Over the last year-and-a-half, as the coronavirus pandemic triggered school closures, haphazard virtual learning setups, and confusing safety guidelines, parents of school-age children have been driven to the brink — juggling their jobs with a full-time commitment to ensuring their kids are getting a safe, quality education.
My home state of California, where my daughters go to school, is thankfully not one of them. But even the bluest states can’t escape the scourge of racism in America’s education system: today, New York, Illinois, and yes, California, are the most segregated states in the nation for Black students. It’s a reality I’ve experienced firsthand in the Bay Area, where we are one of few Black families in the school district — which, at least at the elementary-school level, doesn’t appear to have explicit plans to discuss anti-racism with an audience ready (and eager!) to learn about it.
All to say, public schools have long failed to acknowledge the history and realities of racism. The recent right-wing crusade against “critical race theory” — a term so frightening its opponents dare not even learn what it means — is the latest manifestation of that deeply rooted trend.
In the face of such daunting challenges, what are parents to do? Until and unless we see systemic change to properly desegregate our children’s schools and un-whitewash the curriculum, we need to fill the gaps ourselves.
Of course, for Black and Brown parents, this isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. Many of us have already taken it upon ourselves to give our children the full, accurate history lesson we know they must hear — just as our parents did for us, and their parents for them. But it’s time all American families start taking time at home to discuss the injustices that shaped our nation’s past, the work still to be done in our present, and the values that should define our future.
One way to start is with our kids’ bookshelves.
Back in 2019 — after years of trying to track down inclusive children’s books — I yearned to become a children’s book author myself, and pen stories about confident, ambitious Black girls like the ones I was raising.
Clearly, other non-White parents had similar experiences: Over the past few years alone, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of children’s books by and about Black and Brown people — and, after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — a spike in the number of parents buying them.
Titles that teach kids to value — not just tolerate — each other’s differences are certainly important. But with many of our schools failing to offer a curriculum or environment that combats racism, simply reading representative books to our kids isn’t enough. Parents need to share narratives with their children that are historically accurate and anti-racist. They need to tell stories that say what politicians are afraid to, and what so many teachers now can’t: that this country was stolen from Indigenous people, founded by white supremacists, and built on the backs of enslaved people — and that racism shapes our society to this day.
Lucky for parents, many of those stories are available today. To start, there’s “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson. It’s one of the first titles for my organization’s new Phenomenal Book Club, which spotlights the work of underrepresented authors, particularly women of color. “Born on the Water” chronicles the same horrors of slavery as its original New York Times companion — but through the lens of a young Black student, searching for answers as part of a family tree assignment. This story breaks away from the all-too-common narrative that Black history began with slavery and ended with Martin Luther King Jr. on the mountaintop. Instead, it begins by highlighting and celebrating the free lives Africans led before being brought to America — and emphasizes the resilience, rather than the suffering, that Black Americans have shown for centuries since.
Similarly, another recent release, “Your Legacy” by Broadway director Schele Williams, sets the record straight from the first sentence: “Your story begins in Africa.” Williams was inspired to write the book after reflecting on the shortcomings in her own education. She remembered learning about slavery in an elementary-school classroom — an environment where she felt isolated, unable to ask the questions she wanted to ask. So, she wrote the story for her children that she herself never got to hear at school.
Books like these, that offer honest depictions of our nation’s racist past and empowering narratives for children of color, can help Black and Brown kids understand a key tenet of anti-racism from an early age: thinking critically and questioning the status quo.
So if they do encounter racism at school — as they inevitably will, whether overheard on the playground or woven into a textbook — they’ll be better equipped to understand how to push back against it. And it’s crucial that their White classmates learn about our country’s past and the ways it informs our present — so they can be strong, anti-racist allies both inside and outside of the classroom.
Of course, parents — including us parents of color — are not free from the biases and skewed narratives that we were taught when we were young. While children’s books are no substitute for adult books on anti-racism — texts including the original “The 1619 Project” — they are a good starting point; a place for every parent to begin unlearning our own biases, while preventing kids from developing their own.
Parents and children alike could benefit from cracking open a book like “Born on the Water” or “Your Legacy.” Because far more powerful than any attempt to erase history is a movement of conscientious families willing to face it head on.
Meena Harris is a best-selling author and the founder and CEO of Phenomenal.
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