Monday, February 13, 2012

African American History Month

This is a little more long-winded than usual... 

In Genesis, when we read about God creating humans, we hear that he created "male and female" and that he created them "after his own image." That's it. No mention whatsoever of skin color, hair color, race/ethnicity, stature, weight.... nothing. What's significant is that men and women are different from each other, and both are created in the image of God. What that should mean to us is that each human we come into contact with has intrinsic worth because he or she is created in that same image. We have absolutely no right to feel superior to another human being based on anything earthly: position, skin color, nationality, race, gender, socioeconomic status, imprisoned, ....

And yet, while it's easy to nod in affirmation of that, how many times do we attempt to teach our children this? To really model this for them? To open their eyes to the hard parts of human history where one group of humans did NOT treat another group rightly based purely on some external characteristic? We do a pretty good job of pointing fingers at the Nazis and making sure everyone studies WWII history. But, how well do we introduce children to the dark spots in our own nation's history? Depending on what side of those historical moments we fell, do we present bitterness? rancor? harshness? continued misunderstanding?

One thing we can do is read books: books can be such a great window into different experiences--particularly when those experiences are radically different from our own. So, in honor of African American History Month, I'd like to throw out a few such books that are truly great books, no matter what your own ethnic/racial background is (all are recent books, save for one "classic"). They each present a slice of pre-Civil Rights American history from the perspective of African Americans, and each is told honestly, yet without bitterness. Check these out from your library this month. Books are listed according to the ages to which they might appeal, youngest to oldest. And, especially if you teach in a Christian school, make sure you include books like this in your curriculum. I remember vividly hearing one of my seniors tell me when I taught 12th grade that Their Eyes were Watching God was the FIRST book about an African American that she'd ever read in her 12 years at that school; she was one of the school's African American students--roughly 30% of the school's students!!! No excuse for that.

These Hands
Margaret H. Mason, author
Floyd Cooper, illustrator

This beautiful picture book takes a very gentle approach to a very hurtful time in our history: when blacks weren't afforded the same work opportunities as whites. Sure, they might both work at the Wonder Bread factory, but black hands weren't allowed to touch the dough like white hands. In gentle prose and illustrations, a grandfather is telling his young grandson what "these hands" have been able to do/not do (tie a shoe, play the piano, not touch the dough,...) and young listeners are introduced to a key Civil Rights milestone. A great introduction for preschoolers/kindergartners (and older) to the idea that discrimination exists and is hurtful.

Ruth and the Green Book
Calvin Alexander Ramsey, author
Floyd Cooper, illustrator

This is another picture book that introduces us to an oft overlooked segment of pre-Civil Rights era history. Ruth is traveling south to Alabama to see her grandmother in the 1940's. As her family gets further and further south, they are treated more and more poorly (not allowed to use the public restrooms at the gas station, not allowed to stay in a hotel). Then, someone tells them of the Green Book: a book that lists places willing to serve African Americans. They make it safely to her grandmother's and, along the way, Ruth grows up a little, meets some wonderful people, and even feels safe enough at the end to give away her prized teddy bear to a little boy. Cooper's illustrations, once again, are marvelous.

Heart and Soul: the Story of America and African Americans
Kadir Nelson

For this book, I can only repeat what I said in my goodreads review: I don't really know how to classify this book: picture book (for the GORGEOUS full page or double page spreads which occur for every page of text), nonfiction (because Nelson provides, in marvelous prose, a sweeping account of America and African Americans--just like it promises to do), historical fiction (since Nelson tells the story through the "voice" of an old African American grandmother figure and that "voice" is a huge part of the strength of this telling), chapter book (for the 12 succinct chapters of American/African American history Nelson recounts), or coffee table book--because it's a beautiful book and one I'd be proud to have on my coffee table for other people to admire and look at and read.

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
Mildred Taylor
Newbery Medal

A "classic" but still wonderfully readable. One of my all-time favorites for its treatment of the dignity of humanity, the meanness and nobleness that exists on both sides of the lines of prejudice, and a terrific book to get kids talking about what discrimination really means and does.

Laurie Halse Anderson
National Book Award Finalist

I've reviewed Chains before, and it's a great book to throw into this lineup, partly because it covers another oft-overlooked African American experience: that of the slaves (and freedmen) during the Revolutionary Wary. Another book that, like Roll of Thunder, reminds us that "good guys" and "bad guys" are often hard to label and predict. Which side is the "right" side is hard to know.

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