November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Long Road to Freedom | Books for Black History Month

As Andrea Davis Pinkney explains in With the Might of Angels, “Negro History Week was created by historian Carter G. Woodson to bring national attention to the achievements of black people in America.” In 1976, this week in February became “Black History Month.” Now, African-American History “Month” generally begins in mid-January in anticipation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and often flows into March, as there is no shortage of strong black women to be remembered and celebrated during Women’s History Month.

Each year brings moving new titles to fill in the gaps of traditional history texts—inspirational stories of human strength and determination and stories filled with heart and soul—illustrated by such accomplished artists as James Ransome, Sean Qualls, Kadir Nelson, and Eric Velasquez.

Follow the North Star

i-lay-my-stitches-downCynthia Grady’s I Lay My Stitches Down (Eerdman’s, 2011; Gr 4-8) offers 14 poems about different aspects of slave life, each named for a traditional quilt block. The text features parallel structures and patterns inherent in both quilt making and poetry. Michele Wood’s dynamic acrylic paintings reflect these traditional patterns in vibrant colors.

In “Broken Dishes,” an anxious house slave worries that some broken dishes will send her back to work in the fields. In “Schoolhouse,” a white teacher catches two slaves “making letters in the dirt.” Though they fear for their lives, “…she twitch the curtain at the window, teach/her lessons loud and clear—her voice, a prayer/with wings. It give us hope; it sing us home.” Students can read a biography of an African American and share what they’ve learned with an original poem; create a classroom quilt using student illustrations of a pivotal event in their subjects’ lives.

Freedoms-a-CallinMeThe sojourners in Ntozake Shange’s collection of poems, Freedom’s a-Callin Me (HarperCollins, Jan. 2012; Gr 4-8), look toward the North Star to freedom. This tribute to those brave individuals on the Underground Railroad begins in the cotton fields and ends in Michigan—”finally ah am ridin through free air.” Poems such as “Time Tuh Go,” “Look for the Broken Branch,” “The Slave Catcher,” “The Hole,” and “The Financier” give voice to the hope, perils, and hardships along the way: “he look jus’ like mastah/oh but he aint/mastah have him killed/ a abolitionist/give money to run the underground railroad/sure he got fine china & wineglasses/nice teacups & good manners/nevertheless/there’s a price on his head/jus like there’s a price on our heads…” Rod Brown’s bold impressionistic paintings augment the beauty and drama of the selections. Together, the poems provide a moving narrative of the escape, which can be performed by students as a powerful reader’s theater.

Sean-Qualls-Freedom-Song-book-coverThe inventive escape of Henry Box Brown is the subject of Sally M. Walker and Sean Qualls’s Freedom Song (HarperCollins, 2012; Gr 1-4). Written for a slightly younger audience than Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson’s Henry’s Freedom Box (Scholastic, 2007; Gr 2-5), the book chronicles Brown’s life and imagines the songs he might have sung for comfort and strength.

A choir member and music lover herself, Levine was pleased to learn that Brown too had been in a church choir for many years. “Most of Henry’s songs were loud, but his favorite song wasn’t. At sleep time, when his candle blew dark, Henry sang his freedom song…Its freedom-land, family, stay-all-together words soothed Henry’s greatest fear: the fear that Master would sell him.” Qualls’s impressionistic paintings, in a palette of blues and browns, convey the strong emotions and love Brown felt for his family. Ask students to imagine what his journey was like…what challenges did he face? What did he need to take along?

Words-Set-Me-Free-1Lesa Cline-Ransome explores the life of another famous enslaved man who successfully escaped bondage in Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass (S & S, 2012; Gr 2-5). Based on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, this accessible first-person narrative documents Douglass’s early life from his birth to his first unsuccessful plan of escape at age 17. “We ate our two meals a day out of a trough just like the animals in the barn…But even the animals were rested in the heat of the afternoon sun, and they were never whipped bloody for being too tired or too sick or too slow.”

Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. had his “big words,” young Frederick, too, was inspired by words like “liberty,” “justice,” “freedom,” and “abolition”—language a determined boy learning to read copied from an abolitionist newspaper. Ask students to read today’s newspaper to discover some contemporary “big words.” Beautifully illustrated in rich acrylics and oils by James E. Ransome, this handsome title begs to be read aloud.

heart-and-soul-kadir-nelsonIn the equally handsome and ambitious 2011 Coretta Scott King winner, Heart and Soul (HarperCollins, 2011; Gr 5 Up), Kadir Nelson describes how “…willingly or unwillingly, African Americans and Europeans forged a new country together,” and how their “interdependent relationship” helped this new land thrive. The author looked to his family and ancestors to tell this story—interviews, stories, and old photos all helped create the narrative voice: “…you pay attention, honey, because I’m only going to tell you this story but once.”

Like Alex Haley’s Roots (Doubleday, 1976), this saga begins in Africa and ends with the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. Expansive, carefully researched portraits of black families, soldiers, and heroes authenticate the account. Students can examine their own family histories, regardless of ethnicity; how far back can they go? What can they learn about their relatives?

Civil War Aftermath

EllensBroomWhile delving into her family’s past, Kelly Starling Lyons discovered the 1866 Cohabitation List of Henry County, Virginia. Ellen’s Broom (Putnam, 2012; K-Gr 3), a beautifully illustrated Reconstruction story, explores the African-American tradition of jumping the broom. When Ellen’s family hears that “All former slaves living as husband and wife shall be registered and seen as married in the eyes of the law,” her parents rejoice, clapping and crying at the news. They explain that, “Before freedom came…husbands and wives could be ripped apart, sold away at any time.”

Ellen is as shocked as young readers will be to learn of this terrible injustice. And, just as Ellen and her family do, they will celebrate the happy day that Mama and Papa’s union is recognized in the eyes of the law. Daniel Minter’s detailed, vibrant block prints convey the historical setting and emotional impact of this historic breakthrough. Children can question their own families about marriage customs and ceremonies in their cultures.

Walking Home to Rosie LeeIn another reconstruction tale, Walking Home to Rosie Lee (Cinco Puntos, 2011; Gr 2-5), A. LaFaye recounts the story of one boy’s efforts to find his mother after the Civil War. “Master Turner sold my mama away from me. Haven’t seen her since they put me in the fields to work, but I ‘member how she smell like jasmine flowers in the summer sun.”

Gabe joins the mass exodus of former slaves walking, singing, and dreaming of their new free lives, asking everyone he meets after Rosie Lee from Mobile, Alabama. More than once, hope flickers in his heart, only to be squashed with the discovery of yet another false start. “I stumbled off down the road, crying for the Rosie I couldn’t find. Not in Jasper, not in Chattanooga, not in any other place the rumors of a fine-cooking Rosie took me.” Keith D Shepherd’s bold, impressionistic full-spread paintings help to tell this story of perseverance and joyful reunion.

TheLittlePlantDoctorJean Marzollo and Ken Wilson-Max’s The Little Plant Doctor (Holiday House, 2011; K-Gr 3) shares another tale of perseverance in this biography of George Washington Carver, intended for young children. The unusual narrator is a tree that grows up along with the boy—the tree that first sparked his interest in the science of plants.

George longed to go to school, “But it’s the eighteen seventies. The only school here is for white children.” The self-taught “plant doctor” learned to read and write on the farm but eventually did graduate from college. The tree missed him, but rejoiced in knowing he had become famous. “How do I know that? Because so many people now come to see where he grew up. The Carver farm is a big park now. It’s called the George Washington Carver National Monument.” Children can experiment and grow their own plants in the classroom or school garden and keep an observation journal, just like Carver did.

Martin and the Civil Rights Era

WithTheMightOfAngelsIn Pinkney’s aforementioned fictional diary, Dawnie Rae Johnson is a sixth-grade tomboy and top student and the first to integrate the Prettyman Coburn School in Hadley, Virginia, in 1954, just months after the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling. She faces cruel, unfair treatment from teachers and students at the new school, her father loses his job, her family is threatened, and her best friend calls her “uppity.” The author reveals that she, too, was the only black child at a white school more than a decade later.

As they read Dawnie’s thoughts in With the Might of Angels (Scholastic, 2011; Gr 5-8), youngsters can appreciate what the brave Ruby Bridges or the Little Rock Nine must have felt. They will also be introduced to historical figures, such as Claudette Colvin and Mary McLeod Bethune, along with more familiar heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall. Students can choose a character from the book and write an original diary entry in his or her voice.

MyUncleMartinsWordsForAmericaMy Uncle Martin’s Words for America by King’s niece, Angela Farris Watkins (Abrams, 2011), shows children who have grown up with an African-American president, judges, astronauts, and entertainers the way things were for youngsters like Dawnie Rae, before the Civil Rights Movement. In easy-to-understand language, Watkins explains the Jim Crow laws, prejudice, and segregation and how her uncle Martin’s words—words like love, nonviolence, justice, freedom, brotherhood, and equality—helped change our world.

Eric Velasquez’s painterly full- and partial-spread illustrations of the young King family, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Civil Rights leader in a Birmingham jail cell, and later, delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial are both bold and powerful. Pair this title with Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier’s classic Martin’s Big Words (Hyperion, 2001; K-Gr 4) for an inspirational lesson. Have children brainstorm a list of “big words” in the school community (e.g., “share,” “friend,” “help,” etc.).

Even the youngest students can appreciate the simple, yet powerful message of Shane W. Evans’s We March (Roaring Brook, 2012; K-Gr 3). A family awakens and goes to pray at church to prepare for the 1963 March on Washington. They paint signs, follow their leaders, walk, and sing together. “We lean on each other as we march to justice, to freedom, to our dreams.” The large, double-spread illustrations, childlike in their simplicity, convey the brotherhood and quiet determination of the day. Challenge older students to illustrate events of the Civil Rights Movement with similar, brief captions.

belle-the-last-mule-at-gees-bendBelle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend (Candlewick, 2011; Gr 2-4) by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud describes some lesser-known events in King’s life intertwined with the story of a heroic mule that helped residents of a poor Alabama town “cross the river for freedom.” After an inspirational visit from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., black citizens were determined to exercise their right to vote for the very first time. When the white sheriff closed down the ferry in an effort to prevent them from crossing to the polls, mules pulled wagonloads of people around the river all day long. These people—”Benders”—were…”like ol’ Belle here—not fancy, but strong and steady, and stubborn!”

Later, Belle was one of two mules to pull Dr. King’s coffin through the streets of Atlanta in his funeral procession. “Mules take their time, work hard, and they never back down. Mules aren’t pretty, but they are somebody!” Belle’s owner, Miss Pettway, relates this little-known tale to a young boy today as he waits for his mama on the porch of the general store. John Holyfield’s earthy acrylic paintings capture the poor rural setting as well as the hope and determination of the Benders, so admired by King for their simple lives and courage in hard times.

These books teach youngsters about our past and a people’s brave struggle to be free, and will move and inspire readers. Their subjects and characters’ tremendous courage and determination in the face of cruel inhumanity cannot help but encourage children to persevere in the face of adversity. Our students, from so many cultures and backgrounds, will also relate to the underlying themes of familial love and respect for traditions found in these stories.

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