Why Black Characters Matter
Simple. Children including all shades of black children deserve to have their experiences named. This is why it is important to assign books with black characters and books that have black characters as protagonists, role models, heroes, etc.
In his 2014 op-ed, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Literature,” author Walter Dean Myers challenges us with “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”
To read for years and not encounter stories that connects closely with one’s own cultural understandings and life experiences is problematic.
Throughout Black History Month, middle and high schools tend to assign books that focus on the achievements of African-Americans, which highlights what is often missing in history books and national awards. However, what is also important is that children of color see themselves and their lives reflected in the culture around them — and that includes the literature they read and the images that accompany it. This means assigning books with black characters.
Austin Channing Brown shared how it felt to be seen in an anecdote in her memoir, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness”: “It felt deeply gratifying to have my own experience named, lifted up, discussed, considered worthy of everyone’s attention.” (pg. 47)
Why we want books with Black Characters in our Classrooms
A lot of middle and high school curriculum have for a long time only been interested in white authors. In a world where diversity is as present and important as ever before, it is important to have books that tell the stories of people of color.
Fortunately there are so many great books, novels and memoirs featuring strong black characters available.
By making their stories come alive in the classroom, all students have the opportunity to see the contribution that all people make to the American narrative. It is vital to make sure that everyone has a presence in our class library.
Black Character Books for Middle and High school classrooms
The following books are some of the best African American books for middle and high school students. I recommend placing in your classroom library, homes, and hands of children in middle and high school to have black characters be seen by all and give your students the opportunity to find themselves in a story.
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
This book addresses colorism in the Black community. Think that is not a problem still? Just recently, social media was all a blaze when a rap was made by a female rapper about the lightness of her shade as a diss track against a darker shade woman. Add to that the controversy of the casting of Coming to America. These demonstrate that issues of being light-skinned or dark- skinned still affect and traumatize many, especially girls.
Let me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D Jackson
This is one of those books that brought me back to my childhood filled with 90s R&B and Hip Hop music from the legends. The music is woven through and an integral part of the plot of the story that is an homage to not only to music but an homage to deep friendships that span life and death.
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline- Ransome
Finding Langston is a story about a boy trying to be himself in a new place while dealing with loss. There is so much to take away from the story from the lines of poetry from the Harlem Renaissance greats to the historical details of the Black migration to the North from the South. But most importantly, it shows the individuality and uniqueness of Black Boys.
As a mom of a Black boy, I make an extra effort to read and push books that promote the joy that Black boys brings because too often what is portrayed is the opposite. If you are interested in reading more books like this, head to this blog that I shared over the Summer of 2020.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Let this book serve as a reminder that for many Black Americans, the term Black American is just one label that doesn’t speak to our full identity. I am a Jamaican immigrant and even though the main black character in the novel is from Haiti, we share many of the same experiences of leaving behind a homeland and familiarity and assimilating into a new culture. It is a phenomenally rich novel that is very deserving of its many accolades.
Slay by Brittney Morris
Slay is Black Girl Magic boxed into this one novel. Showcasing the diversity of our black girls and young women, this novel is a portal into the world of gamers. There is not a one size fits all even though society wants to tell our Black girls to fit a certain mold and they don’t, won’t and shouldn’t.
Final Thoughts on Black Character Books
Books are one of the most important tools to teach children about race, diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Middle school is a bubble where students only think of people in their close proximity and not other people’s experiences. With these books, we can help open up the doorway to talk about what stories they’re learning about and the themes as well as to introduce them to a variety of authors.
As educators and parents, we have to assign to them books that enable them to see themselves and learn about others in the books they read.
Apart from making sure that everyone has a presence in our class library, reading in the classroom is also an instruction tool to help monitor our students so we know who is struggling with reading and be better equipped to help and encourage them.
Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can be of any assistance with teaching with these books as well as if you would like to see more of a specific content covered in the blog.
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What books have been helpful in exploring and educating your classroom about the black culture? Let’s chat about it in the comment section.