If We Really Want to Teach Black History in Schools, We're Going to Need More Diverse Books

Feb 28, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Robin Muldor-Engram

In 2018, classrooms around the country still do not have enough books that accurately depict the unsullied experiences of Black Americans. Every Black History Month, teachers develop curricula often recycling the narratives of a few historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass. These leaders, of course, deserve to be acknowledged but, by focusing solely on notable leaders, we limit the narrative of Black history in this country. If we really want to teach Black history that encompasses all of the achievements and groundbreaking moments, we’re going to need more diverse books. A copious selection of diverse books can change the course of Black history studies from the same whitewashed-worn-out projects to new forms of representation of the Black American experience. Imagine if there were an array of cultures, dialects, gender differences, and religions, reflected in every book our children read? What if curriculums were written for the inclusion of all cultures, creeds, and ethnicities? Would racism, implicit biases, and degrading stereotypes still exist? This, we may never know, because the bulk of children’s literature remains unfairly predominately White.

The All-White World of Children’s Books

In 1965, “The Saturday Review” published an article written by Nancy Larrick, president of the International Reading Association entitled, The All-White World of Children’s Books. Her discussion centered on the “effects of the scarcity of children books on people of color, and describes how this racial bias leads White children to feel superior and prevents them from developing the humility necessary to cooperate with people who are not of European ancestry.” Despite Larrick’s work on racial bias in children’s literature, very few literary works from authors of color were welcomed into mainstream America—totally disregarding the Black narrative. It was the pioneering efforts of Ezra Jacks Keats, a Polish-Jewish author, and his book, “The Snowy Day,” that introduced multiculturalism into mainstream America by featuring a young African-American boy named Peter as the protagonist. Selling over 2 million copies, “The Snowy Day” is now a classic tale about a little Black boy named Peter, experiencing his first adventure walking and frolicking in the snow. The inspiration for Peter was centered on Ezra’s civil rights activism, giving place to a character at a time when Blacks were not represented in mainstream America. While Keats’ books were well received by the public, Nancy Larrick criticized Keats for depicting Peter’s mother in the character of “Aunt Jemima.” Firing back in “The Right to Be Real,” Keats stood his ground making it clear that he wanted to write and illustrate books where “all kinds of people were represented.” Keats and Larrick’s differences of interpretation eventually compelled the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) to insist that books be published featuring children of color within their cultural context. From 1962 until 1970, Keats continued expanding positive stories of African-American children, making Peter the protagonist in seven of his books.

We Need More Diverse Books

Fifty years after Keats, the world of publishing remains systemically White, and the war for more diverse books continues. A few years ago, the organization We Need More Diverse Books was established to promote children’s literature that respects and reflects the diversity in the lives of all children—particularly within the classroom. It is in the classrooms where attempts are being made to diversify literacy to ensure students receive mirrors (books) casting healthy images of themselves—therefore adding meaning to their lives. Here are five picture books I recommend for beginner learners of Black History:
  1. Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine (pre-K-5th grades)
  2. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston (K-3rd grades)
  3. Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan (1st-3rd grades)
  4. A Taste of Colored Water by Matt Faulkner (1st-3rd grades)
  5. Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young (Pre- K 3rd grades)
When Dr. Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, the precursor of Black History Month, he intended for African Americans to study and to teach the world at large what it means to be Black in America. We must give our children a large view of the Black experience, and they need more diverse books now.

Robin Muldor-Engram

Robin Muldor-Engram is a native Philadelphian who currently resides in Southern Maryland. She has spent her entire career working with and on behalf of children. While residing in Philadelphia, for seven years, she taught grades K- 8 in the School District of Philadelphia’s. In 2007, she received her second master’s in library science & technology from Drexel University, and worked as supervisor /children’s librarian at the Overbrook Park Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. In 2011, she was applauded for her well attended programs and outreach efforts in the community, awarded both, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Customer Service Award, and the Pennsylvania Library Association’s Best Practices Award. In 2013, Robin received the Leeway Arts and Change Grant in which she partnered with Delta Services Support Inc. to develop a mentorship literacy workshop for children and youth in foster care. Again, in 2014, she received additional funding from the Philadelphia Activity Fund. Today, she is the founder and CEO of “Peaches and Sourcream, Inc.” an organization that focuses on providing educational consultation and child advocacy service, committed to guide learning and promoting quality childhood achievement. To date, she writes commentary and children’s book reviews for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and holds membership with UPenn GSE Philadelphia Writing Project and the Urban League of Philadelphia.

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