Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘Magnolia Flower’ adapts Zora Neale Hurston for children

Magnolia Flower is a little known short story by well-known Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, about a Black and Indigenous woman who falls in love with a man her father despises. Instead of giving in to her father’s cruel demands, Magnolia Flower runs away with her beloved and lives happily ever after.

Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist and National Book Award winner, adapted Hurston’s 1925 story and partnered with Loveis Wise, an illustrator and University of Arts of Philadelphia graduate, for this dynamic new children’s book.

Kendi and Wise will discuss the book Sept. 22 at The University of the Arts’ Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium. Tickets are $20.

In Hurston’s fiery original, Magnolia’s father, Bentley, escapes slavery and settles with a community of Black and Indigenous people known as Maroons. But he becomes as nasty as his former enslavers, abuses his wife, treats his workers with contempt, and refuses to let Magnolia marry her beau, John, a Black man with fair skin, raising issues of colorism. Hurston’s narrator is an ancient river that ripples through the Maroon people’s village, recounting the lovers’ tale to a fast-flowing brook.

In Kendi’s reimagining, Bentley is cast as an evil stepfather who doesn’t like John because he’s poor. The lyrical conversation between the river and the brook is at the center of this tale and love wins in the end.

We talked to Kendi about the beauty of Hurston’s work, how Magnolia Flower fits into Kendi’s antiracism mission, and why reimagining Hurston’s explicit tales about late-19th century Black life is gutsy in the era of book banning.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

I read this short story when I was in graduate school (at Temple University). I did a reading binge of everything Zora did. In March 2020, I was listening to the audio book, Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick while I was running. The nation had just shut down and I was able to grasp the beauty of the imagery especially the essence of Magnolia Flower, an Afro-Indigenous woman who wouldn’t stop at being told no, and was willing to fight for love. I decided I wanted to figure out a way to scale it back and make it accessible to children.

I think the story line about colorism was the most difficult for me because I couldn’t find a way to connect it within the larger story so that it could be understood by a 4-year-old. But I did think I could share with a 4-year-old that you had people in bondage, who ran away and formed a community with other people, who were driven out of their land.

That’s precisely why I was so excited to adopt Zora Neale Hurston for children. Yes, she is fiery, direct and has a sort of funk that doesn’t play around. But her work is also about the expansiveness of humanity. She’s honest. That is what children are attracted to. That is what my daughter is attracted to. I want children to connect with a writer like that.

The objective of the people who are banning books is to make authors question the kinds of books we create. [They want us] to rethink, to self-censor and not come out with books that tell the complete and honest truth about this nation’s past with racism. The book bans have caused me to double down even more and create stories that share the truth. And there is no better, more honest and more unapologetic story teller of Black life than Zora Neale Hurston.

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This is the kind of story that introduces young people to slavery and settler colonialism by taking them through the door of a love story. In order for us to be anti-racist, we must have an understanding of the past and how this legacy impacts equality today. One of the positions I’ve pushed back against is that slavery and poverty dehumanized people. The violence of slavery was not the totality of Black people’s existence. What Magnolia Flower does is show, despite the pains and nightmares of slavery and the forced removal of people from their land, Black and Indigenous people still found love, they still found joy and it’s that love and that joy that fueled their resistance to change those conditions.

I’m doing six children’s books that will be adapted from Zora’s work. The first is Magnolia Flower. The second one, coming out in March, is entitled, The Making of Butterfliesand it’s based on Zora’s Mules and Men. It’s a funny folktale that shows how The Creator mistakenly created butterflies. It’s a sweet, funny tale I thought would be fascinating to the youngest of children.

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