It’s easy to tell when it’s Black History Month. Every classroom has a display of favorite read aloud books featuring African Americans. Children can look forward to hearing them during the 19 days that they are in school during the month of February. As I entered the fourth classroom of the day, I thought to myself, Hmm … Is it my imagination or are the books remarkably the same in every classroom from kindergarten through third grade? It was not my imagination. Jaylen sighed, “Again?” as his teacher sat down in the read aloud chair with a copy of Martin’s Big Words.
I understand Jaylen’s frustration. Teachers seem to be reading the same books year after year. By the time a child is a “sophisticated third grader” like Jaylen, he will have heard Martin’s Big Words a dozen times. It is also the go-to book for Martin Luther King Day. As a result, children are getting a very narrow view of black history. The books on display in classrooms are limited to a few “old reliables” and seem to cover only two eras in black history: slavery and the civil rights movement.
Black history is much more than slavery and civil rights. I would like teachers to consider updating their read aloud collections by adding titles that address other periods of African American history, such as Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Great Migration.
Slavery gets a lot of attention during Black History Month. But what happened to the slaves after they were emancipated? The period right after slavery is called the Reconstruction era. It lasted from 1865 to 1877. The purpose of Reconstruction was to help the South become a part of the Union again after the Civil War.
One of the rights that freed slaves embraced was the right to learn how to read and write. The three book titles that follow address the triumphs and struggles of African Americans regarding education during Reconstruction.
More Than Anything Else by Marie Bradby
This is a fictionalized account of an event in Booker T. Washington’s childhood. He is nine years old, living in West Virginia, and working long hours in the salt mines along with his father and older brother. He sees a man reading a newspaper aloud and is struck by the need to read and write.
Freedom’s School by Lesa Cline-Ransome
Lizzie and her brother are going to school for the first time! Their school is a simple rustic shack on the edge of the woods. Their teacher is the soft-spoken yet determined Miz Howard. She patiently teaches the children the letters of the alphabet. However, the whites in the area don’t like what is happening. When threats fail to work, the school is mysteriously set on fire.
Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Howard
African Americans can finally go to school. Virgie’s five brothers take the seven-mile hike across fields to get to school each day, but Virgie’s mother says that she is too little for such a long hike. However, Virgie does not agree and decides to do something about it.
The Buffalo Soldier by Sherry Garland
Did you know that African Americans played a key role in settling the West? You can find out some of the details from this book. Work opportunities are limited for newly emancipated African Americans. So when the US government offers a whopping $13 a month for protecting new settlers in the West, many African American men eagerly sign up. They are dubbed “Buffalo Soldiers” because of their curly hair, strength, and determination. They are away from home for months at a time under trying work conditions. Will the government actually come through with that “big payday”?
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance took place from 1910 through the 1930s. It was a period when African American art, literature, and music flourished. African American artists, writers, and musicians from the South and Midwest flocked to New York City to perform, collaborate, and perfect their respective crafts. A list of just some of the notable Renaissance figures who emerged during this era includes Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Romare Bearden, Horace Pippin, Sterling Brown, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. There are picture book biographies about most of these personalities that would make terrific additions to your read aloud collection. In addition to the biographies, here are three suggestions for read aloud books about this slice of African American history.
Harlem Renaissance Party by Faith Ringgold
Lonnie, from Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House, is on the move again, this time traveling back into the past and landing in Harlem in the 1930s. Lonnie is delighted to visit places like the Savoy Ballroom and the Schomburg Library and to meet artists, musicians, and writers. The highlight for him is meeting his idol, Langston Hughes.
Sugar Hill by Carole Boston Weatherford
“Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill, where life is sweet/and kids play stickball in the street/Where Duke and Count plunk out new tunes/and Zora spins stories by the moon.” This book has lyrical, poetic text and colorful, eye-popping illustrations. It takes the reader on a personal tour through Harlem to meet distinguished people such as Duke Ellington, Faith Ringgold, Zora Neale Hurston, and others.
The Entrance Place of Wonders by Daphne Muse
This is a collection of poems selected especially for children written by some of the Harlem Renaissance poets. Read one a day during Black History Month or gobble them all up in one sitting.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration is the term used to describe the migration of about six million African Americans out of the South to the Midwest, Northeast, and West. African Americans left the South to escape racism and seek jobs in industrial cities. The Great Migration happened in two waves. The first wave was right after World War I. The second wave started in the late 1950s and lasted until about 1970. Here are three recommendations for books on this topic:
The Great Migration: An American Story by Jacob Lawrence
Harlem Renaissance author and artist Jacob Lawrence (be sure to tell the kids that connection!) chronicles the stories of families moving from the South to the North in words and paintings.
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson
An African American girl tells the story of a length of rope that her grandmother gave her. It was first used as a jump rope. Later it was used to tie the family’s belongings to the top of the car when they moved from South Carolina to New York City. After they finally arrived in New York City, it became a jump rope again.
The Great Migration: Journey to the North by Eloise Greenfield
In a collection of poems, Greenfield tells the stories of families making the decision to leave the South. The poems are presented in chronological order, beginning with hearing the news about the work opportunities in the North. The last poem is a personal one about the journey of the family of the book’s illustrator.
I hope these book suggestions get you started with exploring “other eras” of African American history. Consider getting together with other teachers in your school to arrange for each grade level to concentrate on a different era with the goal of providing children with a more comprehensive picture as they progress through the school from year to year. My hope is that Black History Month will eventually not be needed because black history will be regarded as an integral part of American history.