NPR’s Ailsa Chan discusses a new children’s book with Grammy-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens. build a house.
Artha Chan, Host:
In the summer of 2020, as protests against racial justice swept across the country…
(Soundbite from archived recording)
Unidentified group: George Floyd. George Floyd.
Chan: …Grammy Award-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens was watching his homeland from afar. She is now based in Ireland with her family and, in her words, has felt furious, desperate and helpless. She wondered if America would ever really change. So she wrote down some words and put music to those lines. And collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The song was called “Build A House”.
(Sound bite for the song “BUILD A HOUSE”)
Rhiannon Giddens: (singing) You brought me here to build a house, build your house, build your house. You brought me here – build your home and grow your garden well.
Chan: And now these lyrics have been combined with vivid illustrations into a new children’s book, also called “Build A House.” It’s the story of a family’s resilience in the face of oppression and hate as they try to build a home of their own.
Rhiannon Giddens joined us. welcome.
Giddens: Hello. Thank you for inviting me.
Chan: Well, thank you for joining us. So I want to start with the first lyric of this song. This is the first word on the first page of this book – you brought me here to build a house. May I ask why you started there? Thoughts on this house, like, how did so many enslaved people build so many white American homes? Why start there?
Giddens: Well, that’s where my feelings were. I just came from – sort of outrage – see, you brought us here to build this country and now you want us to live a just life in it. Are you saying you can’t send? So you brought us here, you brought me here to build a house.
Giddens: When I write these kinds of songs, it just kind of comes through me, it’s a very traditional kind of ballad, a repetitive format, but at the end of the day, it’s like this: perfectly suitable for Think of a way to turn it into a children’s book.
Chan: Yes. I wanted to ask you about that because I think you had a pretty wide audience in mind when you wrote and performed “Build A House” as a song. So why did you decide to make it a book specifically for children?
Giddens: Well, we posted this song, and someone said in the Twitter comments that it would make a great children’s book, so it was kind of a surprise. And I thought, oh, that’s a really interesting idea. And I, not really, have been thinking about children’s books for a very long time. And it had been put on the back burner until this comment reawakened that desire, and I was sort of locked down in Ireland, so there never seemed a better time to explore this. did you feel now?
Chan: Yes. I was struck by how candid these illustrations are in many ways. For example, this family is looking for a place to call home. And there is one illustration that is so unflinching. A white man on a horse is setting fire to this family’s home. Can you tell us why you and illustrator Monica Mikai felt it was important to capture those moments so vividly in a children’s book?
Giddens: Neither the song nor the lyrics are pulling any punches at that point. You said I couldn’t build a house, and you burned it. And there are stories like that everyone can lift themselves up in their own power, everybody has an equal chance, and that’s really where we’re going to build There is such a story that is torn apart everywhere below.
For example, a child will not know the red line. The child will not know everything about the town that was burned down during the reconstruction. They don’t want to know the 1898 massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina. They’re not going to know those things, but they’ll see how unfair it is. they plan to get it soon. And it’s really, really simple and important to be able to see it the way it isn’t. You know, it’s a very strong image, but not unbearably violent. But it’s very tough. And it’s – I think it’s important not to…
Chan: Sugar coat.
Giddens: …doesn’t punch, and – yeah, don’t mess with those moments, that’s understandable as long as there’s a framework around it.
Chan: How much did what you learned about slavery and revival in school make you feel as a kid? How incomplete did it feel?
Giddens: Oh my God. As the years go by, I realize more and more that much of what I’ve been taught about slavery was just that, that it didn’t matter to begin with. And what I remember was like, oh yeah, plantation-based slavery wasn’t very efficient and was dying out anyway during the Civil War. And, as you know, it wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the ’60s that black names were heard again. It’s truly unbelievable how much we haven’t been told. Because the more complete the story, the less surprised we are about what’s happening today and what’s happened in this country so far. Well, it’s just – yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s really important to start it early – you know, these thoughts about all the complexity.
Chan: You know, this book is a reminder of how many things have been taken away from black people in this country, such as freedom and property. You also point out that the music was stolen as well. I would like to quote here. You write, “But you came and took my song and claimed it as yours.” Could you elaborate on that part of the story?
Giddens: Oh. I mean, it’s complicated. Well, I always have to say that American music has been collaboratively created across cultures for years and years. But this is specifically talking about banjos, you know. It’s like it was first made by African Americans in the Caribbean, or African Diaspora, and is itself such a huge emblem of the many musical ideas that were innovated by blacks. In that case, the benefits are outside the community. And that’s what I’ve been working on ever since I picked up the banjo.
Chan: Well, in the afterword to this book, you say that we continue to look for ways to create a family and a home wherever we are. What is home to you, after all?
Giddens: My hometown – I mean, I’m a nomad. I’m going back and forth. That’s my home when I’m in Ireland with my kids. When I’m in North Carolina with my parents and sister, and that’s my home. That’s my home when I’m traveling with my partner Francesco. For me, it’s really about family and personal connections.
But you know, land is very important to many people, and it has been important for a very long time. And for African Americans, owning land was a big deal. Because when we got here we had nothing. And the ability to keep rebuilding after being demolished over and over again, that’s ultimately what this story is all about. That is, the idea that the well never runs dry. Our wells ultimately come from the Creator, so we can always replenish them. You know, it comes from something bigger than us. And we will live through it, thrive, and get to the next place.
Chan: Rhiannon Giddens’ new book is called Build A House. Thank you so much for your help and for sharing this.
Giddens: Thanks for the welcome.
(Sound bite for the song “BUILD A HOUSE”)
Giddens: (singing) You brought me here to build your house, build your house, build your house. You brought me here – build your home and grow your garden well. I laid bricks to build your house…
NPR transcripts are produced by NPR contractors on a rush deadline. This text may not be in final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recordings of NPR’s shows are audio recordings.