Challenging Perceptions: How to Celebrate Black History Month

Perceptions are everything. I recall the day we took one of our children to move-in day at the university. Our student was enrolled in the honors program, and thus housed in the honors dorm, but we kept being redirected by staff to the wrong quarters, even though we had the colored honor dorm admittance forms in hand.

Finally, after we realized staff were assuming our student wouldn’t have been enrolled in honors, we made our way to the correct dorm, despite being told by several gatekeepers (both black and white staff) that we were in the wrong place. Isn’t it interesting how our perceptions frame our simple responses to people? 

Black History Month challenges our perceptions. Books with strong characters who have a different perspective can challenge our perceptions as well. Combining the two is an excellent way to broaden our children’s horizons.

Good literature helps us to see that the voices of black people are not monolithic. We should never assume a vast majority of black people think a certain way, nor perceive a topic unilaterally. To that end, my book selection presents a broad range of authors and topics. These topics are, of course, rooted in my own Christian values, and thus strong belief in the intrinsic worth of all people.

Read-a-louds are one of the best ways to approach Black History Month reading. I suggest reading just one book for the entire month. Narrowing your scope to one book will help you avoid a superficial read, and read-a-loud time allows you the freedom to stop and discuss the book.

Of course, all of us know reading to our children creates fond memories. Couple your reading time with another sensory activity such as sipping hot chocolate, cuddling under a warm blanket, or eating warm popcorn, and you cement the experience in your child’s mind and heart. This memorable moment, along with the ensuing conversation, will ensure a positive remembrance for your child.

One of the books that I have enjoyed reading to my young sons is Nelson Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom. While some of the book’s content goes over their heads, the themes of forgiveness, fortitude, and friendship are so strong that I can read certain segments of the book to them and just fill in the gaps.  

Pair Mandela’s book with singing Something Inside So Strong, by Labi Siffre, that became the unofficial national anthem for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Google the beautiful lyrics to the song, which can be studied as poetry, and listen to various versions of the song on YouTube. I prefer the live version with Labi singing to a South African audience. Most children will also enjoy the precious version of the African Children’s choir singing the song. Finally, the Greensboro School has a version with the kids dancing and signing the song, with the classic African American call-back refrain.  

Young children, especially early readers, will enjoy picture books with solid black characters in predictable or everyday situations. Reading such books reaffirms positive images and negates stereotypes. However, I have found it challenging to find books for young black men, especially books with male protagonists. Thus, I have followed a few bloggers with black sons who willingly share their finds.

One of the books my sons have enjoyed is You Can Do it by Tony Dungy. This book reaffirms sibling relationships and points back to God as the source of strength in a young boy’s life. Jabari Jumps is another good book with the dad at the center of the story.

Parents who have adopted transracially might also find blogs by African American parents particularly valuable to locate quality contemporary literature. One of my favorites is Charnaie Gorden’s blog, Wee Read, because she reviews books for readers on all levels.

Older teens may enjoy The Color of Water. In this moving novel, James McBride explores the complexity of race and (as I pointed out last week) the diversity of black heritage. Even reluctant teen readers, especially boys, will enjoy McBride’s writings.

Remember, especially with older readers—just having black characters in books does not necessarily make them worthy reads.

Additionally, while I encourage the exploration of exceptional reading during Black History Month, it is essential that your children do not get the idea that Black History or diversity should only be celebrated once a year. Encourage your children to reach out by becoming pen pals with children of different cultures. Although I have never visited Australia, my correspondence with a childhood pen pal there has enriched my life, in terms of cultural perspective, more than any book ever could.

Be intentional in your outreach to others. For me, my Christianity means I have brothers and sisters who do not necessarily look like me or think like I do. Some of them have hurts, wounds, and fears that they wish I understood.

Black History Month reminds me to extend my hand to a hurting world. I think we all need that reminder more than once a year.

—Cheryl

Cheryl Carter is a homeschooling mother, compulsive thinker, and prolific author who still believes she can change the world one family at a time. She also serves on the HSLDA Compassion Board and teaches writing to homeschool students. Visit familysuccess.org or homeschoolcollegeprep.org for further information.

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