black history and black joy…anti-racism reads for elementary to adult

Some of my most-read posts in almost 11 years of blogging were my resource-laden posts immediately after the murder of George Floyd here in Minneapolis.
The visceral impact of his egregious death birthed a hunger in many of us to better understand racism and a willingness to self-examine and forge new perspectives.

Today I want to encourage you to press on in that important endeavor.
To that end I’m offering more resources suited to a wide range of ages, resources I have found provocative and deeply helpful.

 Heads up that some of the books for older readers are not flashy in appearance
but they’re excellent reads, especially for those who have a foundational knowledge of Black History and are hoping to deepen understanding, connect some dots.

But first — a word about some of my index-lists which might be of help to you.
I’ve finally finished my chronological listing of all the Black History resources I’ve reviewed over the past 10+ years. You can find that here. This was tremendously helpful to me as I put it together, seeing where all these various events fit across time. I hope it is also a help to those educating yourselves or others.

As always you can find a listing of Black History titles organized instead by picture book vs. lengthier nonfiction — here. And a listing of books addressing race/racism impacting many groups of people — here.

I recently listened to a podcast about the potential pitfalls of teaching slavery through children’s literature, and one of the excellent points made by Ebony Thomas was about the limited roles Black children have historically played in children’s books.

…there are…five kinds of black characters and/or black story people in books for children and teens. The first is the enslaved character. The second is the character who’s fighting against Jim Crow or dealing with segregation during the nadir period of American history. The third is the character fighting for civil rights during the mid-20th century. The fourth is a character who’s trying to survive life in the ghetto. If it’s a boy, he’s usually wrestling with whether to join a gang or not. Then there’s the black best friend in suburbia.

Of course she wasn’t presenting this as an absolute, but it’s an accurate analysis of the heavy preponderance within these categories. The problem with this — and it’s a problem for Indigenous representation as well —  is the erasure of common humanity and joy from the voices and lives of Black/Indigenous children in our stories. The whole podcast is thought-provoking and informative. You can find it here.
I have occasionally posted groups of titles from my archives featuring Black children that do not fit in one of the above categories and now I’ve been working at listing those titles in a searchable index. I’ve chosen to widen that to any stories starring BIPOC characters that exude joy or simply relate ordinary human experience. That Black and Brown Joy list is here.

Hopefully all of these various indexes will benefit those of you trying to learn for yourselves  — children’s books are a fabulous way for adults to learn a great deal of Black history — or working to bring this history and perspective into the lives of children in your sphere.

Now here are today’s books:

When We Say Black Lives Matter, written and illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke
originally published in Australia; US edition 2021 by Candlewick Press

A rhyming text unpacks the call for respect and justice, the affirmation of strength and resilience, the acknowledgement of pain and trauma, all of which resonate in the chant that has proliferated around the globe — “Black lives matter.”

Because it is written as a conversation with a young child, warm affection and an earnest transmittal of cultural information mark this brief text, and imbue it with added poignancy and weight.

Clarke’s artwork incorporates the visual styling of stained glass windows, casting a sacred light onto her text and the lives of those depicted. She also makes use of the colors and lines of the South African flag repeatedly, importing in this way African rootedness.

It’s a book offering a meaningful embrace for Black children and a helpful window of understanding for all of us. Ages 4 and up.

Timelines from Black History: Leaders, Legends, Legacies
published by DK in 2020
96 pages

I am normally not a huge DK fan. I find the scattershot, bits and pieces of information strewn around the pages to be less than helpful in obtaining a cohesive understanding of the various topics they cover.

However, I am highlighting this book because it includes some information that’s surprisingly difficult to find in children’s books — ancient African civilizations and personalities.

 This book devotes seven two-page spreads to topics such as Early African kingdoms dating back thousands of years, medieval African royalty like Mansa Musa, Askia the Great, and Queen Nzinga Mbandi, and later African kingdoms that flourished up until the European colonialization period in the late 1800s. Granted that is still a small amount of information, but at least it helps children understand that there is a rich history there and offers some breadcrumbs for further discovery.

There are also biographical spreads devoted to Toussaint L’Ouverture and Olaudah Equiano, two personalities woefully underrepresented in juvenile literature, as well as numerous individuals from both the U.S. and Africa. The book proceeds all the way up to the present day with a couple of young activists concluding the historical overview. The spreads devoted to large movements such as the Civil Rights movement and post-colonial Africa are the least helpful as they cannot begin to adequately present these in this format.

Striking images and design elements, as always with DK, keep the pages vibrant. This would make a fine resource book that could launch rabbit trails of discovery for a wide age range, about ages 8 through adult.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy, by Emmanuel Acho
published in 2021 by Roaring Brook Press
312 pages

I first heard former-NFL player Emmanuel Acho on Stephen Colbert’s late night show discussing his video series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, and was immediately struck with his articulate, charismatic, candid voice. So when I saw that he had created a young reader’s edition of his book, I was eager to see how he had translated his message for young people. And I am equally impressed with what he has done here.

The book employs an extremely-readable, forthright, conversational tone, just as the title promises. Acho speaks directly to his audience with a voice that pulls no punches yet never shames, belittles, blasts; a style that’s young and contemporary, yet not self-consciously so; a tone that gathers people in. You may have heard weary Black Americans expressing their disinclination to explain racism and all its impacts for the umpteenth time and thought, “Yes, well then where do I turn for the understanding I need?” This book is where you can turn for starters.

It’s written as a series of brief questions or statements from a white perspective, and leisurely, illuminating responses. In this way, Acho covers a great deal of ground, from when and how the concept of race began through specifics like the difference between the terms “slave” and “enslaved” or why some Black people use the N-word but white’s must not, to explorations of concepts like white privilege, systemic racism, and the myth of the angry Black man. The weakness of the book may lie in the vast amount of ground he attempts to cover as it may overwhelm those just beginning this journey, yet that’s simultaneously a strength. Many, many important topics are addressed that will hopefully lead readers to continue learning and understanding more.

Acho recommends a number of books and films/documentaries along the way, many of which are most suitable for ages 15 and up. I think his book is accessible to kids younger than that, especially if read in conjunction with a sympathetic adult reader. I’d recommend it for ages 12 and up.


They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
172 pages

In the years immediately following the Civil War, a small circle of white men in Pulaski, Tennessee, fueled by wounded Confederate pride and racial animosity, founded a club. They invented mysterious, weird-sounding titles and secretive rites, and entertained themselves by donning disguises and riding, shrieking like ghosts, through the town at night.

Soon these men discovered that their shenanigans induced fear in the Black population and they began to cruelly capitalize on that. It wasn’t long before their club had expanded, with branches opening across the South, and terror as their key agenda. The KKK brutally raped women, viciously tortured and killed Black men, women, and children, as well as white allies, committed acts of arson, vandalism, and theft, all in the service of white supremacy and with feelings of righteousness burning in their hearts.  In fact they claimed to be, “a band of regulators trying to protect property and preserve law and order.”

Bartoletti’s account of the beginnings, growth, and temporary waning of the KKK is well-researched, unequivocal, infuriating, and horrifying. She establishes at the outset the toxic, white supremacist beliefs held in both the North and South and the way these mindsets influenced everything from political maneuverings, to reversals of Reconstruction policies, adoption of racist school curriculums, and intense racial animosity. She goes on to provide graphic detail of the stomach-turning violence perpetrated by the KKK. In her final chapter she briefly chronicles the weakening of Civil Rights legislation by the Supreme Court and the resulting birth of Jim Crow laws, and the revisionist history that began romanticizing the ante-bellum South, redefining the Civil War, and promoting a Lost Cause narrative. She quickly surveys the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the passing of Federal Hate Crimes legislation. Sadly her conclusion that “hate groups wield none of the power…that the KKK held in earlier years,” is not currently obvious.  This year, the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security told Congress that, “the greatest domestic threat facing the U.S. came from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.”

It’s a stunning book, offering critical, timely history and perspective. Readers should be aware that the author does not censor or soften the crude, racist language of the 1860s nor the details of the violence inflicted. Although this was published as Young Adult nonfiction, it is catalogued in my library as Adult. This should give you some guidance on who the best audience is.  I would suggest ages 15 – adult.

Separate No More: The Long Road to Brown v. Board of Education, by Lawrence Goldstone
published in 2021 by Scholastic Focus
276 pages

When I was a kid, my mechanical-engineer dad was the guy I would go to with my math homework questions.  Generally I would have one last problem in the whole assigned set that I couldn’t solve, and I’d haul my book hopefully to my dad asking for help.  What I wanted, of course, was the answer, straight and simple.  What I got, instead, was a math lesson that stretched all the way back to the foundations of arithmetic.  “What is a number?  How do numbers act when we combine them?” were his opening questions and explanations.  After a considerable amount of Dad’s teaching, we had reached the cusp of the problem at hand.  And then he would say, “Now can you work the problem?”  It was a bit annoying 🙂

Lawrence Goldstone takes that long-haul, wide-angle lens to the subject of desegregated education in this superb book but rest assured — it’s not annoying. Rather his account produces one aha! moment after another as we see the series of steps, the web of people and events and strategies that all needed to be in place for the Brown v. Board decision to be made.

Goldstone grounds us by unreeling the long history of legal segregation, white-on-black violence, and white supremacist mindsets at work in the U.S. from the close of the Civil War onward.  He provides an excellent introduction to the opposing philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, an account of the swing towards activism resulting in the birth of the NAACP, and the strategic use of the courts to broker civil rights.  The fights for fair trials, voting rights, and property rights are described as step by step, cases building on cases, the NAACP patiently, wisely, incisively built the legal foundations for Brown v. Board.

I found this to be fascinating in scope and depth, and supremely helpful in seeing the way various pieces of  history fit together. I also loved meeting some civil rights heroes I’d not known before like the line-up of steadfastly courageous plaintiffs in these cases and NAACP lawyer Charles Houston. Goldstone ends by acknowledging the backwards slide in civil rights occurring with recent Supreme Court decisions and racially-motivated violence. It’s a lucid, compelling, highly-informative look at critical pieces of our society’s bumpy journey towards racial equity. I suggest it for ages 15 thru adult.

Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men
by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace
published in 2021 by Calkins Creek
143 pages

One of the cases referenced by Goldstone in his book on school desegregation is the subject of a deeper dive in this slim, fascinating book.  I read this book first, and when I came across the case in Goldstone’s book, it was an exciting moment of connecting the dots and placing these events in a broader context.

In a tiny church near Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919, a meeting of Black sharecroppers attempting to unionize in order to achieve fair prices for their crops, was attacked by local white men — including police officers — who fired on and killed a number of the sharecroppers. White posses then pursued Black men, women, and children across the countryside, killing hundreds, ransacking and stealing from their homes, plundering and destroying their crops. In the process, five white men died, several from mishandling their own weapons.

Yet no whites were arrested. Instead, 12 Black men were rounded up, arrested, tortured into false confessions in the deaths of the white men, convicted in trials lasting minutes, and condemned to death by electric chair.

This is the astonishing story of the Black lawyer who against all odds and all sense of self-protection courageously and successfully defended the Elaine Twelve. It is a painful look at just one in the long series of horrendous injustices endured by Black Americans in our U.S. law enforcement and criminal justice systems.

An eventual Supreme Court decision in this case, Moore v. Dempsey, struck a pivotal blow to racist state courts who routinely denied the constitutional rights of defendants.  An enlightening read for ages 14 thru adult.

The March Against Fear: The Last Great Walk of the Civil Rights Movement and the Emergence of Black Power
by Ann Bausum
published in 2017 by National Geographic
144 pages

I have read a fair bit of Civil Rights history but have not previously come across an account of this astonishing, important march. It’s a brief, well-written, grievous, inspiring, and illuminating read.

James Meredith was, in 1962-’63, the first Black student to integrate the University of Mississippi, a formidable achievement that required stalwart perseverance and ongoing courage in the face of a hostile, threatening community.

In 1966, Meredith made a plan to tackle something even more daunting than Ole Miss. He decided to take on fear itself via a Walk Against Fear – a project that would involve him strolling over 200 miles down the entire state of Mississippi to the capital, Jackson. Incredibly, Meredith planned for this to be a fairly quiet, drama-free demonstration, simply proving to Black Mississippi voters that they could discard their fears and walk to a polling place to register to vote.

On the second day of his trek, Meredith was shot.

With his injuries incapacitating him temporarily, and with the decision by major civil rights leaders to adopt his project as a demonstration of their commitment to meet violence with nonviolence, Meredith’s solo walk suddenly became a large, momentous, civil rights project. What was a “walk” became a “march.”  Throngs of people were drawn into participation from nearly every state in the union, and an extended route, modified objectives, and extraordinarily complex logistics all came into play.

Along the sweltering, 250-mile journey, these marchers would face violent, hostile crowds, the fierce batons and boots of law enforcement officers, and the indiscriminate, overpowering use of tear gas. The commitment to nonviolence was maintained, but another phrase would also crop up, a phrase reflecting activists’ intense frustration with a nation slow to commit to justice, dragging its feet against equitable changes, and continuously brutalizing them. The phrase — Black Power.

“…all we’ve been doing [is] begging and begging. We’ve done nothing but beg. We’ve got to stop begging and take power,” Stokely Carmichael told the crowd gathered one evening.  His speech marked a seismic shift in the civil rights movement. Bausum argues this was in part because of the speed and preponderance with which white news media seized on it, interpreting it in militant terms without allowing Black activists to define or explain it for themselves.

The need for Black empowerment was clear and despite the tensions between the major civil rights movements, a brokered cohesion among them might still have been achieved, she suggests, if it were not for the stress placed upon them by media and the hysteria those reports caused. Bausum concludes her book by showing how the March Against Fear proved to be a moment of fragmentation for the movement, a mile marker of the waning power of the ’60s civil rights era, and the birth of a form of protest not anchored in nonviolent philosophy. I found this book helpful for understanding the emergence of new voices in the quest for civil rights and the continued need for activism. Ages 14 to adult.

Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade
Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence after the Civil War, 1865-1876
Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror
Segregation in America
all published by Equal Justice Initiative from 2017-2020

Lastly, I want to draw your attention to these “reports” published by Equal Justice Initiative. Ranging in length from about 100-130 pages, each resembles a Special Edition magazine with glossy pages, lots of quality photographic images, and a magazine-style format. They are forthright, well-written, and exceptionally informative.

And they cost just $2 each! That is an amazing way to access some top-notch educational resources for adults or older teens.

These reports are unflinching so please be aware that they are not intended for young children. The grotesque inhumanity documented here is gut-wrenching to read, and that is as it should be.  These were not benign, benevolent, or inconsequential practices, and the impact of them reaches straight through to Black lives today.

I highly recommend them for ages 16 through adult.  You can order them at the page here and they’ll just ship them to your door.

Again, please take advantage of the many, many rich resources available
via the books indexed here
and share them with any who might benefit:
Black History
A Chronological Listing of Black History Titles
Black and Brown Joy

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