Celebrating Black History All Year Long!

by 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 »

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.

Related Links:

Cheryl Willis Hudson’s Web Site
Buy “My Friend Maya Loves to Dance”
Embracing Black History on PBS Parents

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