Her Book Club: Children portray icons of Black history in new educational book


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


Rochelle Riley. PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


Cristi Smith-Jones. PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service

There is a close-up photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking from a podium, holding on to it firmly as if he is leaning in to the enormous task ahead.

In the new book, “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World,” that photo is paired with a portrait of Rochelle Riley’s grandson, Caleb, then 8, who is wearing a similar suit and tie and copying the civil rights icon’s pose with an intensity beyond his years.

“When he did Martin Luther King and he just got right to the edge of the podium and did it, we were just like …,” says Riley, who wrote the text for the project, of the overwhelming emotion.

Cristi Smith-Jones, who shot the photographs, remembers the feeling. It’s the same one she had when she did portraits of her daughter Lola, then 5, in various costumes as trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm, millionaire entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, superstar singer Aretha Franklin and other amazing women.

“With Lola, the first year when we started taking the photos, just to post for Black History Month, she gave me chills every day, every time she stepped into character,” recalls Smith-Jones.

“That They Lived,” published by Wayne State University Press, is a unique collaboration between Riley, the director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit, and Smith-Jones, a stay-at-home mom from the Seattle area.

The book is aimed at children ages 8 to 12, but its stunning black-and-white photography and biographical essays make for inspiring reading at any age.

“That They Lived” also is a chance to read biographical essays that cover the essential childhood moments of these towering figures. The combined approach has been called “an instant classic” by best-selling novelist Alice Randall (“Black Bottom Saints”) and praised by Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The book represents a journey of sorts for Riley and Smith-Jones, strangers who became friends as soon as they met in person.

According to Smith-Jones, the idea for the portraits goes back to January 2017, when her daughter came home from school and shared what she had learned about Martin Luther King Jr. for the upcoming national holiday.

Smith-Jones saw an opening for more discussions about America’s history of slavery and the struggles and triumphs of the civil rights movement. But she wanted to try an approach that would be relatable to a 5-year-old.

Using her smartphone at first, plus clothes and props she already had at home, she started taking photos of her daughter dressed as prominent Black women from history and contemporary times.

Says Smith-Jones, “When I started out doing it, it was really just to teach Lola and share with friends and family. I think I had 20 followers on Twitter. I didn’t have any idea the way it was going to explode.”

When she began posting photos on social media, they quickly went viral. They wound up reaching a huge global audience and drawing the attention of CNN and other news outlets and celebrated women like ballerina Misty Copeland and astronaut Mae Jemison.

“For me, it was really cool the way things caught fire … but it was also intimidating,” says Smith-Jones.

Riley was among those who saw the photos in 2017 and thought they were marvelous. But the award-winning writer, then a Detroit Free Press columnist, was busy working on her previous book, “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery,” an essay collection that took her on an 80-city book tour.

The next year, when “The Burden” was hitting stores, Riley saw Smith-Jones’ photos pop up again on social media and knew she had to do something.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, here are those pictures again! I love these. I have to find out who this is.’ And I literally just went on Facebook and said, ‘OK, you don’t know me from Adam, but these are amazing. I want to talk to you about how you did it, and I think I’d like to do a book.’”

The fact that Riley was a nationally recognized journalist made Smith-Jones hesitant at first.

“With someone with Rochelle’s pedigree, it was even more intimidating, honestly. I was a little nervous, just about the process of what would go into it.”

Once Riley flew to Seattle and hung out with Smith-Jones, those worries were replaced by a bond that felt like family.

Riley says her mission with the book always was to help children understand “that all of these famous people used to be their age.” Her biographical essays begin by focusing on how these icons were shaped by their early years, from jazz genius Duke Ellington writing his first piece of music while a teenager working at a soda shop to journalist Ida B. Wells becoming the caregiver to her siblings at 16 after the tragic events of a yellow fever epidemic.

Although the message speaks to young readers, Riley sees the potential audience for “That They Lived” as extending to parents, teachers and anyone interested in preserving and amplifying crucial histories that often aren’t found in current curriculums.

“These are not hidden figures,” she says. “These are figures that kids should know, and I’m demanding that they do know. I want adults to get these books so they know them and can teach them to their kids.”

Smith-Jones, too, sees the audience for the book as being as universal as the one that photos had on social media.

“There have been people from all over the world and all different races that have approached it and said how much they are enjoying it and how much they’ve learned. Anytime that happens it’s incredible and inspiring to be a part of.”

Now the one thing left to do is for Riley to convince Smith-Jones to do more of the interviews and virtual appearances that are ahead for the book. Coaxing the the photographer to come out from behind the lens is going to be a process.

Says Smith-Jones with a smile, “I may be uncomfortable with the spotlight myself, but I love to shine the spotlight on people who really deserve it.”

Julie Hinds writes for the Detroit Free Press.

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