Loraine M. Stewart
In recent years there have been numerous conversations, presentations, and publications about the need to have more ethnic and gender diversity reflected in elementary social studies curricula. In spite of the clear mandate that diversity should be an integral component of all curricula, many educators continue to exclude women and much of their contribution to American history. Books and materials that tell the stories of African-Americans and their many contributions, perspectives, and experiences may be prominent in some classrooms during Black History Month, but sit on the shelf the rest of the year.
As we move into the new millennium and watch the faces of our student population become more and more ethnically diverse, it is important that we revise the content as well as the structure of the social studies curriculum. This will allow subject matter to be viewed from the perspectives and experiences of a range of groups and individuals. I believe that childrens books by and about African-American women can be a useful instructional tool in beginning this process. This article will focus on identifying some childrens books that can assist teachers who wish to include in their lessons information about the work and achievements of African-American women.
I will highlight African-American women who have been soldiers for social action, justice, and change. With the exception of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, many of these women are not included in many elementary curricula. Yet, their stories are powerful and can be very rewarding for young students, especially African-American girls. Stories about strong women (and girls) who stood up to fight for freedom and justice relate to NCSS thematic strand 4 Individual Development and Identity; strand 6 Power, Authority, and Governance; and strand 0 Civic Ideals and Practices. Books about these women should be on the shelves of all elementary school classrooms and libraries, and they should be used as a standard part of the social studies curriculum.
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles portrays the difficulties of racial integration in the 1960s from the perspective of young Ruby, the first African-American to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Even though some parts of the story are painful, it is a piece of our history that needs to be told. Rubys story can serve as inspiration for many young girls who are facing the challenge of living in a very diverse society, giving them courage and strength. This story exemplifies how even a child can make a difference. Rubys mother speaks eloquently (in the acknowledgments of Coles book): She [Ruby] led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and black folks. Rubys story encourages us to take a stand and not lose sight of the prize of tolerance and equal opportunity.
Bessie Coleman is an African-American woman of courage who very few children know about. She was the first licensed African-American pilot in the world. The book Nobody Owns the Sky by Reeve Lindbergh tells the story of Colemans bravery. She stood up to the status quo in a poetic fashion. The illustrations show great aerial views that can also be used for teaching geography.
Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull shares the life story of Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. Her great success at the Olympics prompted the citizens of her hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, to hold a huge, racially integrated parade and banquet in her honor, the first such celebration in that town.
Dinner at Aunt Connies House features twelve African-American women, while Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters features ten. Many of the women discussed in these two books, such as Augusta Savage and Mary McLeod Bethune, will likely be new names and faces to school-age students, while others, such as Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, will be familiar to most. Due to the steps toward social justice taken by each of these women, life is better for all Americans, especially women of color.
Another wonderful benefit of these books is that they can be used with students of the various elementary grade levels. Each book gives a brief overview of a womans mark on history in a way that is appropriate for elementary students. Each book can also serve as a springboard for more in-depth study by older students through book reports or research projects.
One caution with regard to the book Dinner at Aunt Connies House is that real female freedom fighters are presented within a fictional story, which leaves room for young readers to assume the entire story is fictional. It is essential for teachers to explain this device of historical fiction before reading this book to students or having them read it independently.
Harriet Tubman: Freedoms Trailblazer is also a combination of fiction and nonfiction. Harriet Tubmans life from age five until death is woven with fictional details and conversations to make the story come alive for todays young readers. Harriets strong will to survive and help others did not begin with the Underground Railroad, but long before, when she learned to survive as a young slave. This book also shares a facet of Harriets life that is often omitted from young readers books: in her old age, she used money that she and her husband Nelson had saved to purchase a twenty-five acre farm, which was then used to provide a home for the old former slaves who had no money or family to care for them. The home was named the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent Aged Negroes.
In addition to the nonfiction books presented, there are many fictional books that depict strong African-American girls and women as soldiers for change. Many of these books address real issues and frequently are based on real experiences of the author.
A Rose for Abby is about a fictional character, but it shows how one child might initiate a united community effort to help the homeless. Helping the needy is not usually an action we expect a child to initiate. Yet, this book tells a believable story and includes examples of several desirable character traits such as caring, responsibility, and integrity. In addition to addressing the tough societal issue of homelessness, it also includes twelve compound words. This language arts connection makes it a great book to use in an interdisciplinary lesson.
City Green is based on the authors real life volunteer experiences. Similar to A Rose for Abby, it shows how a young girl helped to change her community by initiating the conversion of a vacant inner city lot into a splendid garden of hope. Common desires for a nicer, more inviting neighborhood bring a community together while melting the stone heart of a bitter disenchanted neighbor.
Similar to City Green in many ways, the book Something Beautiful depicts a little girl who travels throughout her neighborhood searching for something beautifu#148; even though she lives in an inner city neighborhood that does not, on first appearance, offer much beauty. Yet, as she travels through her neighborhood, she finds that beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. Each person she speaks with gives her a different example of what is beautiful to him or her. Hearing their ideas on what is beauty, she decides to make her neighborhood more beautiful by cleaning graffiti, the word DIE, off the door of her apartment building. She also cleans up the trash and dreams of planting flowers in the courtyard some day.
Children who read this book can see how one little girl can take a step, as small as it may be, to making a difference. This example and many others portray a child taking a step to make a difference and bring about positive change.
The women and girls presented in this article only mirror a few of the many African-American women who exhibited great courage, bravery, and strength in their words, actions, and spirit. Telling their stories through literature will keep them before us as examples and role models for girls and women for many years to come.
Coles, Robert. The Story of Ruby Bridges. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1995.
DiSalvo-Ryan, DyAnne. City Green. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1994.
Guthrie, Donna. A Rose for Abby. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1988.
Krull, Kathleen. Wilma Unlimited. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996.
Kudlinski, Kathleen V. Harriet Tubman: Freedoms Trailblazer. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002.
Lindbergh, Reeve. Nobody Owns the Sky. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 1996.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. New York: Gulliver Books, 2000.
Ringgold, Faith, Dinner at Aunt Connies. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1993.
Wyeth, Sharon D. Something Beautiful. New York: Bantam, 1998.
Loraine M. Stewart is an associate professor in the Department of Education at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.