Going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture?
If you haven’t already visited the National Museum of African American History and culture, now is the perfect time to go. It’s not every day that a new museum opens in DC. But rather than just looking around, why not take this opportunity to talk with your child about some of the amazing exhibits they'll see? Here are some great books - especially for younger readers - that exemplify what the museum has to offer. Think of these book suggestions as a prelude to a "teachable moment" because they serve as great points of discussion.
African American heroes and heroines abound, but no one was more daring or creative than the great Josephine Baker. Josephine : the dazzling life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hurby is a multi-award-winning book. With artwork by the illustrious Christian Robinson, it is a powerful text written in verse that captures this enigmatic artist perfectly. Art lovers may also gravitate towards Gordon Parks: how the photographer captured black and white America. Depicting the life of this luminary figure (Parks was the first black film director), this text illustrates Parks' first work in the creative arts as a photographer in D.C.
When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill is a modern read for music lovers. The book presents one of the founders of hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc. Although DJ Kool’s life is extensively covered, this book is also a great introduction to this genre of music. The best part of this book is the timeline that is noted at the back: brief but informative, it offers an unparalleled look at those who made hip hop great.
A recent publication, My Name is James Madison Hemmings, takes an unflinching look at one of America’s early pioneers, Thomas Jefferson. The text explores the relationship between Jefferson and his son by Sally Hemmings, James Madison Hemmings. This is a beautifully written book that should be appreciated in its own right, but also because it approaches this complex and difficult topic quite well and more importantly, in a manner that children will be able to understand.
If you haven’t read Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures you still have time before the movie comes out this January. Hidden Figures follows the story of four brave, courageous African American women whose story has been previously untold: using their mathematical talent, these women helped propel the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which is now known as NASA, into the agency that we know today. For similar books, try Women of Hope: African Americans who Made a Difference by Joyce Hansen, Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes or Ada Twist: Scientist by Andrea Beatty. Beatty’s book is a particular favorite of mine. Inspired by the lives of Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace, Ada’s creative antics are sure to keep readers entertained and Beatty's whimsical illustrations are a sight to behold.
Known as a historical African-American center, Harlem NY is also the setting for two culturally relevant texts for children. Following a number of influential figures through this colorful romp, Sugar Hill by Carole Boston Weatherford is a lively text told in simple verse. A who’s who of important figures, this book familiarizes young readers with a number of legendary figures. Also, try the Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis which is a moving account of the bravery and sacrifices of African American soldiers during WWl and WWll. Prior to their service during WWl, African American soldiers would have had to enlist with the French or Canadian armies. As a Horn book honoree, Lewis’ account mixes free verse with moving art to create a powerful text.
Aside from Sugar Hill, Dear Mr. Rosenwald - also by Carole Boston Weatherford - is a compelling text that explores the Rosenwald school movement. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, these schools which were part of a larger initiative supported by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald; “the effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.” Weatherford’s text illustrates an under-explored area of African American history in this riveting portrayal.
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller will have readers recalling the 2016 summer Olympics. What begins as a race to determine who is the fastest kid in Clarksville ends as a story of friendship and hope. Featuring Wilma Rudolph, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, this text is warm, lively and fun.
Contextualizing African American history has long been overlooked, but these books help to shine a light on some of these important moments. Adults interested in this subject or more can always refer to the Black Studies Center at MLK for assistance, but don't forget that there are many more wonderful materials waiting to be checked out at the library!