When Hasan Davis, former Commissioner of Juvenile Justice for Kentucky and Annie E. Casey Foundation Fellow, was in third grade, he flipped through his social studies textbook and came across its sole image of an African American. It was a photo of a beaten, elderly man, and the caption read, “American Negro slave.”
“I had been looking for that story of me, as an African American,” Davis says. “When I saw that photo, I thought, ‘This is all there is to my story.’”
Davis credits his mother with teaching him stories about black people’s contributions to this country, and to society at large, that changed his perception. But he never wants children of color to feel the way he did flipping through that textbook, so he’s made it his life’s work to get stories of African American contributions into the hands of young people. Most recently, he’s done that by writing the children’s book The Journey of York: The Unsung Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The book tells the story of the slave who not only accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famed journey, but also was a pivotal partner who contributed greatly to its success—a fact that most people still don’t know. Davis has been making that story come to life through a one-man show at schools around the country. On April 17, Davis brought his show to The Child Center of NY’s P.S. 223 COMPASS (afterschool) program. The show included a powerful reenactment by Davis, followed by an equally powerful dialogue with the children related to race, slavery, and history.
“They were all in,” says Davis. “After the show, I talked about what I said and how it relates to me—and I asked how it relates to them. They talked about people making assumptions based on what they see. We discussed how York was able to prove that he was more than a slave—and that each of us can resist letting others define us. We can find the courage to be who we want in this world.” That led to a discussion of what the students want to be when they grow up. “They were so excited. I heard answers from police officer to doctor to cosmetologist. And I also heard, ‘I don’t know.’ I told them it’s OK not to know now, but it’s important to start thinking about it, to think about what they’re good at and how they can use that to be a contributor.”
Davis says it’s crucial that young people of color know these stories of the past so that they can imagine themselves as contributors in the future. “As a young person, I was completely divested from the world and from history because it wasn’t my story—until it was,” Davis says. “Young people of color feel disconnected because they don’t believe they have ever been a part of making this nation great. If you can’t see yourself as a useful, contributing part of our country’s past, how can you see yourself as a useful, contributing part of its future? When you change the way you see yourself – not as a recipient of services who was given the right to be free, or given the right to vote—but rather as full participants and contributors to creating a nation like no other in history, that changes everything about participation and expectations.”
All students received their own autographed copy of The Journey of York, but it was clear that they were taking home more than a book. “I really liked the event,” said 5th grader Thashon. “It taught me never to let the color of your skin define you.”
Special thanks to Assembly Member Vivian E. Cook and Council Member Adrienne Adams for funding this extraordinary visit and making these experiences possible.