Engaging books make the history of African Americans come alive through words, images, and first-hand accounts.
In February, we recognize Black History Month. Below are descriptions and suggested activities for three books that aim to bring alive the extraordinary past and present of African Americans.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill
Reading Level: 1st - 5th Grade
In 2004, a utilitarian water jug was sold for $140,000 at an auction. What was so special about it? It was made by a simple man known as Dave who lived near Edgefield, South Carolina before the Civil War. Like most slaves, he was bought and sold several times during his lifetime; however, unlike most slaves, Dave could read and write. Perhaps even more remarkable was the beautiful pottery he made.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave tells the story of a slave who left behind a body of work sought after by collectors around the world. While many mysteries surround this man, we know more about him than other slaves because of the simple, yet beautiful, poetry he inscribed in the wet clay of his work. To highlight the stunning fact that this man could write as well as read, the author included Dave’s poems on the last few pages of this book. Most are simple rhymes that were sometimes utilitarian and other times proverbial in nature.
In telling Dave's story, author Laban Carrick Hill’s prose is simple and restrained. His careful introduction to the life of a slave is geared toward younger audiences, yet young and old alike can appreciate the stirring watercolor paintings by Bryan Collier. The pages are set against a textured backdrop of shanties, fields, and South Carolina landscapes. One breathtaking fold-out shows how this man, with no formal training, could turn a lifeless lump of clay into something that breathes.
This book creates many avenues to spark an interesting classroom discussion, such as how one might communicate ideas with others without the ability to read or write. The focus on art and poetry lends itself naturally to extension activities like creating pinch pots inscribed with simple rhyming verses about their pot’s purpose, something Dave often did. He also encoded messages on his pots for slaves on neighboring farms. Budding poets could create a secret code, inscribe it on a pot or paper, and send a message to another student.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
Reading Level: 4th - 8th Grade
Kadir Nelson has won multiple awards for his art, and in this 108 page story, his illustrations jump from the page with photographic clarity.
Kadir Nelson has received multiple awards for his art. In this 108 page story, his illustrations jump from the page with photographic clarity.
In Heart and Soul, African Americans tell their stories from slave ship to present day. The narrator takes readers on a trip through slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow Laws, the Great Migration, and both World Wars. While exposing the many ways that African Americans were forced to be subservient, the story also celebrates proud moments such as the Harlem Renaissance and service in World War II.
For students who have struggled with discrimination, the message of progress may fall a little flat. The recycling of discrimination throughout history cannot be erased from a child’s sense of justice in the few mentions of racial equality that come at the book's end. However, teachers can use the story to help readers understand how far this country has come.
The book also offers a natural segue for students to research the countries in Africa from which many slaves came. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Voyage, sponsored by Emory University and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, offers maps that highlight origin countries, the volume of human cargo, and arrival ports for slaves.
In addition, the book is a good jumping-off point for a discussion on modern-day discrimination against other groups in society. Learners can identify current groups who experience discrimination and explore how such prejudice can be eliminated. Modeling Kadir Nelson's story, other historical events in America could be retold or role-played from the perspective of those who immigrated here, such as the Chinese, Irish, or Latino populations.
Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
Reading Level: 5th - 12th Grade
Claudette Colvin is a lesser-known figure in the civil rights struggle, but that doesn’t mean her story is any less compelling. Many youths identify closely with Claudette Colvin because she was only fifteen when she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. What's more, this took place a full nine months before Rosa Parks’ infamous act of defiance.
Author Phillip Hoose alternates between interviews with Claudette Colvin and accounts of the events that shaped her youth: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the arrests and trials of those involved, and Browder vs. Gayle, which struck down the legality of segregation on Montgomery buses. Throughout his work, Hoose weaves in stories of others prominent figures of the Civil Rights era, including Emmett Till, Linda Brown, and Martin Luther King Jr. The margins include many pictures, summaries of complicated issues, and primary source documents that enhance pupils’ understanding of this turbulent period in American history.
The entire story is engrossing, yet Ms. Colvin’s first-person accounts are what truly capture the era's atmosphere. Giving poignant descriptions of what it meant to be black in Alabama, she also details the planning that went into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her tale candidly confronts darker moments, such as being shunned by peers as a pregnant teacher, being the target of ardent hate after Browder vs. Gayle, and even worse, living in a time when self-loathing was a norm for many African Americans.
The idea of “passing for white” is also mentioned in the story. As this concept is difficult to understand for some students, a rich opportunity exists to explore the reasons, both emotional and practical, behind this once-common practice. The History of Jim Crow website has published many first-hand accounts of how and why people did this during the era before civil rights. After reading the stories, learners can make a list of pros and cons, or delve further into the time period by stepping into the shoes of an African American during this time.
Claudette Colvin lends itself to role-playing similar to Heart and Soul. In small groups, pupils can choose one character from the book to focus on. They can then write and perform a short skit about a societal issue their character faces.
Extension Ideas for Black History Month
Melba Pattillo and Ruby Bridges: Two Heroes of School Integration
After reading primary sources and looking at photos, learners role-play to pretend they are among the Class of 1957 attending Little Rock High School. The activity also calls for them to imagine themselves as Melba Pattillo and Ruby Bridges and write diary entries.
Beyond Black and White
High schoolers examine the portrayal of minorities in video games and other media. They then identify forms of racial stereotyping and related issues.
An excellent conglomerate of information and lessons that pertain to the Harlem Renaissance. Explore this resource and discover ways to educate your class about the Harlem Renaissance and its far-reaching effects. Note: there is plenty of material here that is useful for your Black History Month unit.