Power of One
In 4th grade I started to learn about slavery. Every time the topic of racial inequality, Martin Luther King Jr., or when the true story of Pocahontas came up my cheeks would burn, my palms would sweat, and my heart would pound as I looked around the room and saw all the white faces outnumbering me, including my teacher. In my 13 years of schooling, I did not have a single teacher of color. In 8th grade we watched the TV show “Roots.” Before we started the show, my history teacher bent down next to my desk and not so quietly said “if at any point you get uncomfortable watching this feel free to let yourself out and take a walk to cool down.” I was taken aback; he didn’t say this to anyone else. Looking around the room I understood why. I was the only person of color in that classroom.
I vividly remember that my junior high history book included depictions of smiling enslaved Africans beating a drum, Africans dancing, and babies moseying about in its single chapter on slavery. I remember being uncomfortable then, and it’s upsetting that these or similar images prevail as the introduction to Black history.
It’s 2019 and schools around the country still do not have enough books that accurately depict the experiences of Black Americans. Every Black History Month, most teachers often reuse the famous narratives of a few historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Of course, these leaders deserve to be recognized but by only focusing on notable leaders, we cut ourselves short of Black history in this country. “Why are they always white children?” This is how Nancy Larrick’s 1965 article in The Saturday Review titled The All-White World of Children’s Books begins. Larrick analyzes the negative impact on children of a lack of representation of people of color in children’s books. Larrick had an intriguing point, because children’s books either completely ignore black children or barely mention them; it leads the white child reading the book to feel superior because they see themselves represented to the exclusion of people of color. Until reading this article I didn’t realize that most if not all my children’s books were stories about white children or talking animals. I do recall one book about an African American girl who always had trouble with her hair, she envied all the other girls with straight, shiny hair. I don’t remember how it ended.
While researching the true definition of “Black” I stumbled upon an article that made me realize I couldn’t name one Black astronaut off the top of my head, but I know who Buzz Aldrin, Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Neil Armstrong are. When I was taught about America’s ventures in space, no one of color was ever mentioned. In 2009 Barack Obama ran for president and got elected. He was the first Black president in United States history, but the outdated textbooks we continue to read may not include this important milestone. It would’ve been nice to learn about a Black role model who’s doing crucial work and hasn’t been assassinated. If we want to teach Black history right, we’re going to need more diverse and updated books, while also acknowledging the current state of affairs in this country.