In Black Was the Ink (Tu Books, a Lee & Low imprint| On Sale November 2, 2021 | Ages 13 and up), by New Visions Award Honor winner and civil rights attorney, Michelle Coles, sixteen-year-old Malcolm is sent on a fantastical journey through Reconstruction- era America with the help of a ghostly ancestor, while working in the present day to save his family’s farm in Mississippi from being claimed by the State.
After a harrowing interaction with the police at a local D.C. park, Malcolm is angry and despondent and feels like nothing good ever happens for teens like him. All he wants is to be left alone in his room for the summer to draw or play video games–but no such luck. With growing violence in his neighborhood, his mother ships him off to his father’s family farm in Mississippi, and Malcolm is anything but pleased.
A few days after his arrival, his great-aunt tells him that the State is acquiring the farm to widen a highway. It’s not news Malcolm is concerned about, but someone plans to make it his concern. One minute Malcolm is drawing in the farmhouse attic, and the next, he’s looking through the eyes of his ancestor Cedric Johnson at an America radically transformed by the Civil War. As Cedric, Malcolm meets the real-life Black statesmen who fought for change during the Reconstruction era: Hiram Revels, Robert Smalls, and other leaders who made American history. But even after witnessing their bravery, Malcolm’s faith in his own future remains shaky, particularly since he knows that the gains these statesmen made were almost immediately stripped away. If those great men couldn’t wholly succeed, why should he even try? Malcolm must decide which path to take. Can Cedric’s experiences help him construct a better future or will he resign himself to resentments and defeat?
Perfect for today’s youth activists who are making their hopes for the future known as they battle frontline issues of 2021, Black Was the Ink is a powerful coming-of-age story and an eye-opening exploration of an era that continues to define modern America.
Malcolm fell for an eternity before landing with a thud on his back—his arms stretched out in a snow angel and his stomach in his throat. He gin gerly peeled his fngers of the cold, hard ground and checked his body for broken bones. Surprisingly, he was fne. He stood up and felt his way around the dark, cavernous space, searching for a door, a light, anything to let him know where he was. He couldn’t see a thing but the stench was overwhelming. Malcolm covered his nose and stumbled forward, banging into a wall. He felt along the wall’s hard, ribbed surface looking for a way out. His fngers found a metal latch. Relieved, he lifted it. A door swung open, and he was momentarily blinded by a burst of sunlight. Malcolm felt disoriented. He gave his eyes a second to adjust and then stepped forward onto a step, then another, and then down onto the dusty ground. Malcolm turned about to see he had just stepped out of a rusted-out train car. He had never seen a train like it. Suddenly, a potbelly pig charged past him kicking mud and muck onto his clothes, spinning him back around. A short old man with dark, sun-weathered skin wearing a straw hat and brown cotton overalls soon followed chasing after the pig at full speed, cursing the whole way. Across the road people scurried in and out of a barn tucked into a dense cluster of trees. Malcolm could see a white dome above the trees that reminded him of something, but his memory failed him. Malcolm felt a push from behind. A tall, middle-aged, light-skinned Black man stood at the top of the train-car steps Malcolm had just descended. The man had broad shoul ders and a full beard that grew all the way back to his ears, yet he had no mustache. He wore a three-piece blue cotton suit held up by suspenders with a white pleated shirt underneath and a red silk handkerchief folded into the front jacket pocket. He tapped Malcolm’s hip with a knobby cane.
“Come on, Cedric, you’ve stood there gawking long enough. Now let me through!” the man said, nudging Malcolm again. “Don’t forget my bag,” he called, pushing his way past him.
Who’s Cedric? Malcolm looked around. He felt confused, dizzy, and nauseous. He slapped his face to see if he was awake and immediately felt the sting. He glanced down to fnd he was wearing a tattered brown suit and homemade-leather boots. Looking back up, he caught his refection in the open train door’s glass window. The person peering back was not Malcolm—similar in appearance, but not him. He looked about Malcolm’s age, sixteen, and had Malcolm’s same tall, lean frame, ruddy brown skin, and embarrassingly long eyelashes. He even had the same chin dimple, but his hair was of. Way of. It was cut short and featured a strange side part, instead of Malcolm’s tightly coiled jet-black hair, usually worn in braids or in a loose crown on top of his head. Most disturbing was his super-weird, caterpillar-thick mustache that twisted up at the ends, like an actor in an old movie. Where am I? Malcolm wondered. He grabbed the side of the train and braced himself, no longer able to suppress the gush of vomit that few from his body. Then in a blink, he was in bed with his head resting on his sketch pad, pen still in hand.
About The Author
Michelle Coles is a debut novelist, experienced civil rights attorney, and mother of four. As a 9th generation Louisianan, she is highly attuned to the struggles African Americans have faced in overcoming the legacy of slavery and the periods of government-sanctioned discrimination that followed. She is a proud alumna of Howard University School of Law and the University of Virginia. Her goal in writing is to empower young people by educating them about history and giving them the tools to shape their destiny. She lives in Maryland with her family.
Why did you write the book?
“Black Was the Ink” was inspired by the Mother Emanuel massacre that took place in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. At the time of the massacre, I was on maternity leave from my job as a civil rights attorney, and I struggled with how to prepare my infant son to enter a world filled with so much inexplicable hatred towards people who look like him. I was surprised to learn that Denmark Vesey, the leader of one of the largest attempted slave rebellions, founded the congregation that became the Mother Emanuel Church, and Pastor Richard ‘Daddy’ Cain, one of the first Black members of Congress, led the church during Reconstruction. Also, Booker T. Washington spoke there, and Coretta Scott King led a protest on behalf of striking hospital workers from the church’s steps where she was met by bayonet-wielding members of the South Carolina National Guard. Suddenly, the link between slavery, the collapse of Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and present-day racial injustices crystallized for me, and Black Was the Ink was born.
What is the book about?
Black Was the Ink tells the story of sixteen-year-old Malcolm, who is sent on a fantastical journey through Reconstruction-era America with the help of his ghostly ancestor, Cedric, while working in the present day to save his family’s farm in Mississippi from being claimed by the State. As Cedric, Malcolm witnesses the historic contributions of Black legislators, who worked alongside white allies to bring justice, education, and land ownership to America’s newest citizens. Black Was the Ink covers both the monumental advances in civil rights that occurred during Reconstruction, as well as the tragic trajectory that brought it to an end, while also highlighting the challenges of the modern 21st century Black experience.
Who will relate to the book and why?
Budding social activists will definitely relate to the book because it speaks to their frustration with the inequality Black people experience in so many facets of life, ranging from interactions with the criminal justice system to challenges building wealth across generations. More importantly, it explains why these inequalities exist and provides a roadmap for how to reverse them. Adults who read this book will also be surprised by how so many events from the Reconstruction Era are directly relevant to our lives today.
Talk about the main character?
Malcolm is your typical teenager in a lot of ways. He’s from D.C. and loves basketball, hanging out with his friends, playing videogames, and drawing. But after some drama goes down on a basketball court, his mom sends him to Mississippi to stay with his great aunt on his family’s farm. He hates it at first, but he ends up discovering a special connection to an ancestor while he’s there and that changes him forever.
Where are you from and what inspires you?
I’m originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That’s where my roots are, but there are a lot of places I also call home. I grew up in Dallas, went to college in Charlottesville, VA, and after coming to D.C. to attend law school at Howard 20 years ago, have lived in the DMV ever since.
Hopes and desires from the release of the book?
I really hope this book finds people who question the large disparities in health, wealth, incarceration rates, educational attainment, home ownership, life expectancy, you name the category, for Black people when we are 150 years removed from slavery? How were those disadvantages frozen in place? Black Was the Ink provides the answer.
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