Monday, October 23, 2006

Black History

I am reading Black Baby, White Hands; a view from the crib by Jaiya Johns now. I am about 1/3 of the way through it and there is so much here to talk about! I am trying to organize a book discussion at my house in November with some other families in the area that have adopted transracially. The book is an autobiography by the man who was the first black infant in New Mexico to be adopted by white parents. He was born in 1967 and grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He talks candidly about the love of his family and the struggle he had to develop a healthy black identity in an all white community at a time when it wasn’t polite to talk about race. I am going to blog more about the book over the next week or so, but one thing in particular really struck me while I was reading Sunday afternoon.

He tells about when he was in fifth grade and was the only black student in the class. The teacher decided to have them do a play about Thomas Jefferson with everyone taking parts cast by their physical similarities to the characters. Jefferson was played by a tall, red headed boy. John was horrified because he immediately realized the only part he could play was that of a slave, and he definitely did not want to portray a slave. He approached the teacher with his concerns, saying there were no black characters for him to be in the play. Her response was to say that he should “Make believe. You are smart, and everyone loves your smile…” It was in the 70s in a white community with no black history education. The attitude was that he should blend in and everyone was trying to be colorblind to make him feel like part of the group. The teacher had no information for him about Black Americans that contributed to the founding of our nation. Reading this upset me so much I had to jump up off the bed and search my house for books on Black History in order to make a list of Black Americans he should have been educated about.

I went to jr. high and high school in Ohio in the 70s. My schools were Black and getting blacker as I went up through the grades. We had Black History teaching. We celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. day before was a national holiday. As a white girl in that environment I didn't question the value of learning Black history; it made sense to me that it was part of my history too. Being American means knowing about all of our ethnicities and recognizing - mourning, celebrating and respecting the contribuitons of all of us. I want my white son to know it as well as my black sons.

I have also informally studied Black History as an adult and I remembered from when Buster was in third grade and they had to portray historical characters in his school. He was Thomas Jefferson and I made his wig out of cotton balls. They learned that there were Black Americans prominent in the Revolutionary times and his African American teacher included some names on the list of characters the children could chose from.

I am terrible at remembering specific names and dates. The only name that popped into my head on Sunday was Benjamin Banniker, and I couldn’t remember exactly who he was. I was certain I had books in my house that would remind me, and with a little bookshelf searching I found several children’s biographies of Black Americans. I wrote all over the margins of Jaiya John’s book about Crispus Attucks and Banniker and Phillis Wheatley. It made me so angry that Johns didn’t have that information. I decided that one of my immediate jobs as a parent of black boys was to make sure they got an education in Black History, starting now.

This morning in my library I searched the catalog and printed out a list of books to read, study and teach to my sons. I decided to read the history, biography and middle grade fiction myself and start bringing home the picture books and poetry appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers. My list of books for me to read in the next few weeks includes:

A Pictorial History of Black Americans by Langston Hughes, Milton Meltzer & C. Eric Lincoln
Now Is Your Time by Walter Dean Myers
Into the Land of Freedom by Meg Greene
Tell All the Children Our Story by Tonya Bolden
Many Thousand Gone by Virginia Hamilton
Free at Last! By Doreen Rappaport
Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester
A Dream of Freedom by Diane McWhorter
Freedom Riders by Ann Bausum

The picture books I am bringing home this week include:

Rap A Tap Tap by Leo and Diane Dillon
Yesterday I had the Blues by Jeron Ashford Frame
Big Mama’s by Donald Crews
A Story, A Story by Gail E. Haley
Uptown by Bryan Collier
Osa's Pride by Ann Grifalconi
Where's Jamela? by Niki Daly
For You are a Kenyan Child by Kelly Cunnane

I am going to make a concerted effort to baste these boys in positive Black images, history, music and art. I feel fortunate to be a librarian in a library that already has a pretty strong collection, with the ability to buy whatever else I identify as being needed. What do the rest of you think? Any suggestions of other resources to look for? If you are a parent or work in education or a library, what do you do to teach Black history? Have you been taught it yourself? Do you think it is important or necessary?

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Kohana said...

Cloudscome, Would you be willing and or able to keep track of what books you read so that others of us could use it as a reading list as well? I know this post will stay on your blog but it would be so helpful to be able to go to a "recommended reading on black history" section or something. :) I'm one of those bloggers that doesn't like to do my own research, but just snatches up the research of others!

cloudscome said...

That would be a great project for me to work on! I am also checking out Black Books Galore! guide to Great AFrican American CHildren's Books About Boys by Donna Rand and Toni Trent Parker. I edited my post from this morning to take out some picture books that were more historical, longer text and better for older elementary kids. I don't want to try to teach slavery and civil rights when they are so young. I decided to focus on pictures books with stories and folk tales about African kids and very simple text. More appropriate for my young boys, I think.

Don Tate II said...

Interesting, you covered a topic I plan to talk about with the kids tomorrow. When I was first bussed out to a mostly white school in an affuent part of town. They treated me well, but I was freaked out. That book sound right up my alley, I'll have to check it out.

My family was pretty good about teaching us black history. We attended special classes in a community center where we were taught our history. But it was always embarrassing in school when we got to the black part in history. Usually a paragraph about slavery. The first book I remember reading as an adult, once I got past my reading issues was EYES ON THE PRIZE. That was an eye opening experience.

Anonymous said...

For 30 years, I listened to classical music on the radio and knew only of White composers, even though I worked in Civil Rights for several years. In 1995 I happened upon two CDs by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Chandos 9154 (1993) and Chandos 9226 (1993). The classical music of William Grant Still, William Levi Dawson and Duke Ellington enthralled me. I was also angered that I had never heard it on the radio. I resolved to do what I could to help end the lack of awareness of their music. It soon became clear that the lives of Black composers are excellent vehicles for teaching Black History. The site presents the Black Colonel, the son of a slave, who heroically led volunteers of color in the French Revolution against a superior force, Le Chevalier de Saint-George. It tells of Ignatius Sancho, was born on a slave ship off the coast of Africa, and became a composer and author in England after escaping slavery. It relates the tragic tale of Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins, a blind and autistic slave in Georgia whose genius as a pianist and composer earned a fortune for his owners and guardians, even after the Civil War. My web site is It profiles 52 Black composers and musicians, and offers over 100 audio excerpts from their works. I encourage anyone interested in Black History or Classical Music to visit the site, which also recommends excellent biographies on Saint-George, Sancho, Wiggins and others.