The other day, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I noticed that a lot of schools kicked off Black History Month with teachers, special guests, and even superintendents reading Black-themed books to groups of children. They posted pictures of a sea of brown, black, and white little faces, sitting cross-legged on the floor looking excited.
The question I had was this: what were they reading to them?
There’s an ongoing critique that too many of the culturally diverse books, especially those about African Americans, brought into our elementary and middle school classrooms are only about buses, boycotts, and basketball. The themes for books featuring African American are most often limited. They are either about the challenges of “urban living” (aka ghetto life). Or they are about African Americans during slavery, famous events related to the civil rights movement (like Rosa Parks not giving up her seat because she was tired), or Black kids and sports.
In reality, Black life is diverse. The black experience is diverse. Our classroom libraries should reflect that reality too.
So as we bring books into the classroom for Black History Month, we have to broaden our criteria for inclusion. It’s not enough that the books have Black characters. We have to be a bit more discriminating.
A firestorm erupted when Scholastic released a children’s book early this month, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, featuring smiling slaves baking a cake for George Washington. The back cover portrayed George Washington and his enslaved chef, Hercules, arm-in-arm, like best buddies. The images of seemingly happy enslaved African Americans working in the kitchen were underscored with Hercules’s closing words when he serves the cake: “An honor and a privilege, sir… Happy birthday, Mr. President.”
The story never offers children a hint as to why it was not a “privilege” or a smiling affair to be enslaved. Nor do readers learn that the conditions were so dire that Hercules escaped on Washington’s birthday the following year, despite having to leave his children behind.
The School Library Journal called the book “highly problematic.” But critical reviews didn’t generate a public response from Scholastic. It was not until a grassroots social media campaign by librarians, social justice organizations, #BlackLivesMatter activists, journalists, and others that Scholastic took the extraordinary step of recalling the book.
If that protest had not happened, some teacher somewhere would have been reading A Birthday Cake for George Washington to those smiling babies sitting on the rug during reading time.
Here are a few criteria to consider when selecting books for your classroom library:
- Is the theme stereotypical? Review the points above.
- Is the text “enabling”? Dr. Alfred Tatum, a literacy expert, says books can play a key role in the process of build diverse students’ sense of confidence and belonging. He says the books diverse students read either perpetuate negative messages about them and are “disabling” to students of color or the books can promote a counter narrative that is “enabling” in four important ways:
- Promotes a healthy psyche for students
- Reflects an awareness of the real world (the socio-political context) that validates their experience.
- Focuses on resilience of culturally and linguistically diverse communities (i.e., highlights the assets and cultural capital of communities)
- Serves as a road map for being, doing, thinking, and acting as diverse students navigate racial, language, and gender politics in the society.
- Does it tell the truth about the African American experience or does it sugar coat and downplay ways they’ve been marginalized?
Review the example of the Scholastic fiasco. (Make note to self).
The Challenge of Finding Enabling Texts
One of the biggest challenges I hear from teachers is that they can’t find quality books with African American (or Latino, for that matter) characters. Here are a few places to look.
Canerow offers a curated list of affirming children’s books. For more than a decade, Canerow co-founder Mia Birdsong curated a library for her kids of children’s books featuring people of color. Canerow grew out of her belief that all children of color should see themselves in their world, particularly through the stories they hear and read in the pages of books.
The cool part: You can add positive titles to the list as well. Simply go to the website and add your favorites.
Starting with a hashtag movement on Twitter, the We Need Diverse Books campaign set out to raise awareness that in 2016 we still need more diverse literature – fiction and nonfiction, in our classroom libraries. The campaign aims to grow a repository of book titles about a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, including African Americans.
This is a great resource for children’s books about African Americans as well as chapter books for upper elementary students.
Each year, the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia celebrates the beauty of literature by Black children’s book creators. Founded by literary publicist and advocate Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, it is known as “one of the oldest and largest single-day events for children’s books in the country.” Thousands of parents, children, teachers, librarians and book lovers come to see an all-star line-up of award-winning black authors and illustrators. It’s a moving testament to the power of affirming images and good books. It takes place every January in Philadelphia.
Remember, it is important to include books about Black history — boycotts and buses — but February is also a chance to share the wonderful tapestry of the African American experience.
How do you diversify your diverse literature?