Explore and Share African American History and Culture with Kids Books!

African American History month has been celebrated every February since 1976. It was the dream of Carter G. Woodson, a historian who was considered to be the “Father of African American History.” In 1926 Woodson initiated the celebration of Negro History Week which eventually expanded to include the entire month, to now having gained support throughout the country as people from all ethnic and social backgrounds learn and discuss black history.

Here are a few books we’ve come across that will help you share African American History and Culture with your kiddos.

I See the Rhythm By Toyomi Igus and Michele Wood –

Gr. 5 – 8. Igus’ prose poems and Wood’s evocative paintings combine to give a succinct overview of African American music. A useful time line sets the social context, and brief paragraphs describe the various types of music, from African origins and slave songs through ragtime; the blues; big band, bebop, and cool jazz; gospel; rhythm and blues; and the contemporary sounds of rock, hip-hop, and rap. Igus effectively uses snippets from song lyrics to communicate both a feel for the music itself and a sense of how the various styles played to the emotions of the musicians and their fans (“From the basements to the rooftops, / I see the cool tones of modern jazz / escape the city heat”). Wood’s paintings are equally suggestive. Mixing modernist and primitive styles and using color nicely to communicate musical style and tone, her art not only complements the text but vivifies it. Audience may be a problem: the supportive text is too sophisticated for younger readers to grasp themselves, and the format may alienate some older readers. Perhaps best used in a junior-high classroom with audio accompaniment, this striking book, in the hands of a creative teacher or librarian, could give kids a feeling for the majesty, creativity, and continuity of African American music

Ellington Was Not a Street By Ntozake Shange

Grade 3-8-Nelson illustrates the noted poet’s “Mood Indigo,” from her collection entitled A Daughter’s Geography. The book begins with the opening lines of the poem set against a pale gray page: “it hasn’t always been this way/ellington was not a street.” Opposite, a full-page painting shows several people walking beneath a green sign that reads Ellington St. A young African-American woman carrying a red umbrella is prominently featured, and readers will soon understand that she is the child narrator, all grown up (the resemblance is striking). In the poem, Shange recalls her childhood when her family entertained many of the “-men/who changed the world,” including Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Ray Barretto, Dizzy Gillespie, “Sonny Til” Tilghman, Kwame Nkrumah, and Duke Ellington. Both the words and the rich, nostalgic illustrations are a tribute to these visionaries. Done in oils, the skillfully rendered portraits emphasize facial expressions, clothing, and physical positioning on the page, and provide unmistakable insight into the persona of each individual. Although presented in picture-book format, the poem is sophisticated, and therefore it may need to be read aloud and explained to younger readers. A biographical sketch of each man appears at the end, along with the poem reprinted on a single page.


D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet by Nancy I. Sanders

The tapestry of American history is made up of countless threads marking the contributions of people from many different backgrounds and cultures. D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet showcases many of the remarkable achievements of and contributions from African Americans throughout our history. Evocative watercolor paintings from acclaimed artist E. B. Lewis perfectly capture the spirit of each letter topic’s poem and expository text.

D is for Drinking Gourd,
and the North Star that led through the night
from station to station on the Underground Railroad,
escaping on a dangerous flight.

From the bravery of the early abolitionists to the cultural legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, D is for Drinking Gourd illuminates the amazing and ongoing role the African American community has played in the shaping of our country.

Let It Shine: 3 Favorite Spirituals By Ashley Bryan

Vibrant illustrations interpret and energize three beloved songs: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Although the artistic style is similar to that in All Night, All Day (Atheneum, 1991), here Bryan uses intricate cut-paper collages to accompany the lines of text at the bottom of the pages. Energy and movement course through many of the full-bleed illustrations, as when children-depicted in rainbow-colored silhouettes-use a boat, an airplane, a bicycle, and other means to carry their lights “Ev’ry where I go.” At other times, the images offer comfort and security, as large multicolored hands embrace the world’s wonders and “the little bitty baby” is cradled in an adult’s protective arms. Simple melody lines and an explanation of the origin and importance of spirituals are appended. Yet, Bryan’s illustrations demonstrate more than words the dynamic inspiration that these songs still provide. Readers will find themselves humming as they turn the pages.

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