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It’s Poetry Month, and ‘The Undefeated’ celebrates African Americans who persevered

"Kwame Alexander captures the spirit of African American warriors in a magical and poetic style that mimics a battle cry."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that teachers can use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, Rachel Slaughter offers readers information about the QUality of writing, Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise.

April is National Poetry Month, when teachers gather up Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and dust off nearly forgotten copies of Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth to recite selections like “O Captain! My Captain!” (Whitman, 1865) and “My Heart Leaps Up” (Wordsworth, 1807) outdoors, in the presence of bunnies and cherry blossoms.

But rare is the teacher who shelves Seuss and Silverstein to celebrate the poetry of a People. Penned by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, The Undefeated (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), is a tribute to the African American warriors who refused to taste defeat.

Kwame Alexander

A resident of Virginia and a prolific writer, Alexander is one of many talented people in his family. His parents are writers, one sister is a model and writer, and another sister is a photographer. A graduate of Virginia Tech, Alexander credits Nikki Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor, for inspiring him to sharpen his literary skills. The confidence that Giovanni instilled in him inspired him to become a writer. His hard work and dedication to his craft won him the 2015 Newbery Medal for his celebrated book The Crossover (2014).

Kadir Nelson

Nelson is a Los Angeles-based artist, and his work appears in places where you may not expect it – album covers for Drake and Michael Jackson, a Forever Stamp of Marvin Gaye, and a New Yorker magazine cover of the late Nelson Mandela. He is a two-time Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator, and his work graces the walls of the Muskegon Museum of Art, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Quality: Kwame Alexander captures the spirit of African American warriors in a magical and poetic style that mimics a battle cry. In a book that calls out the posthumous heroism of people such as Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin, victims of police brutality, Alexander delivers what could be considered the fourth stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Negro national hymn.” This gem of a book is a work of art on many levels. Alexander and Nelson’s literary and artistic genius bursts to life with words and images that capture the tribulations and triumphs of “the ones who survived America by any means necessary … and the ones who didn’t.”

Universal theme: The theme of perseverance and fortitude is outlined by Nelson’s images, which visually stimulate the soul, helping you feel the subjects in the pictures.

Imaginative: Alexander and Nelson’s book honors the past and present lives of African Americans who should never be forgotten. Some were ordinary people who endured extraordinary circumstances, and others were ordinary people who embraced leadership. The juxtaposition of these noteworthy people provides context and clues to the best way to “survive America.”

Talking points: The Undefeated provides a glossary of the historical figures and events featured in the book. This glossary is an amazing resource for teachers who wish to introduce the incredible cast of characters in the book.

  1. How do you think Alexander chose the notable figures for each category in the book (the unforgettable, the undeniable, etc.)?
  2. Which one of the notable figures do you identify with?
  3. Explain why you may consider yourself one of The Undefeated.

Rachel Slaughter, a doctoral candidate at Widener University, is working on her dissertation about multicultural literacy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to

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