February is Black History Month and there is so much to celebrate, from honoring civil rights heroes to learning about African American culture. But it can be difficult to find the right way to discuss slavery and the shameful parts of our country’s past with children. So as parents and educators do we avoid the subject or soften the truth to avoid tension? Absolutely not! It’s important to educate our children about America’s complicated racial history, and as adults we need to provide a safe space for kids to learn and discuss this complex topic.
At the Glazer Children’s Museum, we teach difficult topics through art and literature. One of my favorite fieldtrip lessons to teach is about the African American traditions of quilt-making and storytelling. During the lesson, we introduce students to the work of African American artist and children’s book author Faith Ringgold, discuss the inspiration for her art, then read her book Tar Beach. The story follows an African American girl in New York City who learns to fly. She takes the reader on an adventure as she soars above the issues she’s facing of poverty and racial discrimination, wishing for something different. This gives us a space to discuss why story quilts are important to African American culture and the history behind them. We explain slavery. We share the stories of how those in the Underground Railroad communicated using coded messages in quilts and how these brave individuals fought to give slaves their freedom.
After reading the story, the students make their own paper story quilts to symbolize their own wishes. I am always impressed with how students respond to the story and the lesson it provides. With topics of injustice, freedom, bravery, and mercy already on their mind, the students’ wishes are profound. In discussing a piece of Black History, they see the world a little differently. Maybe this world isn’t as fair as they thought, but because of this new prospective the students are more conscious of others. Their wishes are empathetic as they begin to see the world from different points of view. They wish for things like freedom for everyone and a world without poverty. They wish that people will be nicer to each other and they wish that they themselves can find a way to make a difference.
A child’s introduction to diverse literature can be a powerful tool to unpack difficult cross-cultural topics. For children of color, reading stories by diverse authors or with diverse protagonists gives them freedom to dream and imagine a different narrative for themselves. For white children, diverse books can break down stereotypes and give new perspective. Literature and art are vehicles to talk about anything, especially topics that are difficult to discuss. They can soften tension and open dialogue. So, this February, find a good book to use as a platform to celebrate, honor, and discuss the good and bad of our country’s rich Black History with your child.
Originally published in the February 2019 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.