That’s what a first grader asked me as I finished reading Richard Wright and the Library Card aloud. “Why do we have Black History Month?”
I looked at the sea of little faces on my carpet, in all the colors a face can be. “Well, we all have history, right?”
“Yes!” they yelled.
“But for a very long time, nearly the only history and stories we read were written and published by white people about white people.” I put the book on the table behind me. “Is that right? Do you know what a point of view is?”
They surprised me. A few did know what point of view was, even if they’d not heard it called that. (They were studying characters in Reading Workshop.) We discussed the point of Black History Month a little more – I emphasized that all history was important, but that we needed Black History Month to read about history from the African-American point of view and to emphasize how, without them, our history would be very different. Maybe even non-existent. We talked about that. Then they leapt up and ran to find the books they wanted to check out.
Black History Month seems to have been nudged – if not pushed – to the side of curriculum today. Maybe people think we don’t need it. My school is integrated, with children of all colors, faiths, and classes. But not all schools are.
A substitute teacher asked once why I didn’t read more fun books. “You mean like books about Valentine’s Day,” I asked him.
“Yeah, the kids need a break,” he said.
I pointed out all of the amazing picture books on display and behind the librarian’s desk for read-aloud. “Those are fun, too. Why do they need a break from wonderful art and stories?” Besides, the administration had already asked that we refrain from holiday books. I was on board with that. Why spend all our time reading aloud books – no matter how cute – about holidays that were already celebrated so much outside the school?
I love that my students – even, and maybe especially, the youngest – are perplexed by the notion that schools were not integrated, that they couldn’t have all played and worked together. But I don’t want them to think that racism is only a thing of the past, that it’s not something we fight all the time. Sadly.
So I celebrate Black History Month with my displays and my read-alouds, and I try to buy as many books as I can for my library that show life from another’s point of view. Kids need books with characters that look like them. And ones with characters that don’t.
I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
– Malcolm X
The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.