Black History Month and Everything After
I have a two year old, and he has a ridiculous library of picture books.
Even so, we go each week to the public library. In February, the children’s section featured a display of books for Black History Month. There were picture books that discussed important events in African American history, including the horrifying history of slavery and the inspiring rise of the civil rights movement. These are all important stories, and the books provide parents and teachers tools for discussing these dark periods in our country’s history.
Still, there is something problematic with the number of books that focus on the horrors and challenges of the African American experience when compared to the number of books available about African American children being just, well, children. It is, of course, important to remember the effects of a long history racial discrimination in this country. But lately I have been thinking about the fact that in my son’s immense picture book library there are so few faces that don’t look like his own. And the faces that do differ tend to be in ethnically-specific folk tales or historic stories. If we want to teach our son that people from different backgrounds live, feel, think, and play like him, shouldn’t we be offering him stories that reflect that?
Some books attempt to do this by setting everyday or family stories within the context of African American history. Rachel Isadora’s Ben’s Trumpet is one such story. Isadora’s illustrations, which received a Caldecott Honor, embody jazz itself as they tell the story of a young boy who dreams to playing a trumpet like the musician at the Zig Zag Jazz Club. My son, who also dreams of playing a trumpet, adores this book, which invokes a Harlem Renaissance setting. Jacqueline Woodson and illustrator James Ransome’s This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration is equally lovely. The story weaves through generations of one family, showing how they overcame adversity and how, in doing so, they afforded new opportunities for subsequent generations. All the time, however, they remain connected to their roots, symbolized throughout the text by a rope with many purposes.While both these books capture the imagination, playfulness, and the family ties that are common in so many childhoods, there exists in both the undercurrents of historical oppression, informing these narratives and nudging their readers to see the characters as players in a larger ethnic narrative. I enjoy both these books and I think they are important yet neither lets their child protagonists be, simply, children.
In a recent conversation on this topic, someone suggested to me two books by filmmaker Spike Lee and his wife Tonya Lewis Lee and illustrated by Kadir Nelson: Please, Baby, Please and Please, Puppy, Please. I ordered them right away. I adore them. Both of these books feature African American children being children. Please, Baby, Please follows a toddler through her day (from her 3 am wake up call to her parents) as she colors on walls, eats sand, throws food on the floor, and so much more. (So, you know, exactly how my son spends his day.) Please Puppy Please, however, is my favorite. It features two toddlers and their chocolate lab puppy who has a tendency to run away. Given that we have a chocolate lab with similar notions, my family relates so well to this sweet story. As usual, Nelson’s illustrations are breathtaking and capture the frivolity, tenderness, and angst of being a child. The text is full of rhythmic alliteration, and my son is already delighting in reading the words with me. They are simply a delight and exactly the kind of books I was hoping to include in my son’s library.
So what about you? What are your favorite picture books featuring African American children? Or what other texts might you suggest to increase the diversity of characters in my son’s library?
It seems such a simple thing—who is featured in a picture book – but it is a simple thing that is vitally important to shaping this next generation’s ideas about race and what it means to be a person of color. As important as it is to commemorate Black History Month, I would love to see display tables full of books on children of all races in every other month of the year. Dr. King spoke of his dream of a future when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” I can think of no better way to achieve this dream than through having these children share their stories. And I can think of no better stories for them to share than those from their everyday lives, stories of playground tantrums, runaway puppies, and the unfaltering love of those around them.