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Many teachers and administrators are grappling with how to address the social concerns that the recent events in our country have brought up. The truth is that the protests and riots have only brought to the forefront issues that our students carry with them into our classrooms every day. 

The very fact that educators are concerned about how to address this is a step in the right direction. Social justice and reform should not have been overlooked as long as it has. 

While teaching The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 or To Kill a Mockingbird can lead to some great discussions, it hasn’t been enough. It is very important to teach about discrimination in the past and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but unless these things are connected to the events in the news today, we are doing an injustice.

We can no longer just ignore the baggage of fear, insecurity, and discrimination that our students of colorbear on their when they sit down in their desks, especially in schools where they do not see themselves reflected in the school staff.  

They are looking to see how you respond when certain topics come up. Do you quickly change the subject when someone makes an ignorant or even prejudiced comment, or do you address it as a learning opportunity in a way that brings enlightenment not shame? Do you skip over or just keep reading when difficult topics come up in literature, or do you take the opportunity to facilitate a discussion?

Education has evolved from simply imparting knowledge to facilitating learning and teaching students how to discover and validate the credibility of information. We must not only teach open-mindedness but model it as well.

African American literature is tricky.  Traditionally when teaching Black History, teachers have focused on the negative misfortunes of African Americans (slavery, racial tension, and issues that show the black protagonist in a bad light or constantly in need of rescuing by the white antagonist). This can polarize classrooms and could even reinforce stereotypes or build grudges.

Why not focus instead on the positive while educating both races on times when working together or forgiveness promoted the relationship building among all races?

Finding balance is appropriate and cannot be prescriptive; it is unique to each community and classroom.

As suggested in part 1 of this series (LGBTQ+ literature),  add some titles to your classroom library that have prominent black characters (both fiction and nonfiction). Also integrate literary pieces written by black writers into your instruction, not just in a “multicultural studies” or “black history” unit, but all year round.

Another approach is to teach science fiction. At its core, science fiction can address social issues in a non-threatening way using fantasy characters or aliens. This may be helpful if topics of race are particularly polarizing in your community.

Here are some of our favorite titles for teaching literature that has prominent black characters or address issues of social injustice or discrimination against African Americans. 

As with all content, you should make sure that you have properly vetted, studied, and received approval for any piece before teaching it or even adding it to your classroom library.

Please add your favorite titles in the comments!

Children’s Books

In elementary classes, it is important to foster self-confidence and esteem in sharing the beauty and accomplishments of all children. Be sensitive that not all fun, humorous, and good stories that you share illustrate the experiences of white families and children.  

Also, children’s books are not just for the elementary classroom; they can be great, non-threatening tools in secondary classes as well!

Sulwe, Lupita Nyong’o & Vashti Harrison

Black all Around, Patricia Hubbell

Bunheads, Misty Copeland

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, Carole Boston Weatherford

Let’s Talk About Race, Julius Lester

Something Happened in Our Town, Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, & Ann Hazzard

The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson

These Hands, Margaret Mason

Rainbow Fish, Marcus Pfister - While this book has several messages, it is a great example of how you shouldn’t have to change who you are to be accepted by others and can be used to illustrate the beauty that we are all born with.

*We have included several links to lists of children’s literature at the end of this article.

Jr. High 

All American Boys, Jason Reynolds

Blended, Sharon Draper

Dangerous Skies, Suzanne Fisher Staples 

Discovering Wes Moore, Wes Moore

Genesis Begins Again, Alicia D. Williams

Ghost Boys, Jewell Parker Rhodes

Junebug in Trouble, Alice Mead

Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson 

Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

Look Both Ways, Jason Reynolds

New Kid, Jerry Craft

Yankee Girl, Mary Ann Rodman

High School

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gains

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Clap When You Land, Elizabeth Acevedo

Dear Martin, Nic Stone

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson 

On the Come Up, Angie Thomas

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell 

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

The Boy in the Black Suit, Jason Reynolds

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The Other Wes Moore: One Man, Two Fates, Wes Moore

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

When I Was the Greatest, Jason Reynolds

With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo


“Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall

“Ballad of the Landlord” by Langston Hughes

“Cross” by Langston Hughes

“Incident” by Countee Cullen

“Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou

Other Resources:

20 Picture Books for 2020: Readings to Embrace Race, Provide Solace & Do Good

30 Awesome Picture Books Uplifting Black Kids with Natural Hair

An Eleven-Year-Old’s Quest to Spotlight Black Girls in Literature

Black Literature - Past, Present, and Future: A Reading List

Diverse Book List

Ta-Nehisi Coates's Reading List

Teaching African American Literature During COVID-19 

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