February is Black History Month, and we’re proud to honor and celebrate the rich history of so many Americans.
Black History Month Origins
Why Black History Is American History
Though Black History Month allows us to take intentional time and effort to celebrate the contributions of black Americans, it’s something that we really need to focus on teaching throughout the year. For children of color, it’s a way to let them know they matter in a world where it seems like representation may be lacking. It’s important that we all remember that black history is really American history and the shared history of Americans.
Sure, your children probably know about the pilgrims arriving in Massachusetts in 1620 (or they’ll learn about it). But, do they know about the first slave ship arriving in Virginia in 1619? That’s right; odds are your child won’t necessarily read about the slave trader ship The White Lion bringing 20 African slaves to the Jamestown, Virginia colony to work. The Africans were seized from the Portuguese slave ship Sao Jao Bautista and were forced laborers. It was this forced labor brought to our country before the Mayflower ever even arrived that kept the economy of a group of colonists thriving and robust. It’s important for our children and their children to know that we share a connected history, but for many, it was especially difficult and unfair.
In many different ways and situations, the history of America isn’t exactly glamorous, or even pretty. The ugly truths about how many of our states came to be is a blemish on our past, but how we move forward with the recognition and the truth is what our children will watch and learn. If we guide them through the truths of our country—the good and the bad—we’re giving them tools to be better humans and to make the world a better place for all.
Ms. Rosa Parks: The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
We were lucky enough to talk with Dr. Angela Sadler Williamson. In 1998, she met Rosa Parks. It turns out her then-fiance was Rosa Parks’s first Cousin, and Dr. Williamson was privy to having the civil rights legend attend her bridal shower.
At the shower, Dr. Williamson received what she calls one of her most treasured gifts. It’s a book entitled Quiet Strength. Ms. Parks had autographed it and welcomed her into the Williamson family with warmth and love. Dr. Williamson remembers ‘Cousin Rosie’ playing bridal shower games, and she was inspired by the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.
So inspired, Dr. Williamson created the incredible documentary, “My Life With Rosie.” This feature-length documentary’s two-year film festival run ended in August of 2019, winning many awards along the way. In it, Williamson discussed the relationship between her Aunt Carolyn Williamson Green and Cousin Rosie. Williamson Green was awarded the Humanitarian Award from Detroit’s Trinity International Film Festival as a result of the documentary.
The documentary’s length made it not as appealing for young children, and Dr. Williamson knew the future of humanity exists in our children. She was inspired by toymaker Mattel’s debut of the Rosa Parks Barbie, but felt that though beautiful, the doll didn’t really share with young children the magnitude of Rosa Parks’s contribution to history when she chose not to give her bus seat up on December 1, 1955.
Because Dr. Williamson knows that black history is important to all children as it reminds us all that people should be treated with respect and kindness regardless of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity or group membership. Learning this from the inspirational Rosa Parks herself, Dr. Williamson embarked on a way to reach young children and to spread the word about Parks’s legacy.
Why Books About Black History Month Are Important
When we’re teaching our children about their place in humanity, we want to be sure they understand our connections. It’s important for us to teach our children about how life has been for those who may be different than they are, and particularly for those who’ve had traumatic struggles. And, it’s important that we use tools that our children can relate to when teaching them. We spoke with Dr. Afoma Umesi. Dr. Umesi is the chief editor of Oh So Spotless, and a black woman who is passionate about books, literacy and education.
Dr. Umesi believes that books are not only powerful tools for education, but also for bonding. And we couldn’t agree more! Dr. Umesi shared several books below great for Black History Month or any time of the year, telling us that her favorite books to read are children’s books by women of color.
Our Favorite Kids Books About Black History
The following are some of Dr. Umesi’s favorite picks.
For teaching about black historical figures, consider:
Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders highlights the lives of forty black women who set the pace in various spheres from science to politics to entertainment. The illustrations are breathtaking and your kids won’t be forgetting these stories anytime soon.
Mae Among the Stars is the story of the first African-American woman in space and makes for a perfect bedtime story. It’s a great book that encourages and inspires.
For helping children of color appreciate their skin and hair, consider:
Sulwe is Lupita Nyong’ o’s love letter to her dark skin and will show any black child that the color of their skin is beautiful — no matter what anyone else says.
In Hair Love, a father and daughter bond over her curly mane. This story reassures black girls that their natural hair doesn’t have to only be “difficult,” but beautiful too!
To show children they can do anything, consider:
Jabari Jumps is a sweet picture book about a black boy braving his fears for his first pool dive. It’s absolutely heartwarming.
More Kids Books About Black History Month
But when Harvard was scheduled to play the University of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia, the coach told Chester he was going to play! On the long bus ride to Virginia, Chester and his teammates dealt with segregation first-hand. Any time they took bathroom breaks or ate, Chester was expected to use separate entrances and couldn’t eat at the counter with his teammates. The inspirational part is that Chester’s team followed Chester wherever he went, no matter what. They protected him and were proud to be his team. When they began playing and the Virginia crowd booed, they bravely stood with their friend and teammate.In the end, Harvard lost, but Chester’s team won so much more. The Harvard Crimson team of 1947 put the concept of being an ‘ally’ to action in 1947 and football was never the same.
Author Ellen Levine shares this amazing story of Henry “Box” Brown who escaped the chains of slavery by bravely slipping himself into a shipping box that is bound for the free states in the north.
Levine shares Henry’s harrowing tale, bringing readers some hard truths to children in a way that they can understand. Henry was separated from his mother when he was just a boy. On his master’s tobacco farm, he grew, met another slave he married and had three children. The heartache Henry feels as the book shares his family being sold in the slave market is evident and children will root for Henry as he turns to an abolitionist doctor to help him get to a place where there are no slaves. He does this in an incredibly brave and ingenious way: mailing himself in a shipping box to a friend of the doctor’s in Philadelphia. It’s the true retelling of a young man who finally experiences a birthday–his first day of freedom.
Author Jeanette Winter shares the story of Peg Leg Joe, a peg-leg sailor who helps slaves as they’re escaping with the Underground Railroad. The story tells how Joe teaches the slaves a song about the drinking gourd while he’s working for plantation owners. The drinking gourd is representative of the Big Dipper, and what slaves use to guide them to safety. Following the song’s directions, a couple and their son, as well as two others, escape. Children can’t help but be mesmerized by the rhythmic writing and the cold, primitive style colors.
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