Where I grew up, my community was mostly white. But that didn’t mean that we weren’t aware of race. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in my community. From time to time, there were demonstrations of men with their faces hidden in white hooded robes showing their hatred for (or fear of) those who were not just like them. I vividly recall a moment when I was asked by a younger girl at my dance studio why the nuns were out on the street corner, and I had to explain that they were not nuns. They were something else altogether.
To go with the Klan demonstrators, there were also counter-demonstrations trying to show that all races in our community could be united. Right outside my high school, I recall a jacked-up pick-up truck with a confederate flag on the grill revving the engine as a black student tried to cross the street in front of the stopped truck. Foul words I can’t repeat were being hurled at him. And I can still see my homeroom teacher sprinting faster than I knew a teacher could run when I told him that there was a Klan recruitment flyer hung up in the hallway of my high school. He tore it down in a heartbeat.
This is the way it always was: a showing from the side of racism, trying to intimidate, and those fighting for equality and acceptance pushing right back.
When I listen to the news, it’s clear that this story is so far from over.
There are still people who are convinced that the color of a person’s skin can mean something bad or good about who they are on the inside. There are still people, like my homeroom teacher and the counter-demonstrators, trying to show the opposite. During this week, when we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., I think about the long way that we’ve come since the days of segregation, but I know that there’s still a long way to go.
As a white person, I know that I can’t fully know or understand what it’s like to be black in America. But what I can do, what I can help my kids do, is listen to people of color telling their stories first hand. I can do my best to let their words sink in. To understand their perspective as much as I can. To let their stories become part of how my kids and I think about race and race struggles in our country.
We celebrated and honored Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and work with a national holiday last week, but race is a topic that shouldn’t be limited to one day or week per year. I wanted to share with you some of the stories that my kids and I have been reading that talk about race. Stories that talk about the struggle for equality and acceptance during the civil rights movement. Each of these stories is a memoir about the childhood of a person who grew up in the era of segregation and the civil rights movement.
1. For Young Children
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By: Martin Luther King, III
This is a picture book memoir, written by Martin Luther King, III. It talks about a side of Dr. King that we don’t often hear about, playing basketball with his son and some special family moments. It also talks about concrete reasons that kids will understand for why segregation was unfair, like an amusement park that the King children and other black children couldn’t go to, simply because of the color of their skin. It also talks about how MLK was jailed more than 30 times and how scary that was for his kids, but how they also understood how important the work he was doing was. This book is written at a very simple picture book level, but even as an adult reading it, I found it moving and felt like I learned from it.
2. For Elementary Age Children
Through My Eyes
By: Ruby Bridges
When Ruby Bridges was in first grade, she was chosen to be the first black child to attend an all-white school during the first year that Louisiana public schools became integrated. This memoir of that year is written for older elementary age children, with full page photographs accompanied by Ruby’s first-hand story, newspaper clippings, and letters from her teacher, and others who played a role in that year of Ruby’s life.
I read it with my 1st and 4th grade children. There were moments that made me choked up thinking about how cruel people were to Ruby during that year. And I was sad to have to explain the n-word to my children, but also grateful that they had never heard it in another context. While we were reading, my 1st grader said to me, “But why didn’t they let people with brown skin go to school there before? Some of my nicest friends at school have different skin than me. What you look like on the outside doesn’t mean anything about who you are on the inside.” Conversations like that are why I loved reading this book with my kids. I want to reaffirm what their loving, innocent hearts tell them.
3. For Middle & High School Age Children
Brown Girl Dreaming
By: Jacqueline Woodson
This is the coming of age story of a black girl growing up in the deep south and in Harlem, two very distinct regions of the country, with their own struggles and advantages for a black family. This book is a National Book Award Winner and is written in open verse, so it’s a bit of an unusual format for a memoir. For me, the poetic style both added a dreamlike quality to the story at times and evoked a deeper emotional impact than the memoir might have if it was written in prose.
All of these books are available at Iowa City Public Library. I hope you enjoy them and that they might help you start some great conversations about race with your kids!
Let’s all carry the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forward, no matter what time of year.