It’s Black History Month – an opportunity to honor and learn about the achievements of black people, from activists to inventors – and we at Free to Be Kids want to share some of our favorite resources for helping kids learn about the African-American experience. Kids of color deserve to see awesome role models that look like them, and white kids need to see awesome role models that don't. Fighting racism and unconscious bias starts in the home, so let's do this, y'all.
First of all, we’ll be sprinkling a little black history into every package for the rest of February with some help from these awesome Black History Flash Cards from Urban Intellectuals. (We have no marketing relationship with this company; we just think they’re awesome.) We bought several decks of their flashcards and will be dropping one card into each order. So when you open your package of cute shirts you’ll also have a conversation starter! Each night my kids and I are choosing two cards from the deck and reading them along with our bedtime story. Last night we learned about Malcolm X and Bessie Coleman, and they’re already pretty excited to see who we’ll get tonight. Who knew cards were so much more exciting than books?
For the resources that follow below, we tried -- as we try with our own kids-- to keep it balanced between an emphasis on “the struggle” and “firsts” and celebrations of art, music, and cultural traditions. If you have any recommendations, or things that worked well with your kids, please leave them in the comments!
PBS Kids African-American World for Kids: Find the Face
Kids play online, or print out cards (we think printing is more fun!) and match famous African-Americans to events associated with them. This is a great game, and a great way for them to learn about Black history without feeling like it’s an artificial slog, or a detour from their regular learning. The site also includes e-cards kids can send -- including one of Malcolm X. Rock on, PBS!
Poems to Celebrate Black History Month
I don’t know about your kids, but our kids LOVE when we read them poetry and take the time to talk about it with them. They may be small, but they can understand more than you know, and they love to let the rhythms wash over them. So often the notion of “Black History” gets subsumed into a narrative from slaveships to I-Have-A-Dream, with stops for special heroes like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in between. This is so much more than that. Yes, these poems discuss the struggle. But they also discuss the extraordinary in the ordinariness of the Black experience, for example, in Kevin Young’s “Eddie Priest’s Barbershop and Notary.” You’ll want to linger on this page forever as a parent. “Miz Rosa Rides the Bus” is beautiful, and a good place to talk about both Rosa Parks, Jim Crow, and metaphor. They won’t quite get it. That’s okay. They'll hear it, and they will remember.
If you get nothing else off this list, if you read nothing else or listen to nothing else (though please go read some poetry!), check out “The Art of Invention” by Jair Dynst, a 3-minute rap video that tells kids about some important African-American inventors. Its chorus? “We invented rock and roll/ And we gave ‘em blues and soul/ But these inventions you didn’t know/ That we made ‘em possible.”
Other things on the site include video round-ups of inventors, videos of individual inventors, from the popular to the little-known, and and a searchable database. Pure awesome.
Itty-bitties will LOVE to play with the jazz mixer, which lets them fade different instruments in and out of three jazz songs (our fav is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”), thereby understanding the importance of the instruments and how they all work together to create the song. Older kids will appreciate the jazz timeline that -- scroll down on the history, don’t click on the links under the timeline, which will take you to their shop -- includes samples of each subgenre. The map is fun too, though it doesn’t include too many places and is a bit hard to learn to use. We’re mostly there for the mixer and the timeline with samples.
National Geographic Activity: How Slaves Found Their Way North
This is a classroom lesson, but you can adapt it for the home. They give you all the resources you need, from links to how quilts were used to clue-in fugitive and would-be fugitive slave to dangers and things they needed to know to get to freedom, to a worksheet that shows routes of the underground railroad. It’s geared towards kids in grades 1-2. Plus, you make a paper “quilt” at the end (out of markers and construction paper and presumably, staples or tape because no one has time to glue that stuff).
First and foremost, visit your local library and you're sure to find a wealth of treasures. In February any library worth its salt should have plenty of biographies of awesome black people and other books about the African American experience faced out on its shelves (if they don't, please ask why). You should find a wealth of goodness.
Aside from that, here are a few we love.
Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (Ellen Levine, rec. 6+)
This book tells the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a Richmond man who literally mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia.
Little Melba and her Big Trombone
Melba Liston was a jazz pioneer who traveled the country with some of the best players in the nation starting when she was just a teenager, and ended up arranging music and fronting her own band. This biography is beautifully illustrated and is one of my kids' favorite books at any time of year.
Whoever You Are (Mem Fox, rec. 4+)
Says Family Education, “Mem Fox tells little ones that wherever they are, whatever they look like, and no matter their customs, there are other kids like them all around the globe: "Joys are the same, and love is the same. Pain is the same, and blood is the same." Not explicitly about Black History Month, but a great message all the same that resonates with the themes implicit in it.
Whoosh - Lonnie Johnson's Stream of Super-Soaking Invention (Chris Barton)
Have African American inventors invented things a lot more valuable to society? Yes. But what do you think your kids will find cooler: fiber optic cable, the pacemaker, VoIP technology, or the super soaker? We're going with the Super Soaker. My son brought this book home from school last year and believe me, he would not be nearly as impressed by the story of the first pacemaker.
Follow the Drinking Gourd (Jeannette Winter, rec. 6+)
This book tells of the ways slaves would escape their bondage and get to freedom, sometimes literally by “following the drinking gourd” -- i.e., the North Star. It’s a must-pair with the Underground Railroad activity listed above.
Nappy Hair (Carolivia Heron, rec. 4+)
Told in traditional call and response, this book tells the story about Brenda’s “knotted-up, twisty, nappy hair” and how it got to be that way. Celebrates African-American diversity, pride, and encourages kids to see beauty in those who may be different from them.
What are your favorite Black History Month resources? Tell us in the comments!