I met my biological father for the first time at eighteen and spent a year living with him in San Francisco, California. I had grown up in a white household, in a predominantly white New England neighborhood, and spent my entire childhood not knowing my black heritage.
On an afternoon sightseeing around Fisherman’s Wharf, we found ourselves stepping into an Otis elevator where my dad casually asked me what I knew about elevators.
Being eighteen, I chalked it up to it just being a weird dad thing as he told me some random trivia about Alexander Miles, the African American inventor of the automatic elevator door.
It wasn’t until after he passed away in 2005 that I realized that my dad was trying to make up for missing out on these teachable moments during my childhood. (In his defense, he was unaware I even existed until I was about sixteen years old)
As I approach my mid-forties, I’m forging an attachment to my black experience in a very different way than I had before. Black America has its own culture and as a mixed-race woman, I’ve learned that if you are not immersed in that culture you can easily be left out of certain experiences.
What I want for my own mixed-race children, is that experience. While I can’t personally give them what I didn’t myself experience, I can, through art and literature, expose them to a variety of cultures. I hope that is something all parents, of all races, do for their children too.
One way do this is by choosing books that feature African American people, their lives and their experiences. To celebrate Black History Month, here are a few titles to get you started toward what I hope soon becomes a bookshelf brimming with diversity and inclusion.
Make Black History Relevant for All Children
The most important books on our bookshelf right now are The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage and Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff because they are the most representative of our family.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, gently introduces the fight for interracial marriage to children in an age-appropriate way. The illustrations in Black is Brown is Tan depict our family perfectly and points out the differences between mom and dads skin color and how the biracial child is a unique blend of both.
A great way to introduce Black History Month to children of every race is to seek out books about African-Americans that relate to a topic of interest for your child.
For example, if your child takes ballet lessons and loves all things ballerina, perhaps Misty Copelands autobiographical picture book, Firebird, would be a good place to start. Copeland writes about being an ordinary girl struggling with self-acceptance and her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina.
A child with interests in airplanes and all things flight may enjoy hearing stories about The Tuskeegee Airmen. Windflyers by Angela Johnson tells the story, through the eyes of a great-great grandson, of a Tuskeegee Wind Flyer who served in World War II.
Along the same ‘plane’ Fly High: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden explains how a brave woman overcomes the hardships and prejudices of her early life to become the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Soaring further, Hidden Figures from Margot Lee Shetterly, recounts how four math geniuses play an essential role in some of NASA’s greatest successes.
Go Beyond The Basics of Black History
If I had one complaint about how Black History is approached in mainstream education, it would be this: I am tired of hearing the same names over and over.
While the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman should be celebrated, their accomplishments and influence encompass more than just soundbites on television or mere captions in a chapter.
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome focuses on the many names Harriet Tubman was known by. General Tubman, a Union Spy, Moses leading hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad and as Minty, she was an enslaved African American with an unbreakable spirit. This spirit is also evident in An Apple for Harriet Tubman by Glenette Tilly-Turner. Like other enslaved African Americans, Tubman had to work hard on an orchard where she spent long hours picking apples that she was never allowed to taste.
Speaking of apples, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley tells of Lewis who became a famous chef, known for her cookbooks and fresh, Southern cooking.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thousands of African American children marched for their civil rights. They faced fear, hate , nd danger and used their voices to change the world because their parents feared losing their jobs by marching; the children marched in their place. Let The Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson is a moving account of this historical event.
One adorably illustrated book we have on our shelf is Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison. The book offers one-page biographies and sweet illustrations of forty black women who changed the world, like politician Shirley Chisholm and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Another book, A Child’s Introduction to African American History by Jabari AAsim followsthe slave trade to the Civil Rights era and introduces trailblazers in politics, activism, entertainment, music and more as well as a removable historical timeline.
Discuss Lesser Known Black History
The Harlem Renaissance refers to the artistic explosion that resulted from the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City from 1910 to the mid 1930s. The period is considered a golden age in African American culture with literature, music, stage performance and art at the forefront.
During this time, an Afro-Puerto Rican law clerk named Arturo Schomburg collected books, letters, music and art from Africa. He then curated that collection at the New York Public Library. His collection is now known as the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and is world renowned. Schomburg’s story is retold in Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford.
The Bigger Story in Black History
As a biracial child without access to black culture or Black History as a whole, and having not met my biological African-American father until I was eighteen years old, I have had a lifetime of self-discovery to unpack.
I wouldn’t realize until I became a mother of mixed-race children myself how being the only black child in a classroom of white faces, would shape the adult I would become. As we’ve become more aware, more ‘woke’ than we were when I was a child in the eighties, it’s evident that the importance of teaching Black History goes far beyond learning history for history’s sake.
I know that as a child, had I seen more little girls that looked like me on the covers of my books, I would have felt differently about myself and other POC. I likely wouldn’t have, at the age of nine, tried to narrow the shape of my nose with a clothespin (embarrasingly sad but true story) nor would I have felt uncomfortable and squirmy, feeling as though all eyes were on me, the lone black kid sitting in my Social Studies class, as the teacher talked The Underground Railroad.
My hope for Black History month and beyond, is that families begin to choose or continue to choose books that feature people of color.
While a significant variety of races and ethnicities represented in literature and art in every home is the goal, we need to start somewhere. Making an effort to add titles to your home library that feature the experiences of black men and women is a great start.