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Three Black history nonfiction books


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Mar 22, 2024
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More Than a Dream: The Radical March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by Yohuru Williams and Michael G. Long (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 272 pages, grades 6 and up). What many Americans know about the 1963 March on Washington begins and ends with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the march, the full name of which was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was much more radical than that one speech might suggest. Impatient with the slow pace of the Kennedy administration to pass even a watered-down civil rights bill, organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin wanted to advocate for more sweeping changes such as school integration, an end to police brutality, and economic justice for all races, including the possibility of replacing capitalism with socialism.

I was fascinated by this story, and there may be extra interest generated from last year’s movie Rustin, about Bayard Rustin, a queer Black Quaker who was an outsider in every way possible, but who never gave up on his vision of justice. Filled with photos, sidebars, and stories of ordinary people who went to incredible lengths to organize and/or attend the march, this is an engaging read, and the 15 pages of notes at the end are a testament to how well-researched it is. If you’re a Kennedy fan, prepare for some disillusionment, such as when Robert Kennedy casually refers to the march as “that old black fairy’s anti-Kennedy demonstration.”

We Are Your Children Too: Black Students, White Supremacists, and the Battle for America’s Schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia by P. O’Connell Pearson (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 288 pages, grades 5-8). As promised in an earlier post, here’s a more in-depth look at what happened when the Prince Edward County, Virginia public schools closed down for four years to prevent integration. The book starts with a 1951 walkout organized by high school student Barbara Johns to bring attention to the deplorable conditions of her all-Black high school. Her case eventually became part of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that ultimately led to the shutdown of the schools. 

While a segregated private academy solved the problem of education for the county’s white residents, Black families scrambled to find a way to send their children to school. Quakers and other activists around the country offered to host kids, while other students lived with relatives or traveled long distances each day. Some tried to get an education through hastily organized schools in homes or churches. But all suffered in some way; even those who graduated from high school usually had to leave their families and go live in unfamiliar communities, often the only Black students in their new schools. And many simply missed the four years of school, leading to poor economic outcomes for them as adults.

Sadly, this felt like reading a blueprint of efforts today to use vouchers and “school choice” to keep schools segregated and to diminish or even eliminate public education. The story is infuriating, and so is the fact that it’s not more widely known about. There’s a lengthy timeline at the end that puts the events of the book into context with what else was happening in the civil rights movement at the time, as well as a bibliography, index, and notes.

Unequal: A Story of America by Michael Eric Dyson and Marc Favreau (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 368 pages, grades 7-12). ”This is a book of truth. So we’ll start by telling you the stone-cold fact that there are many people who do not want you to read it.” American history has been whitewashed time and again, the authors state in their prologue, by people who don’t want to “feel victimized or collapse in a puddle of guilt.” True history is important, though, and they relate it in twenty chapters, each opening with a contemporary scene demonstrating that the injustices of the past often continue into the present. 

Topics range from school segregation to Jim Crow and lynching to voting rights to police brutality. Each chapter could easily stand on its own to teach a particular topic and tie it to current events. The writers tell their stories compellingly in a way that would undoubtedly engage both middle school and high school students. The final chapter, about Nikole Hannah-Jones and her struggles to teach Black history, would make an excellent introduction to a wide range of history classes. Almost 30 pages of notes and a comprehensive index round out this well-researched book.

I can’t remember how I heard about this book, but somehow I had it in my mind that it was from 2024. After reading it, I discovered it was actually published in 2022, but it’s certainly still timely and having put in the effort to read it, I’m including it with the 2024 books.
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