I’ve been feeling down about the world lately, and I know it’s being amplified by this current isolation. My family’s hanging in there, but I find myself lying awake worrying about kids whose homes aren’t good places for them, or people trapped with abusive partners right now. And watching the news has done nothing but fuel my anxiety on a lot of different fronts, but I’m gonna focus on the issue that's been on my mind the most lately: RACISM.
Authors Kelly Yang and Dhonielle Clayton were harassed with racist taunts while holding free virtual events for students during this unprecedented time. And that really messed with me. We like to think that we’ve come so far as a country… but have we really when this still happens all the time?
One of the first books I read during quarantine was Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds, an incredible YA remix of the National Book Award winner Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. (Which I'm currently reading. I think I did it backwards. Oops.)
But I haven't been able to get their words out of my head. Reading these books made me feel uncomfortable. Like, really uncomfortable. How had I reached this age and never learned some of these things before?? No one comes out of this book looking quite as saintly as we'd like to think. Not even Abraham Lincoln.
Then on Mother’s Day, I couldn't stop thinking about Ahmaud Arbery’s mom, and Trayvon Martin's mom, and too many others to list. I have fears for my kids, but I’ve never worried that they’ll be shot jogging in their own neighborhood. All over the country, white protesters with rifles are storming government buildings, and we’re told it's their right. But if those same armed protesters were black, I don't think it would have ended the same way.
So, what can we do? I have three ideas of how we can begin making a change in our own homes and communities. It won’t fix everything, but we’ve gotta start somewhere. And I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that my solutions begin with books.
STEP #1: We need to learn to let go of "classics" that are problematic. Now I apologize if I'm the first person to tell you this, but Dr. Seuss was SUPER racist. If you disagree, please revisit And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street or If I Ran the Zoo, or read about how The Cat in the Hat is based on minstrel stereotypes.
I enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was younger, but I pulled them off my school library shelves last year. Why? "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." YIKES. If a kid is going to read these books in 2020, they should be done with an adult who can explain the problematic aspects of the attitudes toward Native Americans during this era. In the same way I would not hand a kid Mark Twain without proper historical context.
Parents, learn from my mistake, and don't let your kids watch Disney's 1953 Peter Pan. It does NOT hold up well. Besides the glaring issues with "What Made the Red Man Red?" and the entire handling of Native Americans in general, it is so freaking sexist it made my face hurt. I know it's on Disney+ and we watched it as kids, but please... just don't.
And look, I loved "classics" like To Kill A Mockingbird, but we need to be teaching contemporary books about racism by black authors, not playing it safe in our comfort zone with our favorite white savior Atticus Finch. Or if you absolutely cannot let it go, pair with something by an author of color that was published in this century. Hey, look, here's a few excellent options right here!!
STEP #2: We need to increase the diversity of the books available to children in our classrooms, libraries, and homes. This starts with representation in picture books. There are so many beautiful stories by authors of color, featuring children of color. Little kids need to see themselves in books, AND they need to learn about people who are different from them. It’s easier to hate what you don’t understand.
Personal aside: A lot of my students are celebrating Ramadan right now, and I wanted something to share with them during our virtual lessons together, so I found a picture book called Night of the Moon by Hena Khan. When I read it to my 5-year-old daughter, she said she wished we could celebrate Eid because everything looked so beautiful. Our neighbors are Muslim and are currently fasting, so now she understands them a little bit better. And all thanks to a book!
These upper elementary and middle grade authors of color are writing amazing stories about inspiring characters that all my students are enjoying.
And there's so many excellent titles for teens by authors of color! The YA world is often ahead of the curve. I wish books like this were around when I was in high school.
Need more ideas? Check out We Need Diverse Books, and follow @ProjectLITComm if you do the Twitter thing.
STEP #3: Our history curricula needs to be inclusive and honest. The history we're teaching kids needs to accurately paint the whole picture, not the revisionist, white-centric version that’s in so many textbooks. Luckily I know some amazing social studies teachers who are having those conversations.
Do you remember learning in school that George Washington had wooden teeth? False. He had dentures made from teeth that were extracted from his slaves. I'm not joking. Now, I'm not suggesting we teach that to children. That's horrifying. But we need to stop glossing over our problematic history. Because it creates a problematic present. This graphic is an excellent visual reminder of how much systemic racism there is to undo. Let's not forget that an entire demographic of American citizens were once told they were only worth three-fifths of a person.
We need to re-educate ourselves about our country's history, and luckily there are some awesome resources out there to help. The Stamped books by Ibram X. Kendi I already mentioned in this post are a great place to start. The ReVisioning American History series is also excellent, and now they're doing versions for young readers as well, which makes me very happy.
These are just a few of my ideas. What resources have you found useful? What are your thoughts? Please share! Let's have this conversation together.
Now if you'll excuse me, I just got my copy of Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo and I'm DYING to crack it open. So happy reading, friends, and hopefully, cheers to open minds and open hearts in 2020.
Be well. ❤️