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  • Kim Bogren Owen

"We Are America, Too:" Celebrating Black History and Contributions

While children learn about the history and contributions of Caucasians throughout the school year, the contributions of other races and cultures are often bypassed in our schools. In order to help address this inequity and ensure that those contributions get, at least, some notice, months have been designated to explore the contribution of these groups to our nation. February is Black History Month.

Here are several books that explore the history of African Americans in our nation, or simply show African American living as we all do. In order to prevent developing more stereotypes read from each category so you aren't focusing only on slavery or the Civil Rights era. Use these books to start conversations about social justice, freedom, diversity, community, and democray, as well as to introduce children to the history of our nation.

Slavery/The Founding of the United States

For many people, the story of blacks in the US starts with slavery, and while that was the experience for most blacks, they played a larger role in the early years of our nation. Here are a few books about that period of our history. Talk with children about how these stories only represent a small part of the contributions of African-Americans to our nation.

Scott Russell Sanders and Thomas B. Allen's A Place Called Freedom tells of the founding of Lyle Station, Indiana by the Starman family. Told from the 7-year-old son's viewpoint, he recalls his memories of his father bringing his family and then others to the town. This has been one of my favorite books since I found it about 15 years ago. Although it is now out of print you can still find it on Amazon and it is a wonderful story of the fulfillment of the American Dream.

Molly Bannaky by Chris K. Soentpiet and Alice McGill reveals the story of white women, Molly, who is sent from England as an indentured servant as punishment for spilling her master's milk. She does her service and is rewarded her freedom, along with a wagon, mule, and tobacco seed. Once free, she starts a tobacco plantation but realizing she needs help, she purchases a slave. Having essentially been a slave, she vows to set him free once she no longer needs his help. Instead, they fall in love and marry.

Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney is the story of one of Molly Bannaky's grandsons. Benjamin is a well-educated scientist who starts his own almanac and writes a letter to Thomas Jefferson advocating for the blacks to be included in the constitution.

In Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson, Harriet Tubman escapes to freedom through her faith in God and then goes back to help other slaves escape.

In Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson and James E. Ransome, a girl tells of her escape from slavery with her family and her journey to Canada and freedom.

The Fight for Equality

Throughout the history of the United States, blacks have fought, in both little and big ways, for their freedom and justice, but the fight became very visible starting in the 1950s. Explore the impact of segregation as the impetus for demanding justice, as well as the different ways people stood up for their rights, with these books. Discuss with your child what it feels like to be excluded and ask them to think of ways they can ensure to include everyone.

In Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jerome Lagarrigue, Connie's favorite part of shopping is stopping to get a soda from the soda fountain, but because of her race she is not allowed to sit at the counter and, therefore, cannot have the banana split she really wants. She complains about how they are kept separate and in the back, but things are starting to change and in this fictionalized account of the Greensboro sit-ins, both her brother and sister participate in the protests. Ultimately, they succeed in their attempts to gain equality and she is able to finally have that banana split at the counter.

I Have A Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Kadir Nelson recounts an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream Speech." The oil paint illustrations are so realistic it is hard to tell them apart from photographs.

In Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia C. McKissack and Jerry Pinkney, a girl's grandmother allows her to go into town alone for the first time to visit "someplace special." The trip there is challenging because of the humiliations of Jim Crow laws, but she finds the courage to overcome her fears and doubts and makes it to the special place which is the library.

WW law helped lead the desegregation of Savannah, Georgia through peaceful means. Learn more about his story in Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and The Fight for Civil Rights by Jim Haskins and Jerry Pinkney.

African American Contributions

African Americans have made and continue to make valuable contributions to our nation. Explore a few of their stories with these books.

Little is known about the life of Dave the Potter other than the pots, some of which contain simple poems written on their outsides, he made. However, Dave The Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier use gorgeous illustrations and poetic text bring the power of Dave's art to life and tell a story of resilience in the face of atrocities.

Dizzy Gillespie's young life was one of abuse, but the introduction of a trombone changes all that for him and allows him to escape his home life even when he is still living in the same house as his abusive father. Dizzy by Jonah Winter and Sean Qualls explores these early influences on Dizzy Gillespie's life and his success.

Through With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade and Nicole Tadgel relate the story of how Booker T. Washington overcame his start in life as a slave and rose from working in a coal mine after slavery to receiving an education and starting a school. Benny Andrews' ambitions include becoming an artist and drawing. These differ from many of his friends and family who work in the fields picking crops. Benny knows that education is his only way out so he works hard in school and makes his way to Chicago after serving in the military. Once there he enters art school, his inspirations come from the people around him. Once he finishes art school, he moves to New York City where he becomes an artist and teaches others while speaking up for civil rights. Learn more about his story in Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson and Benny Andrews.

In The Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby and Nicole Tadgell is a fictional account of Dr. Carver's visit to a school where he shows the students how to grow a garden.

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford and Raul Colon chronicles the story of Leontyne Price who rose above her humble beginnings and broke through many barriers that segregation created to become a famous opera singer.

While few people have heard of Bessie Coleman, she broke many barriers for women and African Americans as a pilot. Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of "Brave Bessie" Coleman by Reeve Lindbergh and Pamela Paparone describes those impacts, as well as the obstacles she had to overcome to achieve them and her untimely death.

Just Being a Kid

The story of African America isn't only about struggle. It is, also, about just being a kid and living a life that is similar to everyone else. Help your child keep that perspective by reading these books that present kids being kids.

Busy Toes by C.W. Bowie is the perfect book to celebrate a toddler's toes! A delightful book that shows how much our toes help us explore our world!

Jamaica finds a little-stuffed puppy at the park, and rather than turn it into the lost and found, she decides to keep it. However, the day wears into the night and the next day, she finds her conscience has gotten the best of her and she turns it in. Find out what happens next in Jamaica's Find by Juanita Havill and Anne Sibley O'Brien.

Ten, Nine, Eight Board Book by Molly Bang shares how a father makes bedtime fun for his daughter. A wonderful book for toddlers!

In Lola Reads to Leo by Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw, Lola shares her love of books with her baby brother. A very sweet book about sibling love that ends with Lola's own special reading time with her parents before bed.

Finally, to learn more about African-American history and contributions, explore these websites:

As always, I hope you enjoy these recommendations. Feel free to share with credit to Words Reflected and Kim Bogren Owen on Facebook, your website, or in your newsletter. Please add your recommendations for additional books about African American history in the comments, and keep an eye out on Twitter and Facebook for additional recommendations on this subject all month long.

(This blog uses the Amazon affiliate program so when you click on the title and purchase through Amazon, you are supporting us! If you don't purchase through these links, please, be sure to support your local, independent bookstore or find them at your library!)

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