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Kwame Alexander's new book about slavery is 'Door of No Return'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You know our next guest well. Kwame Alexander is MORNING EDITION's poet-in-residence. Kwame has written a new book, a young adult novel that is filled with hope, resilience, anger and love. It's called "The Door Of No Return," and it's about a young boy named Kofi growing up in Ghana in the year 1860. Kwame told me this book was the hardest that he's ever written, and what helped frame the story was an unexpected connection that he made.

KWAME ALEXANDER: I remember having this revelation that I think the blues - that music comes from African's - from Black people's sort of understanding and relationship to the water and how it has been, you know, tragic and triumphant for us. And so I wanted to write a story about the beauty and the joy and my love of the water. And so I chose this boy, Kofi, who's 11 years old, who's a swimmer in 1860, and he loves the water.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: And I wanted to show that - sort of his journey in the water and how it took him from sort of wonder to woe.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Door Of No Return." I mean, this is a place.

ALEXANDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: This is a specific place in Ghana, right?

ALEXANDER: I often say that the way Americans - the way that human beings in general view the history of Black people is through the lens of 1619 and through, you know, sort of how we got to the Americas, how we were stolen from Africa and how we got here. And that's necessary, and that's important, and we got to learn about it. But that's not the beginning of our story. You know, that's the middle, as it were. And so "The Door Of No Return" is sort of how we got to that middle. I wanted to write a story about the true beginning before, you know, we became, as it were, enslaved. Like, to me, that is definitely important but it's not the only thing, and it's certainly not the first thing.

MARTIN: In your travels, though, did you stand on those pavement stones? I mean, the door of no return refers to the port for the slave trade. And many African Americans go back there on a sort of pilgrimage and look through that tunnel and look at the ocean. Did you do that?

ALEXANDER: I did. The door of no return is both metaphor and literal. And the actual place exists, whether it be in Senegal or Nigeria or in - in my experience, it was Ghana. And I went to what was called Cape Coast Castle. And it was this dungeon that was built by, you know, Europeans, by the Portuguese. And it was a holding cell - a fort, a prison - to hold Africans as they prepared to steal them to transport them to this, quote, "new world." And so, yeah, I stood there in the castle. I did the tour. And it's just such an emotional - a powerful, emotional and tragic experience. And I remember walking through this door where the Africans were marched through as they prepared to take them down to the water, to put them in canoes to these big wooden machines, which we know now as slave ships. And so that big door that the Africans were marched through, that door, you know, is called the door of no return because once you walk through it, you are never - you're never coming back. And so yeah, I walked through that door. And I turned around, and I think writing this book is a part of me coming back through the door.

MARTIN: Right. What's beautiful about this story is how it unfolds. We are just in this kid's life, and he could be any kid. We become emotionally invested in him because he's going about his life all those many years ago but preoccupied with the things that kids are preoccupied with - right? - he's got a cousin who's sort of a bully. He's got a crush on a girl. He's got pressure from teachers at school.

ALEXANDER: Exactly. And that was my whole sort of point - is that we can't begin to be, you know, empathetic and connected with each other until we understand each other. And we can't understand each other until we acknowledge each other. And so I really wanted to help people acknowledge, you know, the humanity of this kid as sort of a first step in this reckoning of each other's humanity.

MARTIN: Could you read a bit? And I'm thinking - it's a passage near the end, and it's called "Terror."

ALEXANDER: (Reading) On the other side of the door is the edge of the mighty blue that Nana Mosi has talked about, that I have dreamed of - a body of water so awesome and large it could breathe a million clouds, drag the moon across its gigantic waves. But this is not a dream I am trying to climb out of. This roaring blue is an angry nightmare. It is a monstrous mouth. And it is wide enough to swallow us whole.

I am talking about something that is really heavy and weighty and hard to write about. And so I'm always using my daughter, Samayah, as sort of, you know, my true north in the sense that, well, how can I write this in a way that is going to be palatable and digestible and not totally destroy her? And so poetry becomes this way, you know, to distill the wholeness of the human condition in a way that's - you know, it's a couplet. It's two lines and a stanza. It's concise. It's rhythmic. I've got a sort of rhythm going. And it sort of allows us to enter Kofi's journey in a way that isn't intimidating, isn't too hard...

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: ...Isn't too harsh - and that hopefully, when you read "The Door Of No Return," that you will come away being changed in some small, if not significant, way to begin to view me, to begin to view other people who may not look like you or go to church like you or eat the same foods you eat and the same humanity that you view the people that you sleep in the same house with, that you go to church with.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Door Of No Return." It's a young adult novel. We all need this book, though. All of us need this book. Kwame Alexander, MORNING EDITION poet-in-residence, thank you for talking with me.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALI FARKA TOURE AND TOUMANI DIABATE'S "SOUMBOU YA YA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.