Sharing this post on social media? Use this description to make it accessible: [Image description: Illustration from ‘Freedom, We Sing, by Amyra León & Molly Mendoza. A mother and her child leads a group community as they strive toward a sunburst filled with the words ‘We are free / WE ARE FREE.”]
Amyra León & Molly Mendoza
Picture book, Best for kiddos & adults ages 3+
>> Content warning: This post contains discussion of violence, forced institutionalization, and murder against Black Americans, people with disabilities, and other targeted people. <<
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Who has the right to be?
Mama tells me
Breath is Freedom
A sweet release
The right to be
When I read this book with the Earthquakes, we talked about what it means, today, to have the right to breathe. We talked about Eric Garner and George Floyd. We talked about the despairing cries of #ICantBreathe and the Black Lives Matter movement.
And we sit with that discomfort, that fear and anxiety, of knowing someone can deny breath from a Black person in this country without consequences – as easily as sending bullets through a sleeping a woman’s door, as easily as kneeling on a son’s neck – and face no consequences for it.
These horrors could send us into a spiral of despair if we don’t take responsibility to re-orient ourselves. In bearing witness, it’s our job to gather the wool of our neurons and sit with it a moment before panicking over the next thing on the news feed. And this poem does it perfectly – a reminder to provide oxygen to our bodies and our brains and celebrate that in this moment, we have that breath, and we can use it to seek liberation.
To sit with discomfort, and hope, without making all of this about us as individuals. To empathize, to acknowledge the obstacles before us, to envision a future of collective compassion. That’s always the first step in making change – to take a breath.
You might also like: Ending Police Brutality – A Family Action Toolkit
Don’t get too caught up in what to do next – focus on what you can do now.
Shortly before I took the Earthquakes outside to read this book, Breonna Taylor’s murderers had been acquitted, and the US President had banned anti-racism education in the federal government. I needed the right story to carry them through this news. I needed an open sky to ground them, and a reminder that we can’t afford to get lost in this despair.
So we walked to a nearby field, under a hazy sky filled with smoke from western wildfires.
I brought them to this space to tell them Breonna’s murderers would face no justice for killing her in her sleep. And that the wealthy white supremacists in our government were doing everything they could to prevent us from learning from our mistakes to prevent more hate, hurt, and violence.
I didn’t realize that the haze would only serve as a reminder of the urgency and futility we’re feeling right now. I didn’t realize how heavily we’d have to rely on the story to dust ourselves off and get into fighting stance.
So we came to this field. We talked about what we’ve learned about Breonna Taylor – the person, not the hashtag. And also – how she’s been forced against her will to take a role as a piece of history – how her personhood and her life has been reduced to a symptom of a violent and broken system.
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Connecting our vision, our history, and where we are now
While the Earthquakes buzzed around me, running and screaming and taking big gulps of freedom through this open field, I found a big wooden plaque describing the history of this place.
I learned that we were standing on the remains of an early almshouse – where inmates (the almshouse’s term, not mine) were held in early precursors to today’s human warehousing. Other than proclaiming that early New England colonists introduced the practice of institutionalizing targeted people, the text gives us little context for the justification for segregating the people who lived, worked, and died in this place from the main population.
Oh ho! But didn’t we learn in elementary school that almshouses, mental institutions, criminal reforms, residential schools – all that stuff is compassionate? As an alternative for eugenics and massacres?
The stories we were told as kids about poorhouses and shelters being the solution to all our icky feelings about targeted folks is just another flavor of hate and oppression. Almshouses, like our modern institutions, focused on isolation, torture, and profit for those in power.
::Clears throat:: To give you a sense of the stuff circling around in my head as I my feet sunk into that ground – If you’re new to:
- the disability rights movement,
- the fight to age in place,
- the US systemic incarceration of the working poor,
- the criminalization of single mothers,
- the war on drug users,
- the vilification of people with mental health conditions,
- the spark of supremacy that led to the doctrine of discovery, colonist invasion, and Indigenous genocide
- and slavery (both the abolished Atlantic slave trade and the modern prison slavery pipeline legal today),
– and how they all tie together with the warehousing, torture, and neglect of our most vulnerable people: go google those, then come back here.
Or if you’re too overwhelmed to do that right now – let’s think about WHY, in a pre-colonist, pre-captitalist society, the Massachusett tribe who thrived here for thousands of years didn’t need such a thing as an almshouse.
They didn’t need to segregate and warehouse those with chronic illness, mental health conditions, folks with disabilities, older adults, single parents, or anyone whose dignity, labor, and love couldn’t be commodified in service for the GDP.
Again, I know you’re tired – so I’ll spell it out. We only need a place to lock away your ‘undesirables’ if we think some humans are inherently less valuable than others. ‘Cause only a society of assholes warehouses and tortures those most need of our compassion and support.
You might also like: Immigrants Belong Here: Books Helping Kids Advocate For Human Rights
We don’t have to seek injustice – it’s there to see if we just look
Okay. Wow. (but not wow, this is a country built on the bones of Indigenous and Black people) – we are here, to talk about freedom and how we’ve stolen it from each other. And we’re apparently doing it on this soil soaked in the tears and pain of imprisoned people.
I really wanted to bring the Earthquakes to a carefree and open space to balance out this conversation. But with the smoke above us, the blood beneath us, and the police sirens wailing past us – hot damn.
I told the kids where we were standing. Connected it to the present-day fight to age in place, the role of for-profit prisons, the Judge Rotenburg center near our home, how we target Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people in the US, and the role we play when we fail to act.
As we read, the Earthquakes asked – what kinds of people were imprisoned here, in this field? Who decided they shouldn’t be free? How many died where we sat? Were any of them, if any – able to find freedom?
And I asked: How did this almshouse transform into the institutions of today? How is our nation built upon the bones of places like this? How do we, as a community fail to seek justice and healing? How can create a new way?
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Acknowledging the consequences of history and make space for today.
Freedom We Sing is a poem. It’s a poem about Black Futures – acknowledging the past in honesty, creating visions and working toward a good, holistic, free future. Helping kids focus on the here and now – the only place we have the power to work for collective liberation.
Stories of Black futures reject the victim/savior model – that trope of Black people as victims pre-determined to wallow in grief, redemption available only through assimilation, submission, or gripping the ears of a white feminist’s pussy hat.
Futurism isn’t just science fiction. Futurists acknowledge the consequences of history and make space for today.
Today is full of injustice. Today is full of warehousing of our sick, Disabled, and Mad. Today expands segregation, cringes from transformative justice, gentrifies and disbands loving communities, and defunds Black & brown schools. Today leaves no public space for our oldest and youngest generations to be free. Today imprisons immigrants and asylum seekers and rips them from their families. Today builds entire economies and towns around prisons, breeding ripe spaces for abuse and violence, these almshouse incubators, these red-lined spaces, these concentration camps, these private for-profit prisons – for a disease and pandemics to rage.
Black Futurists create kidlit to validate and humanize the experience of Black children. To give them a future worth striving for without erasing the past.
You might also like: Creating An Anti-Racist Family Manifesto
What role can non-Black people play in supporting Black Futures?
Poems, by their nature, are exclusionary. They’re designed to connect with very specific readers – someone who sees themselves reflected in the poet’s experience. If a poem was for everybody, it wouldn’t feel so satisfying for those who breathe it in and exhale – oh my gosh, I’m not alone.
Poetry is a wink and a nod to those with shared experiences, shared pain, and a shared vision of liberation. When we – as an Asian/white family read Freedom We Sing, we understand the references as outsiders. This book expects non-Black people of color and white folks to keep up. As we’ve said before, we need more of that.
To create a community, you kind of have to define who is not in the community. Can we do that without hate, without fear, without violence and oppression? YUP.
To do good work, targeted people need safe spaces, and we all need brave spaces – to create these, we must allow for locks. And that lock means some folks will never get unrestricted access. Facing exclusion for the very first time, this can be hard for folks at the top of the social hierarchy to accept.
As a light-skinned Asian with racial privilege, there are many other places where I can be free. There are probably references in this book I’ll never catch. We just kind of have to sit with that, when we’re trying to do accomplice work. And that’s okay! As accomplices, we can still do our best, eyes and ears open, listen & amplify, keep showing up and break ourselves open a little bit each day in seeking a collective future of liberation and love.
You might also like: Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
Futurist theory for kids: Connecting what we know with what we hope for
The book opens with talk of constellations, and the 6-year-old ruminates on this reference, pondering the way-finding scene in his favorite movie, Moana.
Does he know, I ask, that people used those same stars to escape slavery and navigate to freedom?
I wonder then
What Freedom is
Is it a place?
Is It a thought?
Can it be stolen?
Can it be bought?
We study the page with of refugee mothers running to save their children, and how the sky connects us to our ancestry.
We talk about our Irish ancestors – whose indigenous lands were colonized, who were starved out of their own homes while their invaders stockpiled, and how they were eventually forced to the US against their will. We talk about our Chinese ancestors, escaping first famine in China, then violence and racial cleansing in Malaysia.
How did we get free – and who made that possible for us?
We talk about how we are settlers now in a land of Indigenous people who have used their wits and tenacity to survive colonization for five hundred years, now fighting for treaties and land. We talk about what we share, and how we have a responsibility to make this space safe for immigrants and refugees today. What freedom are they seeking, and what role do we play in centering their voices?
We look above at that smoke-filled sky, and talk about climate refugees, climate justice. About our modern slavery system that steals Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Disabled children off the streets, breaks them down through a broken justice system, and forces them to risk their lives fighting fires we caused. We talk about cash bail, and capitalism.
And then we take all those big feelings, and we breathe.
You might also like: Breaking Walls & Building Bridges – Kids Books About Collective Action
Parenting is Praxis:
These conversations have to go somewhere. We can’t just read a book for ‘awareness’ and consider our work done. Here are a few ways we transform our family discussions from Freedom, We Sing into action:
- Talk about your family’s racial identities and recognize your role in working toward Black futures.
- Gather as a family, classroom, or community to explore the Ending Police Brutality Family Action Toolkit.
- Join & amplify the work of Revolutionary Humans, supporting social justice in parenting, non-profits, and community action.
- Attend Wee The People virtual events and advocate that your schools, faith organizations, and communities hire them to educate young communities.
- Find your local black-led organizations, check out the resources they suggest, and follow their lead in action.
You might also like: All My Sons Deserve Respect! Complex Black Boys In Kidlit
Read this book in rotation with…
This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. We need to bring the conversations started with Freedom, We Sing back to kids from multiple angles.
- A Place Inside of Me (disclosure: I’ve been a fan since long before, but author Zetta Elliott, is one of the awesome people who supports these free posts on Patreon.)
- How Mamas Love Their Babies
- Finding Om (disclosure: Sailaja Joshi, founder of Mango & Marigold, also keeps my work up & running on Patreon)
- My Heart Fills With Happiness
- The Journey
- Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou
- Heart And Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
- Find more on this list of Kids books centering Black Futures
- Breathe Like A Bear – Breathing exercises for very young kids
Additional Reading For Grownups:
- When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
- Mindful of Race
- All My Sons Deserve Respect: Search for Complex Black Boys in Kidlit
You might also like: Children’s Books By Brilliant Black Women: #OwnVoices Authors & Illustrators
Is this #OwnVoices?
Author: Amyra León (she/her) is a Black musician, playwright, author, and activist.
Illustrator: Molly Mendoza (she/her) doesn’t have self-identifying info on her website, but her work shows up in Latinx in Publishing in web searches.
How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.
Transparency & Cahoots!
Penguin sent me a free review copy of several books. Some were meh, some were good. But Freedom, We Sing stood out as AMAZING. Make sure to check it out of your local library to keep it in circulation, and perhaps grab your own copy while supporting local indie bookstores on Bookshop.
You should definitely download: The Ending Police Brutality Family Action Toolkit
Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Transform Justice
Support the Abolitionist Youth Organizing Institute first. My kids have two parents to support them – but through the AYOI, we can support and connect with youth to end targeted policing and incarceration.
“Project NIA [the AYOI lead organizer]’s mission is to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth crime and to instead promote the use of restorative and transformative practices, a concept that relies on community-based alternatives.
If my work makes it easier for you to raise kind & courageous kiddos, you can keep these resources free for everybody by sharing this post with your friends and reciprocate by supporting my work directly.
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