When I was growing up as a white girl in a racially segregated area of upstate New York in the 1960s, I never expected to be given the job of presenting Black History Month programs to audiences of African American children. Although I did not know much about African American history, the large urban library that hired me in the 1980s gave me that job.
I knew some of the heroes of African American history: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. But I had to quickly deepen my knowledge of the subject before I could present Black history programs in the library. At that time, the most popular books I read to the children were John Henry: An American Legend, by Ezra Jack Keats, and a picture book about African American cowboy Nat Love that is now out of print. I read African folk tales, especially to the younger children. Humorous Langston Hughes poems were appreciated by older children. I let children model African clothes that a Nigerian friend had given me. I had grown up in a culture that emphasized the importance of dramatic plays. African American culture emphasizes the value of public speaking, so we included children’s speeches in programs. As I presented the programs to young children, I expected one to ask me why a white lady was teaching them about African American history, but that never happened.
I did have to deal with animosity from older children and teens. Since many of them came into contact with white people infrequently, I was a target for the expression of their anger against racial injustice. A few older children called me racial epithets and damaged my personal property.
Since the library specialized in African American history, I was constantly learning more about the subject in order to assist children and teens in their research. The story of the struggles and successes of African Americans fascinated me.
My career led me to a suburban library where I was told that no Black history programs were allowed. When I requested permission to ask an African American celebrity to visit the library to promote literacy, my request was denied. This was culture shock of a different kind.
My next library job was in a small southern town. When I learned that Black history was not being taught in schools, I presented Black history programs in the elementary schools. The classes were racially integrated, but most of the teachers were white. A few of the white teachers told me that seeing me present the programs gave them the confidence they needed to present similar programs themselves.
Designing programs in a racially integrated setting presented new problems. The beautiful African clothes that were admired in the urban setting were objects of ridicule for the white students. Any mention of Africa caused the white students to make comments that caused the African American students to feel uncomfortable. The part of my presentation that all the children appreciated was the reenactment of the Rosa Parks story. After I read the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus, we created a bus by setting up rows of chairs. All the children appreciated the courage it took for Rosa Parks to be civilly disobedient. They especially enjoyed the fact that being disobedient could be a good thing.
A job at a cosmopolitan library followed. In groups that included many international families, African American history was simply regarded as a part of American history. A popular program included the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by drawing pictures of the hopes of each child. We also made doves of peace out of foam and glitter. I showed the children a globe and taught them the meaning of the word, “ancestors,” and what it means to be African American.
As a white person teaching African American history, I found that emotions can run high. A history of traumatic injustice leaves its mark in the soul. The youngest children had the least problem with my race. Sensitivity to race issues increased with age. My emotions ran high, too: regret when something I said caused offense, loneliness because my coworkers did not share my cultural background, anger when I was not allowed to teach Black history in the suburban library, sadness when white students mocked African American students in the southern town.
But mostly I feel proud to present programs about African American history, because it is the history of people who overcame immense odds to survive. It is the history of people who contributed to American culture. It is part of the history of the race called human.