African American History Comes to Life at the Library

By Jennifer Schultz Angoli, Collection Services Development Librarian

African American History Month, also called Black History Month, is a month-long commemoration of African American history and achievement held each February.  

Did you know that the founder of what eventually became Black History Month was a Virginia citizen? Or that the current hit movie, Green Book has a connection to Warrenton? Readers of all ages can learn more about African American history at their local library.

Picture Books

Carter Reads the Newspaper (Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Don Tate) honors the legacy of Carter G. Woodson, Virginia citizen, historian and son of enslaved African Americans, who established Negro History Week in 1926.

The success of The Green Book movie undoubtedly introduced many to the fact that African-American motorists relied on The Negro Motorist Green Book to find accommodations in the Jim Crow era South. Several entries for Warrenton are included in the 1954 version of the Green Book.  Ruth and the Green Book (Calvin Alexander Ramsey with Gwen Strauss, illustrated by Floyd Cooper) depicts a little girl’s experience as she and her family drive from Chicago to Alabama to visit her grandmother.

Angela Johnson is more well-known for her young adult novels, but her picture books are must reads for those seeking picture books with African-American characters. The Sweet Smell of Roses (illustrated by Eric Velasquez) follows two sisters as they participate in a civil rights march.

Chapter Books

Betty Before X (Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson) is a moving, heartfelt, and sobering fictionalized account of the 1940’s Detroit childhood of Betty Shabazz, who will later marry Malcolm X.

Christopher Paul Curtis has written outstanding children’s novels about the African-American experience; Bud, Not Buddy (2000 Newbery Medal winner) remains my favorite. Curtis brings the jazz and big band era brilliantly to life in this engrossing story of a young boy searching for his father during the Great Depression.

One Crazy Summer (2011 Newbery Honor recipient) starts Rita Williams-Garcia’s sublime Gaither Sisters trilogy as they come of age during the civil rights movement of the late 1960s/1970s.

Children’s Nonfiction

If you’re looking for a read aloud for Black History Month, don’t miss 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World (Charles Smith, illustrated by Shane Evans). From Crispus Attucks to Barack Obama, this is an eye-opening overview of African-American history.

Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing and Shout (collected by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney) is a fascinating tribute to African-American spoken and written literature. Hand clap and jump rope chants, spirituals, poetry and folktales are lovingly gathered in this treasure book.

One of the most original children’s nonfiction books published in 2017 was Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (Vashti Harrison). Forty African-American women are portrayed in this fabulous volume for readers of all ages. Younger readers will enjoy Dream Big, Little One, a simplified adaptation featuring 18 women.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen pilots is one of the most inspiring in military history. You Can Fly (Carole Boston Weatherford) is a “history in verse” portrayal of the brave men who served their country during World War II.  

Young Adult

Simone Biles is regarded as one of, if not the greatest, gymnasts of all time. Her 2016 autobiography, Courage to Soar, is a stirring read about her rocky early childhood, and her struggles and triumphs.

The connection that four American presidents personally had to slavery is revealed in In the Shadow of Liberty (Kenneth C. Davis), in which five enslaved African Americans, who have been nearly lost to history, are given their due.

The 1967 civil rights case that upended the Virginia law forbidding interracial marriage is uniquely told in Loving vs. Virginia (Patricia Hruby Powell, artwork by Shadra Strickland). Through documents and free verse, the persistence of the Loving family is memorably captured.

Michaela DePrince has faced enormous challenges in her young life that few have faced. In her memoir, Taking Flight, she recounts her childhood in a Sierra Leone orphanage, the complexities of being raised by Caucasian parents in a majority Caucasian community, and the obstacles she faced as a rising ballerina.

Historical Fiction for Adults

When Cathy Williams’s world is upended during the Civil War, she disguises herself as a man and fights with the Buffalo Soldiers. Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen (Sarah Bird) honors the little-told story of the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers.

As the chef to George Washington, Hercules is admired for his cooking prowess; although he earns twice the salary of the average American and wears the best clothes, he remains enslaved in Philadelphia, where the majority of African-Americans are free citizens. Hercules’s awe-inspiring story is brought to life in The General’s Cook (Ramin Ganeshram).

If you enjoy epic historical fiction spanning several histories, don’t miss Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi). Beginning with two sisters in 18th century Ghana, the parallel stories of two families living in Ghana and the United States is an engrossing and emotional story packed with unforgettable characters.

The glamorous and unbelievable life of Josephine Baker is memorably told in Josephine Baker’s Last Dance (Sherry Jones). From her impoverished beginnings to her international fame as a dancer to her work in the French Resistance and civil rights movement, Baker’s larger-than-life persona makes for an enticing read.

Nonfiction for Adults

Tennis and human rights icon Arthur Ashe had not received a full-length biography until last year. Arthur Ashe (Raymond Arsenault) details his Richmond childhood, his historic tennis career, and his status as an international activist.

The history of African-American pioneers is superbly told in The Bone & Sinew of the Land (Anna-Lisa Cox). Cox reveals that hundreds of African-American settlements were scattered throughout the Northwest Territory before the Civil War, and brings a more nuanced understanding of western expansion.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (David W. Blight) is a massive biography of the extraordinary man. Douglass’ fame as an abolitionist was only part of his life story; his complicated personal life, renewed fight during the Reconstruction Era, and conflicts with younger civil rights leaders are also intriguing aspects of his life.

Essay collections are ideal for those who want something they can dip into during free moments. Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (edited by Glory Edim) is a joyful and inspiring tribute to the power of finding yourself in literature, with contributions from Tayari Jones, N.K. Jemisin, Jacqueline Woodson, and many others.

You can find these and many other inspiring and informative books that bring black history to life at your local Fauquier County Public Library. Visit the reference desk for suggestions or browse the online catalog at innopac.fauquiercounty.gov.


About the Author

Jennifer has worked with the Fauquier County Public Library for the past 12 years.  A Louisiana native married to a WVU grad, her current obsessions are her new kitchen appliances, historical fiction, football, and audiobooks for the commute up and down I-66.

 

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