My nine-year-old was assigned a report for Black History Month a few weeks back. While I do wish teachers assigned non-white male focused reports year-round (see my earlier post here on this matter), I suppose I need to be happy with the small steps mainstream education is taking to be more inclusive (while working to encourage bigger steps behind the scenes).
Being the feminist that she is, my daughter insisted on avoiding the obvious male suggestions she was given (Martin Luther King, Junior, Malcolm X, Obama) and doing a woman. (As an aside, how sad is it that here, in 2009, elementary school curriculum is still so male-centric!!! How sad that I still have to be excited when she gets the chance to focus on women in school. This should be the norm – not the exception!)
My daughter emphasized she did NOT want to do Rosa Parks. “Everyone already knows about Rosa Parks mom!” she lamented. “Who else can I do?” Thus, she understands the importance of RAISING awareness rather than merely repeating information her classmates already know.
So, with a number of names in our head, we headed to library in search of kid-friendly biographies. I envisioned finding many at our impressive local library. Ha! How wrong I was. The only two we found of the women on our list were biographies of Coretta Scott King and Zora Neale Hurston. Where were the juvenile women’s history books/biographies covering Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Josephine Butler, Lorraine Hansberry, Shirley Chisolm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Phillis Wheatley, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Cynthia McKinney…?Heck, where were the ADULT books on these women?
Of course, copious information about these women can be found online, but my daughter’s assignment required a print biography. While King and Hurston are certainly worthy of attention, my daughter wanted to talk about a woman that her classmates had likely not heard of. Further, she wanted to spread a feminist message to her fellow 4th graders. Granted, she did not use these exact words, but her comments regarding the type of woman she wanted to research and the message she wanted to convey revealed these aims. (I love how kids express anti-racist and feminist views in the simplest of ways. If they grasp the concept that we should all be treated equally regardless or our skin color, gender, body, etc, why can’t adults?)
Dismayed by our lack of choices at the library, we spoke to a reference librarian to ensure we hadn’t missed any books. Nope, we hadn’t. So, I asked my daughter if her teacher said she HAD to read a biography for research and it turns out she didn’t – the assignment required book research, but not necessarily a biography. As I knew our library stocked the children’s books by bell hooks, a light bulb went off in my head.
“Why don’t we check out the books by bell hooks and then we can research her biography online. This way you have done BOTH book and internet research.”
“Sounds good,” she replied.
But, being the stickler that she is, she insisted we try to read a biography too. Hence, we ordered Bone Black and I read it aloud to her (edited a bit for nine year old ears). And, what fabulous messages it contains for children! An analysis of gender policing, sexism, white privilege, racism, classism, the marriage imperative, and familial violence runs throughout, yet the material (typical of hooks) is presented in very approachable way. Ah, if only all kids (and adults) read hooks!
I am so glad my daughter’s assignment led us to this book. I dog-ear hooks theoretical works tirelessly, but never before now had I read her memoir(s).
As I read Bone Black with my daughter, stopping frequently to discuss all the issues hooks raises, I found myself continually wondering why there are not MORE books like these, and more written for children. Why can’t there be more kid-friendly, exciting biographies rather than the dry, verbose tomes that fill the library shelves??? Moreover, where are the books that teach children about social justice and equity issues? Enough of the Hannah Montan-ing of childhood already! We need books that don’t merely serve as advertisements for the latest Disney brand.
So, dear readers, why not celebrate this black history month by reading Bone Black: Memoirs of Girlhood with your kids? If you don’t have kids, read it for yourself and use all that extra time not having kids gives you to dip into those areas and voices of black history that are too often forgotten and neglected…
Happy Black History Month everyone, and here’s to a future in which we don’t need “special months” to honor history other than that of DWMs (dead white males).