Today we conclude the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with a powerful essay by Carole Boston Weatherford. Thank you, Carole. Celebrate Science will be back in September.
Since the debut of my first children's book in 1995, I have mined the past for family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles. I do so because when I was a child, black history was not in the curriculum and few black books were on library shelves. Not that I grew up culturally deprived, for there was always a grandmother in my house, quoting proverbs, sharing stories, passing down recipes, and humming hymns. My parents exposed me to all the African American culture in hopes of raising my consciousness.
That is reflected in the children’s books I write. I have chronicled the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I have profiled Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Harlem Renaissance bibliophile Arturo Schomburg, entertainer and civil rights activist Lena Horne, and jazz icon Billie Holiday who sang the anti-lynching hymn “Strange Fruit.” My latest release, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop shows how an art form rooted in rebellion evolved into a global youth culture.
I continue to focus on the African American freedom struggle. My books are often set during the slavery or Jim Crow eras. As the movement for more diverse children's books has gained steam, writing about slavery and segregation has become fraught with controversy. Debates rage about the depiction of the enslaved and about whether books with African-American characters are overburdened with oppression and victimhood.
I feel strongly about the appropriateness, and importance, of slavery and segregation as subjects of books for young people. Of course, no child's literary diet should consist solely of tough topics. And even the youngest readers may have genre or subject preferences. But it's never too early to raise a child’s consciousness, and I feel compelled to do so. Here's why.
1. Children have a more absolute sense of right and wrong—no gray areas. That's why fairy tales in which good triumphs over evil have been bedtime fixtures for generations. Likewise, social justice themes resonate with young people.
After I read aloud books about discrimination, students invariably ask: Did that really happen? Who made that stupid rule? Why did whites mistreat blacks? And, the ringer: Which water fountain did biracial people have to use? Children demand, and we adults are obligated to offer explanation.
2. Children need to learn a fuller, truer history than whitewashed textbooks or biased media provide. Children's books about the freedom struggle correct omissions, and connect dots, in our national narrative. By the time the Civil War began, four million people had been enslaved in the U.S. Thus, countless stories have yet to be told.
Much history has been lost because speaking of slavery
was taboo, even among those formerly enslaved. Similarly, memories of the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement are fading. Gentle, yet thought-provoking children's books, like Kelly Starling Lyons' Ellen's Broom and Jacqueline Woodson's The Other Side, share heartwarming stories from otherwise shameful chapters in our nation's history.
3. Children deserve the truth, especially since racism still rears its ugly head, sometimes in dangerous ways. Children may not yet see race, but society already views them through that lens.
African American parents do not have the luxury of raising colorblind children or of waiting until their children are pre-teens to school them about racism. After all, Tamir Rice was 12 years old—and playing with a toy gun in a Cincinnati park—when he was killed by police responding to a report of an armed black man. Trayvon Martin was 14 years old—and talking on his cell phone on a stroll back from the store with Skittles and an iced tea—when neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman tailed him and shot him dead.
As long as African-American victims get blamed for their own murders and African-American youth are disproportionately profiled, we cannot spare children the truth. As African-American parents have "the talk" with their children about how to handle a police stop, children's books about historic racism can help place police brutality along the continuum of violent oppression.
4. I write not only for African-American children who may one day feel the sting of racism, but also for children growing up in households that do not foster tolerance or celebrate diversity. Unless those children read books about social justice, they risk inheriting hatred and repeating misdeeds of the past. I also write for educators who may have scant knowledge of African-American history and heroes. After all, educators can't teach what they don't know. And children can't know what they never learn. Slavery and segregation are inextricable from America's story. Children's books like mine preserve history and honor famous and unsung heroes. I view those books as testaments of those whose voices were muted or marginalized. My books bear witness, sparking much-needed conversations about slavery and segregation among children, parents, and educators. If we are to bridge the racial divide, our children must understand the forces that created it, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.
Carole Boston Weatherford has authored more than 50 children's books, including the Caldecott Honor winners Freedom in Congo Square; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. She is a professor of children's and adolescent literature at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.