'That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World' is a collection of stunning black-and-white photography and biographical essays that highlight Black icons in history.
One mom's creative efforts to teach her young daughter about America's history of slavery and the civil rights movement have now given birth to a one-of-a-kind photo book. Cristi Smith-Jones and her then-5-year-old daughter Lola gained nationwide attention in 2017 when they celebrated Black History Month by paying tribute to notable Black icons. Every day of February that year, Smith-Jones dressed Lola as a different famous Black woman from history and posted side-by-side photos of the change maker and the young doppelgänger on Twitter. The photographs quickly went viral on social media, eventually reaching the eyes of award-winning writer Rochelle Riley who thought they were marvelous.
Doing a Black History Month photo project w/ my 5 y.o. One photo recreated of one incredible black woman every day in Feb. This was Day 1. pic.twitter.com/I40PEZklO2— Cristi Smith-Jones *Order 'That They Lived'!* (@MsKittiFatale) February 3, 2017
According to Detroit Free Press, Riley came across the photos again on social media the next year and decided to reach out to Smith-Jones with a proposition. "I said, 'Oh my God, here are those pictures again! I love these. I have to find out who this is.' And I literally just went on Facebook and said, 'OK, you don't know me from Adam, but these are amazing. I want to talk to you about how you did it and I think I’d like to do a book,'" she recalled. Although Smith-Jones was initially slightly hesitant and intimidated by Riley's proposal, her worries flew out the window when the pair met face-to-face.
As they formed a bond that felt like family, Riley and Smith-Jones began working on That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World, a book aimed at children ages 8 to 12, featuring stunning black-and-white photography and biographical essays. Since they already had a bunch of photos of Lola dressed as notable Black women in history, the two brainstormed ideas to do a photoshoot of Riley’s grandson, Caleb, portraying iconic Black men. Riley revealed that seeing Caleb — who was 8-years-old at the time of the photoshoot — recreating a close-up photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking from a podium was particularly powerful for her.
"When he did Martin Luther King and he just got right to the edge of the podium and did it, we were just like...," she said. Speaking of That They Lived, which hit bookstores earlier this month, Riley explained that her mission with the book was to help children understand "that all of these famous people used to be their age." The biographical essays she penned for the book begin by exploring how these icons were shaped by their early years, from jazz genius Duke Ellington writing his first piece of music as a teenager working at a soda shop to journalist Ida B. Wells taking on the role of caregiver to her siblings at the age of 16 after the tragic events of a yellow fever epidemic.
"These are not hidden figures," she said. "These are figures that kids should know, and I’m demanding that they do know. I want adults to get these books so they know them and can teach them to their kids." Although the message speaks to young readers, both Riley and Smith-Jones believe the book will appeal to anyone interested in preserving and amplifying crucial histories that often aren’t found in current curriculums. "There have been people from all over the world and all different races that have approached it and said how much they are enjoying it and how much they've learned. Anytime that happens it's incredible and inspiring to be a part of," said Smith-Jones.
I can hardly believe it! It's publication day! 🥳— Cristi Smith-Jones *Order 'That They Lived'!* (@MsKittiFatale) February 3, 2021
Tremendous thanks to the incomparable @rochelleriley and to @WSUPress. It is an absolute honor to have been a part of this. #ThatTheyLived is officially out now, available wherever books are sold! 📚 pic.twitter.com/QUNw9exues
"When I started out doing it, it was really just to teach Lola and share with friends and family. I think I had 20 followers on Twitter. I didn't have any idea the way it was going to explode," she added.
Sneak peek at the March/April 2021 issue of @ForewordReviews 😍— Wayne State University Press (@WSUPress) February 5, 2021
Karen Rigby calls THAT THEY LIVED “an elegant collaboration. . . designed to remind young readers that their role models were once young, too."https://t.co/RaIc0yBzZu
cc: @rochelleriley @MsKittiFatale pic.twitter.com/JVyGB96Fyb