Black Lives Matter

Published on July 28th, 2015 | by Aya de Leon


AYA DE LEON On How to Talk to Small Children about Racism: Celebrating Bree Newsome

Recently, our family ate dinner with another family, and their kid had seen a video of Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag. Prior to that, I had written a satire post for adults about the confederate flag, but I wasn’t sure at first how to explain the anti-flag activism to my daughter. For some time, I have been working with a group of parents in the Bay Area to create Black Lives Matter activism activities for children 0-8. I have been adamant that our work to help them understand racism be developmentally appropriate. I believe they need to be given information about racism where the concepts are broken down to build on concepts they already understand. Our country’s history of anti-black racism and current police violence is terrifying—even to adults. The brutality of these histories and current realities should be handled gently with children. Part of racism in the US for black children has meant that our children don’t get to have a childhood. From early on, we learn that our lot in the US is to be targets of brutality. This is early training in being terrorized. I want to do a slow and gradual job of explaining the brutality of racism to my daughter. And let’s be clear, this is only a recent privilege (segregation meant learning about brutality early for survival). And everybody doesn’t have this privilege. Small children in families of black people who are abused and killed by police learn these lessons early and brutally. The reason I choose to go slow with imparting this information is two-fold:

First, because young children are very literal. For example, if I explain that people with black skin were held in forced servitude or are being targeted by police, black children run the risk of being confused that their skin was the cause of the enslavement or the violence, not racism. My focus is on learning about the inequality in language they can understand. When she’s older and has a clear grasp on the dynamics of mistreatment and exploitation, I can explain that skin color was the pretext for the mistreatment, not the reason for the mistreatment.

Second of all, I take this approach because I am trying to raise a leader. I don’t want her to be so terrified by information about racism in her early childhood that she develops the idea that she is powerless to change it. I am constructing a narrative of explanation that emphasizes people’s power to transform injustice. And I believe that. Which is why I am attempting to raise a leader. Bree Newsome is a great example of bold leadership.

So here’s the story I wrote–with pictures!

A long time ago there was a mean group of pirates. This is a regular pirate flag.


by fdecomite flickr/creative commons

And they took some people prisoner on their ships and sailed far away. And they made them work all the time and didn’t let them play. And didn’t pay them any money. And they wouldn’t let them leave. And they were mean. And the people they were mean to said, this isn’t fair. We’re gonna get out of this. And the fought back and a bunch of them escaped and other people helped them. And they had a big war about it.


And this was the flag that the pirates used in the war. And the pirates lost the war. And the people they had been mean to got the right to be paid and leave if they wanted to. But the mean pirates were mad. Because they didn’t want to do their own work. So they remembered the pirate times as good times, because they got had other people doing all their work for them. But the people who did all the work and didn’t get paid and had pirates being mean to them remembered those times as bad times.


J. Stephen Conn / flickr creative commons

And years later, some of the kids and grandkids and great grandkids of the pirates were in charge of some things and they were still flying the pirate flag as if the pirates were still in charge.

And the kids and grandkids and great grandkids of the people the pirates had been mean to, and their friends all said that’s a flag from bad pirate times, and the pirates lost the war and you don’t get to fly it anymore. Take it down! But the people on the side of the pirates said no, we’ll fly our pirate flag if we want to because it’s our heritage. And the other people said that flag reminds us of meanness and our ancestors being treated bad.

But the people on the pirate side wouldn’t take it down. And they put it on a high high flagpole and they put a lock on it.

confederate flag protest 1 copy

(c) Andrew Renneisen, Washington Post

And people were mad and they shouted about it, and wrote articles and sang angry songs and spoke poems, but the flag stayed up.

So a brave woman named Bree Newsome and some of her friends said that’s enough, pirates! And she got her climbing gear, and her tools and she wore her helmet. And her friends helped her. And she was so strong and so brave

Bree flag copy

(c) Andrea Densky/USA Today

So, She climbed to the top of the pole and cut down the flag. And the people cheered. But when she climbed down, the people on the pirate side were so mad, they had some people who work for them take her prisoner. But most people thought she was a hero.

And people all over began noticing pirate flags and making people take them down. And the people got Bree Newsome out of jail, and she went around telling everyone why she did it.

bree climbs down copy

She said:

As you are admiring my courage in that moment, please remember that this is not, never has been and never should be just about one woman…This is a multi-leader movement. I believe that. I stand by that. I am because we are. I am one of many.

I did it because I am free.


(c) Niall-Julian Watkins

Originally posted at Aya de Leon

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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In May 2020, Aya published her first children’s chapter book, EQUALITY GIRLS AND THE PURPLE REFLECTO-RAY, about an Afro-Latina girl who uses her superpowers to confront the president’s sexism. In December 2020 Kensington published her first standalone novel, A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about FBI infiltration of an African American organization fighting for climate justice and Black lives. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Mutha Magazine, VICE, The Root, Ploughshares, and on Def Poetry. In 2020, Candlewick will publish her first YA novel, a Black/Latina spy girl book called UNDERCOVER LATINA. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. Visit her online at, on Twitter at @ayadeleon, Facebook or Instagram at @ayadeleonwrites, where she writes about race, class, gender, sexuality, culture and climate.

19 Responses to AYA DE LEON On How to Talk to Small Children about Racism: Celebrating Bree Newsome

  1. ana says:

    this is beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. such a powerful way to inform a child about a contemporary hero. I wish this was a children’s book because I would make sure my kid knows about real heros, not just the antiquated racist war “heroes” she’ll learn about in school.

  2. Shoshana Thayer says:

    So grateful for this. Thank you!

  3. Melissa says:

    We should definitely talk more about race with our young children. I can appreciate that sentiment in this story but it is missing 2 important words: white and Black. Also, I prefer not to use pirates in the example. I’m a teacher, and we often have refugee students who know exactly what pirates are. I told my kids about slavery little by little so they had time to process. There is no reason the truth can’t be told without using difficult words. I don’t believe history should be told in a fantasy tone.

    • Clara says:

      Did you miss the part where she said she was trying not to further the narrative that Black skin was the cause of enslavement rather than (white) racism?

      The point was abundantly clear without references to “black” and “white.” That will be become clear enough soon enough.

      • J.B. says:

        When I talked to my six year old, not about the flag, but just about racism, it went something like this: a long time ago in America, there were a bunch of rich, lazy people with big farms and it took a lot of work to make the farm run. And they didn’t want to do the work themselves, and they didn’t want to pay people to do it. And they knew people would get mad at them if they took their neighbors children, and forced them to do it. So they took a boat to Africa and stole a bunch of other people’s children and brought them back and forced them to work on their their land. This is called slavery. This was a terrible thing, and they knew their neighbors probably wouldn’t like this either. So they made up a bunch of lies. The people in Africa had darker skin than the farmers and their neighbors, so they lied about dark skinned people and said they weren’t as good, they were bad and dangerous, and that is was okay to be mean to them. These lies were a terrible thing, but they convinced a lot of people. Even today, after slavery has ended, some people still believe the lies.

  4. Nanci says:

    We told this story at a circle time at our peace and justice based outdoor STEAM summer camp. The parents there for pick up were in tears, and all of us have been continuing the conversation. I’d also love to see a print version of the story-perhaps drawn by the artist who made the drawing above? I picture it with a combination of photographs and drawings. Oh-maybe the illustrator who works with Kate could do it?? Anyway-rad American women unite, and you are certainly one of them, Aya!

    • Alison Hope Alkon says:

      Nanci- Can you tell me more about your summer camp? My son is 2 and I’m just getting ready to start talking about these things with him. My plan is to introduce through books like this as soon as he shows knowledge of the concept of “fair.” I know kids start to recognize racial differences around 3, so I’ve got just a few months to get ready.

  5. Amy says:

    I also teared up! I hope you publish this (or a longer version!) as a kid’s book. Breaking things down in the simple terms of a child’s understanding makes how awful and absurd racism is just gut wrenchingly obvious. It would be great for adults that haven’t figured that out yet.

  6. Simone says:

    I’m interested in where you found the confederate/skull flag – I’ve never seen that one before, and I’ve always read that the pirate flag was used only in the revolutionary war, so I’d love to learn more and have sources for when the kid is old enough to have more questions. Thank you for writing this!

  7. Leda says:

    Aya! How did I not read this until now. Tears!!! I want to make this book! Thank you so… Sharing this.

  8. Leticia says:

    Thank you, Aya. I find myself perplexed daily about how to explain media events and violence in the community, and racial issues that may affect our children. You hit on an important point…that their childhood needs to be preserved, and so often as people of color facing extreme violence or adversity we are robbed of that. Keep up the excellent work!

  9. Kristen says:

    Thank you for this wonderful story! I’ve been struggling with how to talk about this with my six-year old. After we read your story, she ran off to make her own flag. It’s looks a bit like the confederate flag, but it’s rainbow colored and has people climbing on it. She’s made about a half dozen other flags now, and all of them have people on them. I love it!

  10. joe says:

    It needs to be in the form of a book we can read to our kids at bedtime. This is beautifully written. A great story that one day can be used to open up the history of racism when the kids get older. The poor pirates though…the people who did this had the full force of law and state. We’ll have to then have them unlearn that not all pirates are bad 😉

  11. Ev says:

    Wow. Thank you for this. I’ve struggled with ways to explain racism (and other isms) to my daughter in a way that would not totally shatter her, your story is great and I hope it gets published!

  12. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this. My daughter is very young and I googled how to explain Black lives matter to her.
    Very beautifully done and hope to see it as a book one day!

  13. Would it be ok if I used this story at my church to talk with the children about resisting Empire?



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