February is Black History Month, a time when we celebrate the achievements of African-Americans in our country’s history. This year, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History has chosen the theme “Civil Rights in America” to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This law outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin in employment decisions and public accommodations, including restaurants, motels, hotels and theaters.
Talking about discrimination and race with kids can be tricky for parents and caregivers. Some of us hope that if we don’t point out racial differences, our kids will grow up with a sort of colorblindness and resistance to race-based stereotypes. However, research has shown that what this actually teaches kids is that race is a taboo topic, off-limits to discussion. In the well-researched book “Nurtureshock,” journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman recommend talking about skin color much like we talk about gender. People come in different colors, and it doesn’t matter if their skin is peach or brown, they can still be doctors, teachers, soccer players or judges.
There are a number of great books to introduce school-aged kids to the history of the fight for racial equality in the United States in an age-appropriate way. Here are just a few that I recommend.
“Freedom Summer” by Debbie Wiles (Ages 5-9)
In 1964, Joe is pleased that a new law will allow his best friend John Henry, who is black, to share the town pool and other public places with him, but he is dismayed to find that prejudice still exists.
“The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles (Ages 5-9)
For months six-year-old Ruby Bridges must confront the hostility of white parents when she becomes the first African American girl to integrate Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.
“These Hands” by Margaret Mason (Ages 4-9)
An African American man tells his grandson about a time when, despite all the wonderful things his hands could do, they could not touch bread at the Wonder Bread factory.
“Seeing Red” by Kathryn Erskine (Ages 10-14)
When twelve-year-old Frederick “Red” Porter’s father dies in 1972, his mother wants to sell their automobile repair shop and move her two sons back to Ohio, but Red is desperate to stop the sale even if it means unearthing some dark family secrets in a Virginia rife with racial tensions.