The D.C. crime writer talks about his latest projects and other local authors you may want to discover.
Kojo For Kids welcomes author Shani Mahiri King to the show on Monday, February 1 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
It’s a simple question: “Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?” But many parents — of all races — haven’t told their children. Shani Mahiri King thought he’d make it easier to get the message across with a colorful book inspired by his young son and daughter.
“Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?” is two books in one: a picture book for younger kids followed by 116 short biographies of Black leaders, pioneers, scientists and artists written for older kids and adults. King includes some familiar names, but broadens readers’ knowledge with profiles of lesser known heroes and heroines.
He joins us on the first day of Black History month to talk about Black pride, Black icons and how the law can protect the people he cares about most — kids.
King’s life is all about kids — as a dad, author and law professor at the University of Florida, where he specializes in legal protections for children and directs its Center on Children and Families.
We also welcome students of The Mandala School in Columbia, Maryland, our school of the week. We know they’ll have questions for Professor King, but we’re taking your questions too — if you’re a kid!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Shani Mahiri King Author and law professor, University of Florida, and director of its Center on Children and Families; @shani_kings
KOJO NNAMDIBlack lives matter. That statement shouldn't even be necessary, but not everyone has always understood that black lives matter. Our guest today is Shani Mahiri King, who wants to make sure all kids get the message. So, he wrote a brand new book called "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?"
KOJO NNAMDIAlso joining us today are the students from the Mandala School in Columbia, Maryland, our school of the week. We're sure they all have questions for Shani Mahiri King, and we hope you'll call in with your questions, too, if you're a kid. Adults are welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, we take kids' calls only. Shani Mahiri King is the author of books for kids and a law professor specializing in protecting kids' rights. Shani Mahiri King, thank you for joining us.
SHANI MAHIRI KINGKojo, thank you so much for having me. You know, I love your show, and I looked up a couple episodes to listen to them. And I realized very quickly that you have famous people on your show, so I'm not going to tell you until after we're done with the interview that I'm not famous.
NNAMDIWell, you're adding to the fame portion of our show. We'll talk about your book a minute, but first, tell us what it was like when you were a kid. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
KINGSure. So, I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. I was born in Boston. My mother was a single mother and moved to Brookline for the schools. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment right on the Brookline Boston town, and lived there until I went to college.
KINGAnd what was it like growing up in Brookline? I mean, you know, it was great. It was safe. I could do what kids do. I could be a kid, you know. And, you know, I remember fondly what it was like to be a kid, you know, and what the prototypical things that people think about, Kojo, right: riding my bike, walking to the park, playing basketball and football. I had a talk, a turtle, a bird. You know, I did what kids do. You know, I remember being a kid. I remember playing with Matchbox cars. I don't know if you remember those things.
KINGAnd I remember watching, like, a little black-and-white TV in the living room, with a screen about as big as a small children's book. You know, it was great.
NNAMDIAnd you had to get up to change the channel? (laugh)
KING(laugh) Yeah. I mean, you absolutely had to get up to change -- and we had those, you know, antennas that look like coat hangers. Yeah, I mean, it was -- but, you know, we didn't -- it was good times.
NNAMDIWell, that sounds like a very mainstream lifestyle, but you were not exactly mainstream. You were a black kid in a mostly white neighborhood. You weren't wealthy, and a lot of the kids you went to school with were. Plus, you're Jewish, and you didn't know a whole lot of kids who were both black and Jewish. Did that make you different? Was it hard to be different?
KINGYou know, Kojo, it's a really interesting question. And, you know, I noticed it, right. I noticed being different, right. But I think it just never defined me, you know. And I was always just Shani, so I could define myself and set my own expectations for myself. And I think -- you know, I think that was basically because -- I mean, I have to think about it, but I think it was basically because my mother and other mentors basically just gave me a wink, right, letting me know that they had my back, and the rest was my job.
KINGAnd that's what I try to do with my books, right, give these kids a wink and say, go do your thing, whatever that is, right. I have your back. And with the second book, I'm also saying, this is your history, too, by the way. So, if you want to be empowered by it, go do your thing, whether it's Oprah or MLK or Malcolm X or Charles Hamilton Houston or Gordon Parks. So, I noticed it, Kojo, but it just never defined me, because throughout my life, starting with my mother, people gave me a wink and said, you know, I have your back.
NNAMDIShani, when you grew up, you ultimately became a lawyer, but a certain, specific kind of lawyer. One who works with kids, one who helps kids. Is that why you went into the law?
KINGYou know, (laugh) that's a great question. So, I think the short answer is, no, that's not why I went into the law. I think, you know, like many kids, right, you know, well, I think there were two sort of career paths that I had. And one was as a lawyer. And I think there were two reasons that I decided on that career path.
KINGOne was because I had mentors in high school who asked me to do a law track. And I didn't end up doing it, but the fact that they showed confidence in me really made me think, oh, well, maybe that's something that I could do. And then I saw fancy lawyers on TV doing cool things, and I thought, well, you now, that would be cool.
KINGAnd then the other part of my career is really a children's advocacy half. And, you know, who ever knows where these things come from, right? They can result from a quote that you read or, you know, a story that you hear or someone that you come across, right.
KINGBut the second part, the child advocate part, I think probably came from my mother, who was a social worker. And from as long as I can remember, right, I did advocacy for kids, whether it was being a big brother or working at the school for kids that got kicked out of the Boston Public School system or taking education law in law school or doing an independent study overseas in the Dominican Republic focused on educational opportunity, or ultimately being a lawyer and then a law professor focused on kids.
KINGSo, there were the two separate tracks, and I think I've always wanted to try and figure out how to meld those two. And I think what I'm doing now, I'm very blessed to say, does that.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Shani Mahiri King. He's an author of books for kids and a law professor specializing in protecting kids' rights. His most recent book is called "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?" And joining us today also are students from the Mandala School in Columbia, Maryland. If you're a kid, especially if you attend that school, now would be the time to call us.
NNAMDIShani, let's talk about your book, "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?" Could you describe it for us and tell us why you wrote -- well, actually, I've read it -- but could you describe it for the members of our audience and tell us why you wrote it?
KINGSure, Kojo. Thank you. So, the book is in two parts. And so, the first half of the book is an inspirational narrative. You can think of it as, you now, sort of a, you know, Martin Luther King speech about black history. And the second half is 116 mini portraits of many of the people mentioned in the text. And you can sort of think of those as annotations on the speech itself.
KINGWhy did I write the book? Well, you know, this happened for both of my books. The first book, "Have I Ever Told You," we were in a political climate that I felt didn't validate my kids and didn't validate many kids of color. And so, I wanted them to remember that they're powerful and amazing and smart.
KINGAnd so, we're still in a political climate that doesn't validate not only my kids but, bi-kids and, frankly, many kids from traditionally underserved populations. And so, I've always wanted my kids to have access to their history, right, which is black history, which is American history, which is history that they should have the opportunity to be empowered by.
KINGAnd so, I wrote it to empower both my kids and all kids that, I think, need to be empowered. But I think, you now, it's also important that we, I think, as parents and teachers and educators validate the place of all people in society, including black people. And I think it's true, Kojo, in my view, whether we have black children or not and whether - you know, if you're a teacher, whether you have black children in your class or not.
NNAMDIWell, of course, this is the first day of what's become known as Black History Month, but we're beginning increasingly to realize that black history is not something that should be relegated to one month, but something that people should be taking an interest in and learning all year. This is Kojo for Kids, so if you're a kid -- especially if you are a student at the Mandala School in Columbia, Maryland -- now is the time to call. I think 10-year-old Nina in Columbia is such a kid. So, Nina, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Nina. Are you there?
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Nina. Don't be shy.
NINAOkay. So, my question, like, are you going to write a second book like "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?"
KINGKojo, where do you get these kids? These are some really sharp, smart kids. So, Nina, I'm very impressed by your question. It's a wonderful question. And, I mean, that's a question that, you know, adults have asked me. So, to answer your question, yes, I do plan to write another book, "Have I Ever Told You?" And I do. Thank you for your question.
NNAMDIAnd it is my understanding -- and you don't need to give too much away about this -- but it's my understanding that you are collaborating with someone fairly close to you in order to write that next book.
KINGAh, Kojo, yes. So, "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?" I think is, as you implied, Kojo, is sort of a corrective to what has been narrow history that we teach, right. And we often do relegate black history to Black History Month, right? But it really is as much American history, right, as many, many other histories.
KINGAnd so, another book that I'm working on is, you know, "Have I Ever Told You." It'll be Latinx Lives Matter. And that book is another corrective to American history that I'm writing with my wife, who is -- she was born and raised -- she was raised in Oakland, but she is originally from Nicaragua.
NNAMDIThere you go. Well, would you read to us a bit from "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?"
KINGYeah, Kojo, I'd love to. Thank you for the opportunity. Okay. "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?" Black lives matter, in America and in the world. Have I ever told you that? Have I ever told you that we were among the first patriots to lay down our lives for the dream of American independence? And that a black man named Crispus Attucks was the very first person to die for that dream?
KINGHave I ever told you that we have never, ever accepted that black lives don't matter, not Frederick, Harriet, Sojourner, Martin, Rosa, Malcolm or Nelson? We have always known, and you must remember that black lives matter. You know that Malcolm X said, "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything?" You know, that quote reminds me of Nina, the student who just called. W.E.B. knew that black lives matter. He preached about black equality and liberation and would be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us today. Have ever told you that? He said, "The cost of liberty is less than the price of oppression."
KINGHave I ever told you that we have long been world acclaimed poets and authors? Zora, Richard, Langston, James, Ralph, Maya, Tony, Ta-Nehisi and so many others affirming with powerful voices that black lives matter. Have I ever told you that?
KINGOne of my favorite quotes in the book is from James Baldwin. He said, the place in which I'll fit won't exist until I make it. Have I told you that we turned folk music into jazz in New Orleans? Have I told you how, with trumpet notes that floated like moonlight on the river, Louis made the world hear that black lives matter? Have I ever told you that?
KINGAnd have I told you that Louis marches with his trumpet in a long, proud history of brilliant black singers and musicians? I must have told you about Marion, Bessie, Robert, Paul, Miles, Aretha, Jimmy, Steve, Tupac and Beyonce. Didn't I? You know, Bessie Smith said, "I don't want no drummer. I set the tempo." If you're listening to this, you set the tempo.
KINGHave I told you of our magnificent dancers? Have I told you about Gregory, Alvin, Sylvia and Josephine dancing their way into history, and leaving memories that show for all time that black lives matter? Have I ever told you that? Have I told you about our great journalists, about Ida and Gordon and Clarence and Gwen and others? Their words burning the message on the page that black lives matter.
KINGWe celebrate revered black champions, but have I told you about the many others who should be more famous than they are? Maybe you've heard of Joe, Jackie, Kareem, Mohammad, Michael, Serena, Florence and Simone. But have you heard about Jimmy, Satchel, Arthur and Althea, too? Do you know that 48 years before Colin kneeled on a football field to protest racial injustice, John and Tommy raised fists for justice on an Olympic podium? And that 32 years before that Jessie punctured the Nazi myth of racial superiority with four gold medals?
KINGHave I told you that we are brilliant academics, lawyers, advocates and judges? Have you heard the courageous words of Alberta, Roy, Charles, Cornel, Thurgood and Sherrilyn, testifying that black lives matter? Oh, yes, black lives matter. I don't have to tell you that we're creative, but have I told you about artists like Jacob and Jean-Michel, and children's book illustrators like Ashley and Jerry? Let their work feed your dreams. Know that black lives matter.
KINGYou know, Faith Ringgold said, "You can't sit around and wait for somebody to say who you are." I must've told you that we are groundbreaking scientists and medical researchers. I must've told you about George, Charles, Earnest, Katherine, Marie and Neal. Didn't I? Have I told you about our long history of brilliant actors, producers, directors, playwrights and screen writers? Have I told you about August, Lorraine, Sidney, Harry, Spike, Angela, Cicely, Denzel and Oprah?
KINGHave I told you how our statesmen and stateswomen, right, Adam, Shirley, Jessie, Andrew, John, Barack, Ayanna and so many others have worked to build a better world? You know, Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts said, "My mother did not raise me to ask for permission to lead. Neither should you." Have I told you that we are astronauts exploring space? I must've mentioned Dion and Charles and Joan and Stephanie, Ronald and May. Their lives matter, and your lives matter.
KINGWhen you think about Eric, Tamir, Walter, Freddie, Philando, Rekia, Aiyana, Ahmaud, Breonna and George, remember that black lives matter. When you see things happen that don't reflect the amazing accomplishments of our people, remember that black lives matter. When you see things happen that don't reflect the proud history of our people, remember that black lives matter.
KINGYou, listening to this, the Kojo Nnamdi Show, come from a tradition of excellence and resilience. You come from music that spans generations, contents and genres, literary masterpieces that transcend time. You all stand on the shoulders of giants, my wonderful children. I see you. I hear you. You are valued. We are valued. Your life matters, and black lives matter.
NNAMDIShani Mahiri King, reading from his children's book "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?" Before I go back to the phones, Shani, let's talk about the second part of "Have I Ever told You Black Lives Matter?", which is short biographies of 116 great African-Americans. How did you choose the people you've included?
KING(laugh) You know, that's a really good question. And so, Kojo, this is meant as an uplifting introduction to black excellence in every field and endeavor. And I think it's important to note that there's no way I could've included all of the black lives who deserve to shine in a book like this, right. The list is infinite and ever-changing. And so, my goal, right, was to create collective power in the breadth and richness of their contributions, and to show how these marvelous, unique arcs through history were created from 116 different starting points.
KINGAnd so, you know, I mean, of course, I'm indebted to scholars and friends who helped me with these life sketches and to the writers and researchers -- too many to name -- who have recorded and proclaimed the accomplishments and aspirations of black people everywhere. But that was my goal in narrowing this list down.
NNAMDITo 116. (laugh) Here is...
KING(laugh) To 116, right.
NNAMDI...here is 7-year-old Kaitlin in Columbia, Maryland. Kaitlin, your turn.
KAITLINSo, my question is, like, would you ever write a story with kids to help you write it?
KINGYou know, Kaitlin, that, again, these questions are really, really coming from smart, sharp kids. You know, so the short answer is, yes. And, in fact, my kids, right, helped me write the books -- my first book and this book. And so, I wrote a draft, right. I did some research, Kaitlin, I wrote a draft, and then I read it to them. And I asked them what they thought, and I asked them, did they like it? Were they excited? Were they bored? Is there something that I should include that I didn't include?
KINGSo, I have written both of my books with the help of my children. But I think it's a really good point, right, because if authors are writing for children, right, they should talk to children and see what children want to hear. Excellent question.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kaitlin. Here's 8-year-old Leora in Columbia, Maryland. Leora, it's your turn. Go ahead, please. Hi, Leora, are you there?
LEORAYes. Hello. My name is Leora (unintelligible) Mandara School in Columbia, Maryland. My question is, what kind of books do you like to read?
KINGAh, Leora, that's a great question. So, I like to read lots of different kinds of books. And, honestly -- so, I'll answer it a couple of different ways. Number one, I like to read biographies, because I like to read books about people who came before me. I like to learn about people's lives. The second answer is, I like to read books about history, because I'm really sort of interested to know how we got where we are. And the third answer is, I like to read books about things I don't know a lot about, right, so I can learn a perspective that I may not have.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Leora. Zachary, 12, emails: Of all the biographies you have written -- I guess of all the people you have written biographies about, do you have a favorite?
KING(laugh) You know, again, these questions are fantastic. You know, so I don't have any favorites. I love them all. And what I love about each of these stories is each is one of grit and determination and hard work and reaching the epitome of their field. So, for example, knowing that Althea Gibson, right, the first black athlete to play and win at Wimbledon, was born to sharecroppers on a cotton farm is amazing, right. To know that Gordon Parks, right, the famous photographer, right, and movie director was self-taught, was a self-taught photographer, right.
KINGOr that Kendrick Lamar was affected by a stutter until middle school, right. It's these parts of the stories that make these people human, that makes them accessible, and that often, I think, help people connect and be inspired by and empowered by them. So, it's a fantastic question. I do not have any favorites. I'm sort of amazed and in awe by all of them.
NNAMDII can tell you that in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the Caribbean country named Guyana where I am from, Althea Gibson inspired girls to start picking up tennis rackets and start to play tennis. That's how famous and how good and how inspirational she was and is. Here is -- go ahead, please.
KINGNo. I was just going to say, that's right. I mean, you know, she's -- I mean, you know, she said, in the field of sports, right, you are more or less accepted for what you do, rather than what you are. And so, she decided to do it, right. I mean, like I mentioned, right, she was the first black athlete to play and win at Wimbledon, right.
KINGAnd so, you know, when she moved to Harlem, right, in the 1930s, it was the onset of the Great Depression, right. She quit school at 13, and she lived in a shelter, right. And she still did it, right. She won the French Open. She won Wimbledon, right. She won U.S. Open titles in '57 and '58, right, and 51 other singles and doubles championships. So, yeah, I mean, you know, in Guyana and around the world, right, she's one of the 116 inspirations that is part of, again, not just black history, but American history.
NNAMDIHere is 7-year-old Francesca in Laurel, Maryland. Francesca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANCESCAHello, Mr. Kojo and Mr. King. I have a question. What is your inspiration for writing?
KINGAh, Francesca, you know, this -- again, these questions -- you know, can I hire these kids, Kojo, to write questions for me? I mean, this is -- you know, this is -- these are excellent, excellent, excellent questions.
NNAMDIUnfortunately, you only have about 30 seconds to answer this one. (laugh)
KINGOkay. So, Francesca, the answer to your question is two things. Number one, my kids. These books are inspired by conversations I have, and I want to have with my kids. And second, right, they're inspired by me wanting to empower not only my kids, but all kids, and particularly kids of color. And I want all of them to know and all of you to know that you're powerful, amazing and special, and that I believe in you and that we believe in you.
NNAMDIShani Mahiri King is an author of books for kids and a law professor specializing in protecting kids' rights. His latest book is called "Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?" Shani, thank you so much for joining us.
KINGKojo, thank you so much for having me, and thank you to all of the kids with their fantastic, brilliant questions.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about the local rollout of the coronavirus vaccine was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up tomorrow, President Biden lifted the so-called Muslim ban, a relief for thousands of people from Muslim majority countries and their relatives. We talk about the effects the ban has had on local families.
NNAMDIThen we'll see whether the chess play in "The Queen's Gambit" rings true with the 2019 U.S. women's chess champion Jennifer Yu, who happens to hale from Northern Virginia. That all starts at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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