At some point, I turned into a full-fledged history nerd. It started with that project my eldest daughter and I did a few years ago, researching the history of our home, but I never really stopped. For a while when people asked me what I’d do once all the girls were in school, I joked “Spend all my time at the museum photo archives.” And while that’s not exactly how it’s turned out—I’ve only made it there once since our youngest started kindergarten—I have definitely disappeared down a rabbit hole of weird, smelly library books and city directories from 1910.
I justify this in part because I’ve been writing some historical fiction, but I’m pretty sure I’d sit around watching YouTube videos about old buildings in our town whether I had a “project” to “research” or not. Because here is what keeps me coming back: the little stories, the nearly-forgotten ones, the stories that remind you that, one hundred years ago, people were still living one life at a time and didn’t know what was coming next. Beneath the oft-retold narratives of our town’s celebrated founders are smaller memoirs and newspaper articles about people who don’t have schools, roads, or mansions named after them—and those are my favorite stories. The ones about people quietly doing their work—raising children, opening businesses, teaching students, baking bread, hosting sewing circles, selling houses, all of it.
And so I was delighted to find, in Jasmine Holmes’s Carved in Ebony, stories about Black women often overlooked in the historical accounts. In choosing women to profile in this book, Holmes made a point of steering clear of familiar names and introducing readers to women on the fringes of the historical record. And in doing so, she creates a small but powerful volume featuring ten Black women who were faithful to God where he placed them and who reminded those around them—many of whom were arguing vehemently otherwise—that they, too, were created in God’s image. Holmes writes that she tells these stories
to combat the opposing narrative, yes, but [also] to point to the inherent dignity and worth of women, whom God created in his image and for his glory.
These are stories we may not think to look for and may not (I confess, this was my case) realize that we need. But Holmes’s writings are rooted in the Bible—thoroughly and soundly. She isn’t writing solely to inflame or provoke—not to tear down, but to build up. Not to belittle America or the Church, but to help them repair and grow. “What if,” she writes,
instead of putting Uncle Sam in a cape and Lady Liberty on a pedestal, we told the story of America as the story of God’s faithfulness—and not our own? What if we took a note from the people of Israel, and every time we stood on the precipice of a defining cultural moment, we reminded ourselves of God’s providential hand protecting us in spite of our waywardness?
Holmes’s passion for unearthing the names of women new to most readers is what drew me to her in the first place. But her message in this book extends far beyond that. As she tells these stories, she continually turns back to Scripture, weaving a multi-dimensional tapestry for readers that illuminates so much we might be missing in our conversations about race and our country’s history.
It is hard to know what the big issues will be facing our children when they’re grown, but I’m struck again and again by this truth: the way to understand the things we’re facing now is often to look behind us—at history and at the Bible. Jasmine Holmes does both these things faithfully here, and readers will be richer for it.
Carved in Ebony: Lessons From the Black Women Who Shape Us
Jasmine L. Holmes (2021)
Carved in Ebony has been released in two editions: the regular one for teens and adults, and the young reader’s edition for middle school students. I’ve been quoting and writing about the regular edition so far, but the young reader’s edition covers much of the same material, though it’s been simplified (Holmes’s personal stories, for example, have been removed) and formatted a little differently so it’s accessible to middle-grade kids. Both editions are wonderfully illuminating, though, and I recommend both heartily.