveled not only through books, but in real life. He often traveled to Ghana.

"And on one of my visits, I noticed that there were no books in the school and there was certainly no library because there were no books. Again, being someone who is in the business of words and understands the power of literature to transform lives, I said, ‘I want to build a library for these students.'"

So for several years, Alexander raised money and found books for a library. The building was nearly complete. But then Alexander realized something important.

"It occurred to me that I never asked anyone in the village what they wanted."

The elders in the village told him what they most needed. And in 2018, the project opened as the Barbara Alexander Memorial Library and Health Clinic. It combined both books and medicine, care for both the mind and the body.

"I think that was probably a big part of my life's work. It's one thing to write books. I think it's important if you're going to write about something that's authentic, you sort of gotta live an authentic life."

His book "The Undefeated" aims to connect readers not only to authentic lives, but to authentic American history. Some parts are difficult and painful. He uses the words "uncertain," "unspoken," "untitled." Some parts are proud and victorious – after all, the title is "The Undefeated."

And some parts are simply human.

"This is for you, and you, and you, and you. This is for us. Pretty much says it all right there, doesn't it?"

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor. Dorothy Gundy produced the video.


Words in This Story

acknowledge - v. to say that you accept or do not deny the truth or existence of something

tribute - n. something that you say, give, or do to show respect or affection for someone

athlete - n. a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength

honk - v. to make a loud sound

rooster - n. an adult male chicken

authentic - adj. real or genuine : not copied or false