Imagine that while interviewing for a library job you’re asked, “What would storytime specifically for African-American families look like to you?” That’s what happened to Kirby McCurtis. “I thought it was an especially interesting and challenging question,” says Kirby, who aced the interview and is now Multnomah County Library’s (MCL) newest African-American librarian. “It stayed with me even after the second interview. Now that I am working here, I have the opportunity to answer it every Saturday. It’s very exciting!”
A couple of years ago, our library received an LSTA grant to explore strategies to attract and better serve African-American families. Naturally, we relied on the local black community to lead the way. Focus groups with parents and interviews with key leaders revealed a desire for more books and services that would highlight the richness of African-American culture and experiences. One specific recommendation was to develop and promote an explicitly black-culture-focused storytime to help families feel welcome at the library.
At first, the idea of offering a storytime specifically for African-American children seemed regressive. But why? We know that every child needs to feel that his culture is respected and valued. In fact, 15 years ago, when the National Association for the Education of Young Children revised its guidelines for effective teaching and learning practices, it included a child’s cultural identity in the mix. We also hoped that offering a black storytime would foster children’s knowledge and pride in their cultural identity and demonstrate that MCL holds African-American culture in high regard.
Black storytime is a natural extension of some of the tailored storytimes we already offer in English, Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Kirby agrees: “I view this storytime no differently than a non-English language storytime. I know ‘black’ is not a language, but the African Diaspora is too vast to have just one language, so instead, we are being all inclusive by organizing the storytime around the black experience in America. And, of course, black storytimes are open to all.”
Kirby is a recent transplant to Portland, OR, so she was unsure what kind of reception the new storytime would receive. “The reactions have been mixed,” she says, “but the biggest surprises for me were the questions from MCL staff: “Why have a storytime just for African-American kids? And, why is it called black storytime?” This surprises me because we are all in the business of literacy, and the difference in literacy rates between black and white youth in America is no secret. How can an effort to improve and support black children’s literacy be viewed as a bad thing?
The name “black storytime” troubled a few patrons, too. “We bounced around a few different names but they were unnecessarily complex and confusing,” explains Kirby. “Calling it ‘black storytime’ is simple and straightforward. It speaks to the people we want to bring into the library, and it is inclusive to all people who are black, not just African Americans.”
How’s the new program doing? It’s “off to a rousing start,” shares Kirby. “We have consistent attendance of 18 to 20 kids each week, including nonblack families, and all seem to be having a great time, no matter what race they are. I am very deliberate about the book selection, introducing families to stories that appeal and speak to the black experience. If kids see characters that look like themselves, I hope they will be more encouraged to read and explore books with the adults in their lives.” Kirby focuses on other aspects of African-American culture too, such as its music, strong oral tradition, and the respect shown to elders.
“At the end of each storytime, parents thank me for the great program,” she says. “I want them to see the library as a community space and resource, so I take a few minutes to ask what else they would like to see at the library. Black storytime is just our launch pad for other programming and services to the black community at MCL.” Kirby concludes, “I feel hopeful about our efforts to reach the black community, because I’ve seen already that the kids are excited to come to the library on Saturdays!”
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