Bookishness, Mamaishness, Teacherishness

Poetry Books for African-American History Month

Well, we lost February somewhere in the fog of crazy weather and illness, so I’m woefully behind in sharing resources with you for African-American history month. We work hard as a family to tell the fullest version of America’s story possible, so that means we purposely go beyond the Great White Men version of events when we talk about things from the past.

Nonetheless, I still see the value in Carter G. Woodson’s effort to recognize the contributions of African-Americans (and Africans in America), so February continues to matter around these parts. There’s an amazing collection of online exhibits here, at the official African-American History month site, hosted by a consortium of libraries, museums, and institutions you’ve heard of.

Today, I’m sharing some poetry resources. These are works by African-American authors and poets, and most are illustrated by African-American artists.

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Ashley Bryan’s magnificent ABC of African-American Poetry (IndieBound/Amazon) shares snippets of poems from a variety of authors. Some names are familiar, and some are not. The subject matter varies widely, as well, with some poems being more appropriate for older elementary students, and others perfectly fine for preschoolers. At home, I don’t read this book straight through. Instead, we talk about the illustrations, and then select four or five poem excerpts to read together.

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Some of the poems also showcase great African-Americans, or the African-American experience, so they make for a double-whammy of excellence. I think these lines from Eloise Greenfield perfectly summarize Harriet Tubman, and could make a wonderful introduction to a study of her life and work.

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And how can you not love Ashley Bryan’s illustrations? I saw him read and speak once, and his work matches his personality. He exudes light and happiness, and he works that spirit into his books, even when the subject matter is darker and more serious. Children are drawn to his work, with good reason.

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Langston Hughes’ The Dreamkeeper and Other Poems (IndieBound/Amazon) contains a selection of Hughes’ poems appropriate for elementary-aged children. Inside, you’ll find some favorites, like Dream Variation, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and Stars. You’ll also see some poems you probably haven’t read before, and find yourself having a hard time deciding which selections to share.

This edition contains beautiful black and white illustrations by Brian Pinkney, which manage to complement Hughes’ work without overshadowing it. They echo the stillness found in many of the poems, I think. That stillness sort of inspires you to select a few poems, read them, and revel in them for a minute, rather than racing through the entire anthology in one sitting.

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If, like me, you have a soft spot for The Negro Speaks of Rivers, then you’ll want to locate this book-length rendering, with illustrations by E. B. Lewis. (IndieBound/Amazon) This poem, which Hughes wrote at age 17 (!), tells the story of African-Americans by linking it to the rivers of Africa and the Americas. Lewis’ illustrations sweep the reader through history along with the poem, including some of our country’s lowest and highest points.

{A little note: if you’re using this with younger children or in a classroom setting, make sure you take the time to explain that ‘Negro’ was once the respectful term for people of African ancestry, so that’s why Langston Hughes used it in his poem. Today, it is not a word that we consider respectful, but we still use it in historical context as appropriate.}

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Finally, one of my favorites from my classroom days: Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love. (IndieBound/Amazon) My students adored this book. Most of them had it memorized because we read it so often. The little girl in whose voice the poem is written – perfectly illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist – does an amazing job of telling us all about the things she loves. These are everyday sorts of things, and the sorts of things like foods and voices that allow all children to make some meaningful connections.

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The poem is excerpted from this longer collection, Honey I Love and Other Love Poems, which is also worth adding to your library. The illustrations are by Leo and Dianne Dillon, if you need any further convincing. (IndieBound/Amazon)

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