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!
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.
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
Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds
Look Both Ways, Jason Reynolds
New Kid, Jerry Craft
Yankee Girl, Mary Ann Rodman
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