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Celebrating Black History All Year Long!

by Cheryl Willis Hudson


Cheryl Willis Hudson

Cheryl Willis Hudson is an author and publisher of children's books, most recently, My Friend Maya Loves to Dance. Read more »

Sorry, Cheryl Willis Hudson is no longer taking questions.

February is a great time for children to explore and celebrate Black history and culture through books. But wouldn't it be great for kids to be interested and excited about African-American history, culture and experiences throughout the year?

When I attended segregated schools in the mid-fifties and early sixties, Negro History Week (which became Black History Month in 1976) was the most exciting time of the school year for me. I was inspired by the school-sponsored Black history essay and oratory contests, classrooms competing to display the most creative Black history bulletin boards, and teachers decorating classrooms and hallways with photographs of distinguished Black heroes and sheroes.


I marveled as the names of leaders like Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E. B. DuBois, Toussaint L'Ouverture, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson and their achievements were announced over the PA system. I recited poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. And I beamed with pride when the entire school stood and sang in loud, proud voices "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." There were very few books or other resources for our teachers back then, but Black History Month was an exciting time of true cultural reflection, appreciation and celebration.

Many changes have occurred in our country since then. Not only is there a Black History Month but the birthday of an outstanding Black leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a federal holiday. And our country is led by an African-American president.

During February, documentaries, commercials and print ads spotlight aspects of Black history. Bookstore shelves are stocked with related picture books, novels, biographies and other materials. But as soon as February ends, so do most of the documentaries, commercials and prints ads. The books quickly disappear from shelves. And too often, Black authors and artists and their stories are quickly forgotten, that is, until the next February.

Through my work as a children's book author and publisher, I want parents and children to know how important it is that we learn about each other all year long.

In my latest picture book, My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, the narrator of the story admires the grace, energy and determination of a young Black girl who has a typical childhood dream of becoming a dancer. The narrator, however, is not Black. She also has a disability that doesn't allow her to dance with her friend. Yet, through her joy and appreciation of Maya's gifts, the narrator exhibits her own talents in an interesting twist that shows she has strong ownership of her own special gifts, no matter her race or "otherness."

Strength of character, resilience, perseverance, fortitude, self-esteem--these are recurring themes of Black History Month and they apply to children everywhere, no matter what their, color, creed or national origin. Following are tips that parents can use to help assure that the Black history material they select for and with their child is meaningful and relevant this Black History Month and throughout the year.

Buy a book by a Black author or illustrator and make it a part of your child's permanent collection. Books offer a fun and easy way to introduce your children to new cultures and help them explore the experiences of people from different backgrounds.

Look for books that are inclusive and reflect the diversity of our communities. Books help illustrate that diversity is a natural part of everyday life. Don't forget to read the books for general accuracy. Check copyright dates and be sure to avoid outdated, stereotypical and irrelevant content.

When and if children ask questions about race, don't sweep differences under the rug.Give children simple, concrete explanations when they have questions about differences. Select books that affirm a valued place for all children. Try to find books that will help prepare children for the complex world in which they live.

Make a note of the author's perspective. Who is telling the story? Is the author sensitive to the culture that is being described? Has accurate research been done to capture the culture that is being written about?

Make sure your selections include contemporary stories.Black History Month is celebration of not just history, but of culture and experiences, which are readily reflected in picture books, chapter books, and poetry. Don't limit selections to biographies and non-fiction. Contemporary fiction can encourage your child to make new friends, relate to classmates and neighbors and understand current cultural experiences.

Seek the suggestions and guidance from knowledgeable cultural experts, booksellers and librarians. Coretta Scott King award winning titles are always a good place to start for excellence in text and illustrations.

Buy books from independent presses that specialize in books by and about Black people, as well as books from larger, more commercial publishing houses.

Speak up when you hear bias remarks. A simple response could be, "That language or word or comment is not acceptable. Please do not repeat it."

Discuss the books with your children to show that you are interested in what they are reading and learning.

Use Black History Month as a starting point to introduce children to more books that reflect other cultures and ethnicities, but celebrate Black history and cultural diversity all year long.

How do you celebrate Black History Month with your children? What are your favorite books or authors? I look forward to hearing from you.

Sorry, Cheryl Willis Hudson is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Comments

nicole writes...

Hi Cheryl. How you decide what type of story you will write next? Also, when did you decide to become a children's book author?

Thank you.

Cheryl? writes...

Hi Nicole,
Most of my stories come from experiences I had as a child or from observations of my own children and their friends. The AFRO-BETS Kids, for example are modeled after our daughter (Tura) our son (Stef) a niece (Glo’) a friend’s daughter (Nandi) etc. Langston is modeled after the writer, Langston Hughes. I have a long list of stories and ideas for stories and I try to develop them systematically but sometimes an idea just grabs me. I decided to write My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, for example, after a visit to my childhood home. When I discovered a copy of one of the only books still left from my childhood, it sparked a memory of taking dance lessons as a child and I began to write. I decided to become a children’s book author when I was in my twenties.

Thanks for your interest.

Shari writes...

I couldn't agree more, Cheryl! My only quibble: You said, "Buy A book by a Black author or illustrator...." I think parents should buy LOTS of books about children with a wide diversity of ethnic and cultural experiences. Every child should have the opportunity to profit from and enjoy seeing the world from a variety of perspectives and worldviews. Thanks, Cheryl, for your excellent work on behalf of children and in promoting high-quality children's literature.

Cheryl? writes...

Hi Shari,
We’re definitely on the same page here. Every child should experience the wonderful diversity that is available in a number of books for children. My point about buying a book by a Black author and/or illustrator is to encourage parents to make a special effort during Black History Month to make these books part of their children’s permanent collections. Unfortunately, some really great titles disappear from store shelves after February and later they are harder to find. Hopefully, these children’s personal collections will grow and expand to encompass a variety of authors and illustrators from diverse, multicultural backgrounds. Public and school libraries are making efforts to expand their collections too and this is a real plus. Thanks, Shari, for your kind words. We appreciate your support.

Nancy writes...

Thank you Cheryl for this essay. I too grew up in the 60s in an era where there were very few children's books that reflected my image. My parents supplied my siblings and I with history and biographies books about famous Black people along with Black history board and card games. I believe that was one of the best foundations to have as a Black child during a time of change. I got into the field of Black children's literature because of your books and so many others that provided positive images for my children. (Our AFROBETS book is one big taped up mess but it is still on the shelf.) While my children were growing up in Iowa, I made sure whenever they were invited to birthday parties they would give as a gift a Black children's book (a lot of JUSTUSBOOKS roaming around in Iowa). I wanted their friends to be expose to the beauty within so many books that reflected my children.

Cheryl? writes...

Hi Nancy,
I, too, give children’s books as birthday, Christmas, baby shower, christening, Kwanzaa, and any other special occasion presents. Because children so often identify with the characters they see in books, those books become interactive gifts that the child can open again and again. Children actually do see and treat books as their personal friends so it’s a double gift when a child can share a story that reminds him of his own life experiences. And when a parent reads to her child, that becomes a shared bonding experience that children in turn share with their friends and classmates. In many ways, I believe that reading positive stories about African American life and culture provides an intimate setting for cross cultural understanding. It’s certainly a more valuable option than absorbing so much of the negative imagery that is presented on television and in videos. Cheers to you and your children and thanks for multiple sales of Just Us Books AFRO-BETS in Iowa!

Venus writes...

Hello, I have been having complications with finding a good way of teaching my two year old his colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. I am begining to wonder? Maybe I am asking for him to know more than he should right now at his age?

Cheryl? writes...

Hello Venus,
Thanks for your excellent question. Parents are the best first teachers and a child is never too young to experience the joys of being read to by his parents and caregivers. Most two year-olds enjoy sitting on their parents’ laps and reading along with them. Try holding a sturdy board book in your hands and reading the words of an alphabet, number, shape or color book out loud. Encourage your son to help you turn the pages of the book and to repeat the words or identify the images that he sees on the page. Have him point to the objects. For example: One yellow sun; two blue shoes; three golden keys. Then ask a question: What color is the sun? How many shoes do you see? Count each key. Where are mommy’s keys? and so forth. This kind of activity will help your child engage not only with the words on the pages but also to his environment and daily activities. Your child is learning by association and you’ll find that he knows quite a bit about his colors, shapes and numbers. Try sharing AFRO-BETS Book of Shapes and AFRO-BETS Book of Colors and see how your son responds and let me know how it goes!

Joyce writes...

Thank you for this wonderful essay, Cheryl. You've spoken for all of us who've tried to keep our stories out there and convince folk that they're not just for Black History Month and not just for Black children.

Cheryl? writes...

Hello Joyce,
Thank you for your comments.
Part of what I’ve tried to convey in my work as an editor and publisher is that sharing authentic stories is so vital to making Black history current and relevant to all Americans. African American history is American history and Black authors and illustrators are key to telling those stories from their personal experiences and perspectives. The canon is rich with African American authors such as Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, James Haskins, Julius Lester, Patricia and Frederick McKissack, Joyce Hansen, Kristen Hunter, Rita Williams Garcia, Christopher Paul Curtis, Jacqueline Woodson and earlier greats such as Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Illustrators such as Ashley Bryan, Jerry Pinkney, Carol Bayard, George Ford, Tom Feelings, John Steptoe, Leo & Diane Dillon, and Pat Cummings are part of that rich legacy of storytelling, too. Not to mention dozens and dozens of younger authors and illustrators. These creative people have raised their voices and talents and are appreciated by large audiences across the US and globally for their work. You are right, Black History Month is not just for Black children or just for the month of February. Thank you for your commitment, too.

Shirley writes...

Wonderful advice. The topic is so culturally inclusive that it is an excellent vehicle for understanding beyond culture and forward toward all humanity.

Great job!

Cheryl? writes...

Thanks, Shirley.
I like what you said about cultural inclusivity. I’ve been watching PBS today and Professor Henry Louis Gates hosted a special called “The Faces of America” with famous Americans whose family histories he had researched--an immigrant from Nazi Germany who became a movie director, a descendant of Native Americans who became a novelist, a 2nd generation Japanese American who became an Olympic ice skater, and so forth. What was so moving is that each participant discovered missing links in their family histories that their parents or grandparents failed to talk about -- perhaps items that were too close or too painful to speak of from their past. Yet those painful insights became insightful “ah-ha moments” for the participants that crystallized their ancestors’ humanity in spite of the racism or overt discrimination they experienced. Listening to those personal, diverse and authentic stories via an historian interviewer known for his specials on African American culture was a powerful statement about American history that’s particularly relevant during Black History Month. They are relevant to all Americans.

Fatima writes...

Cheryl:

Thanks for your very good ideas for parents. Books make great gifts for children, and buying a book about a child of color is a special way of introducing young children to other cultures.

Cheryl? writes...

Thanks for your feedback, Fatima. There are quite a few resources available for parents who want to expose their children to a variety of books and multicultural experiences. If your local community does not have an independent or large bookstore, the local public librarian generally can give parents advice about where to find books by people of color. There are several independent publishers that specialize in multicultural titles (Children's Press, Lee and Low Publishers, Arte Publico, and regional companies for example. The American Library Association (www.ala.org) also publishes recommended reading lists and bibliographic materials on Hispanic, Asian, and African American cultures. Having access to a personal computer can enhance your searches and most books can be ordered from online booksellers if a brick and mortar store is not located nearby.

Sophia writes...

Cheryl,
When I was a young girl, I loved biographies. My mother used to get me junior editions, which were written at my reading level. When I was about 11 or twelve I read a biography of George Washington Carver, which made quite an impact on me. I was fascinated by his accomplishments as a researcher and an inventor. It was after reading this biography that I asked for a microscope for my birthday, and I eventually went on to major in biology in college. I think biographies written at an age-appropriate reading level are a great way for kids to learn about the accomplishments and contributions of notable African Americans. Can you recommend some good biographies written for kids ages 9 to 12?

Thanks!

Cheryl? writes...

Hi Sophia,
From the sound of the comments about you own youth, you may already have a good system for looking for biographies. You can search for them by author, by subject matter, or even by series produced by specific publishers. Tonya Bolden, for example is an author known for her meticulous research and lyrical prose. She loves researching the lives of African Americans and has written a number of award-winning biographies such as George Washington Carver; M.L. K: The Journey of a King; Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century African American Girl; And Not Afraid to Dare: The Stories of Ten African American Women. If you’re looking for short entry biography collections you might try starting with Book of Black Heroes: Scientists, Healers and Inventors by Wade Hudson. If your 9-12 year old enjoys stories from international settings you might investigate series created by companies such as The National Geographic. World History Biographies. This series includes biographies of figures from Julius Caesar, to Galileo, to Hatsheput to Ghandi and other contemporary personalities. Once your child gets started, try to find biographies via internet search engines that reflect his interests. School and public librarians can also provide guidance and direct students to new books that are purchased for their collections. Good luck!

Susanna writes...

Thank you for your insightful article, Cheryl. I wholeheartedly agree that Black History should be celebrated twelve months a year, not just in February. And when kids are exposed through books to peoples and cultures that are different from their own, it helps them understand how large and varied the world is, and builds a sense of empathy and compassion for others.

Mel writes...

I could not agree with you more. However, with my grandson, (not his fault... his daddy hates to read), I buy him videos... like Gifted Hands, and Vivian Smith... the open heart surgeon.

However, I am attempting, as best I can to open up the world of reading to my grandson... with a saxophone. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm hoping his love of music will open his mind to wanting to read about great musicians, their struggles and triumphs... and voila... he may learn something about American history along the way.

Ann writes...

Thank you! Excellent!

Ann writes...

Oh, one more IMPORTANT thing I should have said:

I found two books written by my African-American great uncle in 1916 -- in the depths of Jim Crow and school segregation. In one of the books, he YEARNS to have every Black school child learn about the great accomplishments of "the race", as he put it. He YEARNED to have every African-American school child have pictures in their classrooms of Blacks from all walks of life who contributed to human understanding in science, politics, the arts, education, etc. He mentions some people by name, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, but also others whom I did not yet know. I have been trying to find out more about the people unknown to me, and have been incredibly successful, finding books about them in recently written adult and children's literature! I collect them all & hope to pass them on to an as-yet-not-even-imagined grandchild! Actually, everything that you've said in your website represents my great uncle's hopes and dreams! Now I look forward to finding your books and gaining understanding from their insights! Thank you!

cheryl writes...

Mel, you're being very creative and proactive in approaching Black history literacy. We learn through all of our senses and music is certainly a conduit to reading. Videos and audio books, webcasts and podcasts provide a wealth of information for people eager to absorb knowledge. Thanks for reminding us that we should utilize as many forms of media as are available to feed our hunger for materials about Black history.

cheryl writes...

Ann, thanks for much for sharing this tidbit of family history.
Could you tell us your great uncle's name? Did he self publish his books in 1916? Would we be able to find other copies of his books somewhere online?
I'm fascinated by family history and would like to know the names of the "unsung" heroes that he mentioned as well as the famous ones such as Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman. Thanks for your kind comments and for keeping your family history alive.

Julie? writes...

Hi Jerry--Books are indeed like family! Glad to hear that you feel that way too.
Yours, Julie Wood (writing from Cambridge, MA)

Thank you so much for sharing your family history with us, a touching story indeed :)

Zara writes...

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