Black Was the Ink

By Michelle Coles
Illustrated by Justin Johnson

Hardcover: $21.95


Listen to a sample of the Recorded Books audiobook below:



Forgotten heroes still leave their mark.

Malcolm Williams hasn't been okay for a while. He's angry and despondent and feels like nothing good ever happens for teens like him in D.C. All he wants is to be left alone in his room for the summer to draw or play video games--but no such luck. With growing violence in his neighborhood, his mother ships him off to his father's family farm in Mississippi, and Malcolm is anything but pleased.

A few days after his arrival, his great-aunt tells him that the State is acquiring the farm to widen a highway. It's not news Malcolm is concerned about, but someone plans to make it his concern. One minute Malcolm is drawing in the farmhouse attic, and the next he's looking through the eyes of his ancestor Cedric Johnson in 1866.

As Cedric, Malcolm meets the real-life Black statesmen who fought for change during the Reconstruction era: Hiram Revels, Robert Smalls, and other leaders who made American history. But even after witnessing their bravery, Malcolm's faith in his own future remains shaky, particularly since he knows that the gains these statesmen made were almost immediately stripped away. If those great men couldn't completely succeed, why should he try?

Malcolm must decide which path to take. Can Cedric's experiences help him construct a better future? Or will he resign himself to resentments and defeat?

Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone, and featuring illustrations by upcoming artist, Justin Johnson, Black Was the Ink is a powerful coming-of-age story and an eye-opening exploration of an era that defined modern America.

Download the Black Was the Ink praise sheet.

Read author Michelle Coles's op-ed In Defense of Honest Tellings of History.

Check out the We Need Diverse Books Text Set Companion for Black Was the Ink that offers text pairings and additional comprehension questions to aid and extend students' thinking.

Watch Black Was the Ink: Using Fiction to Investigate History, a discussion between author Michelle Coles, educator Sarah Elwell, and an education specialist from The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This program was held in support of the exhibition, Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies at NMAAHC. Browse the digital collection of select artifacts, images, and more for deeper exploration.

About the Creators

Thumb_michelle_coles Michelle Coles - Author

MICHELLE COLES is an accomplished civil rights attorney and a proud alumna of the University of Virginia and Howard University School of Law. As a ninth-generation Louisianan, she is highly attuned to the struggles African Americans have faced in overcoming the legacy of slavery and the periods of government-sanctioned discrimination that followed. She hopes that by revealing oft-hidden Black history, her debut novel will empower young people with tools to shape their destiny. Find her on the web at

Thumb_justin_johnson Justin Johnson

JUSTIN JOHNSON credits his mother and grandmother, both teachers, with inspiring his love of picture books and storytelling. He studied children’s book illustration as well as animation at the Rhode Island School of Design, and now works as an illustrator, GIF animator, and aspiring art teacher. Justin lives in Washington, D.C. Find him on the web at or on Instagram as