It’s hard to know what to do about Black History Month. On one hand, it might be the only time of year that schoolchildren will learn about the important moments and people in black history that shaped our country and world. On the other hand, one month seems paltry when there are so many stories. This year, when the news of Ferguson, Missouri, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #BlackLivesMatter were trending issues that only the most out-of-touch could ignore, we need books about Black History more than ever. Lucky for us, there are some wonderful books out this month.
THE RIGHT TO LEARN
Starting with books for the very young, husband and wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome explore the importance of education for newly enfranchised African Americans in Freedom’s School. Attending school in a very simple one-room schoolhouse turns out to be joyful and painful. Joyful because Miss Howard’s gentle and loving teaching inspires all the children to help each other learn and to share their knowledge with their parents. Painful because local white children are cruel as the kids walk to school, and eventually the school is burned to the ground. Though fiction, this is based on many stories and is an important slice of history to share with all children. Ransome’s illustrations, rendered in watercolor, are filled with emotion, extend the gentle text and are respectful of the subject.
In Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Jamey Christoph have created a moving volume for young photographers and historians. Adults might know Parks as the first black photographer for Life magazine, but it’s doubtful that children have heard of him at all. They should. His life is fascinating. He was brought back to life by a bucket of ice water after he was thought to be stillborn; he photographed everyone from models and famous people to the most ordinary of folk; he wrote novels, composed music and made movies. The story is told in Weatherford’s clear, understandable and beautiful present-tense prose and is digitally illustrated by Christoph. In one especially evocative spread, we see Parks, with the Capitol building lightly drawn in the background, observing life in the alleys of D.C. where poor blacks lived. They became his favorite subjects to photograph. The story of his famous study of Ella Watson, a D.C. chairwoman, is also beautifully told in words and images. The final line of the book tells it all: “Through Gordon’s lens, her struggle gained a voice. You don’t have to hear her story to know her prayer.” Wow.
A NONVIOLENT VICTORY
I have a friend who grew up in Huntsville during the period that Hester Bass and E.B. Lewis explore in Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama, so I was especially interested to read a longer book about this era. The title refers to the little things that the people of Huntsville did to integrate this small Alabama city, also called in 1962 the “Space Center of the Universe.”
After making reference to the various injustices that black people faced all over America (Jim Crow laws, segregated public spaces and schools, etc.), Bass goes deeper. The first “seed” amazed me: Three black women (a college student, a very pregnant doctor’s wife and a dentist’s wife with her new baby in arms) sat at a public lunch counter and were arrested. The baby’s presence in jail made read news—the kind of news that the city with the space program and funding from the U.S. government could ill afford. Second was as economic boycott of the Huntsville stores for Easter, when everyone, black and white, was known to spend a lot of money on clothes. Instead, they created Blue Jean Sunday, and local merchants lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For me, the most amazing story came when Governor Wallace closed Alabama public schools rather than integrate. In one private religious school for blacks, 12 white students integrated!
E.B. Lewis’ familiar and emotional watercolors add much to these stories, especially the heart-stopping scene of water hoses turned on Birmingham protestors juxtaposed with a small image of the March on Washington. For children and teachers who are looking for a new and inspiring true story, this gorgeous volume is a must-have.
Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She also reviews for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.