Black History for Children

Here are two new, exceptional nonfiction works for kids that are great reads anytime, but particularly in February.

Jump at the Sun, by Alicia D. Williams

Zora loved to listen to the grownups telling stories down at the general store. Mama would send her on a ten-minute errand, and after an hour of waiting, she’d have to call the girl back home. After a while, Zora became well-known for her storytelling, or, as her Daddy called it, lying. But Mama approved of her stories, and she always told Zora to “jump at the sun!”

After her Mama died and her preacher father went on the road, he put her in boarding school where Zora spent her time reading everything she could. Soon, though, her father remarried and the money dried up, so Zora Neale Hurston spent a decade or more trying to get an education anywhere she could. She went through Howard University and, finally, Barnard College. She was friends with many of the greatest figures of the Harlem Renaissance, especially her best friend, Langston Hughes. For her last project in college, she travelled the South, collecting African American folklore. When she assembled and published those stories, she truly landed on the sun.

Jacqueline Alcántara illustrates this exuberant children’s biography with paintings that dance and jump across each page. She uses colors that convey the humid heat of the South, the excitement of New York, and the hopeful glow of the sun itself.

Zora Neale Hurston went on to become one of America’s greatest writers, probably best known for her classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The fact that she was able to produce such enduring works is all the more amazing for a black woman in the early twentieth century. Everything was stacked against her, but she remembered what her mother told her: “Jump at the sun!”

Unspeakable, by Carole Boston Weatherford

In 1921, Greenwood was a thriving community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The nearby oil wells had created prosperity for all, and Greenwood had hotels and hospitals, great schools and restaurants. The residents had two newspapers to read and libraries to read more. The citizens of Greenwood were well educated and thriving, but not everyone was happy about that, because Greenwood was a completely black community.

Not that the people had a choice. Segregation forced a line down the center of Tulsa, and all of the black residents had to live on one side of the line. Of course, they sometimes had jobs that took them into the white section of town, and on one unforgettable day, a white teenaged girl accused a seventeen-year-old black shoeshine boy of assault. That one spark ignited the tinder of resentment in the white community and exploded into one of the worst race riots the United States has ever seen.

When I first learned of this chapter of our country’s history in Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge (reviewed here), last summer, I was stunned that I had never known that an entire section of a city was burned to the ground. The violence lasted for sixteen hours and left 300 people dead and 8,000 homeless. Most people left for good. Weatherford leaves out a part that Morrison relates: This is the first and only time that the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens.

Shortly after writing the review of Be the Bridge, I read that there would soon be a children’s book about this shameful incident in our history. Carole Weatherford Boston is an award-winning North Carolina author who spends the first half of the book describing the good and peaceful life that the residents of Greenwood enjoyed. The brilliant artist Floyd Cooper fills this picture book with his signature oil paintings, depicting first a prosperous neighborhood, and then a tragic massacre. Cooper grew up in Tulsa, and one night his Grandpa Williams told him and his family about a terrible thing that had happened in his past. Now it is time to share that story.

Although descriptions of race riots and massacres make for uncomfortable conversations with our children, it is essential for them to learn about all of our shared history. Ms. Weatherford limits the description to a child’s level in the easy text of the book, and only gives more detail in smaller font in the back matter.

Highly recommended for parents to read with their school-age children.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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