The Black Women Who Launched the Original Anti-Racist Reading ListRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, literature, libraries, womens history, childrens literature
Ashley Dennis is a Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies at Northwestern University.
Book recommendations about race and racism in America have rapidly circulated on social media and news outlets as protests against anti-black violence continue for the third week. Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist” have soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list and Brittany Smith’s book recommendations for children — including “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harris, and “Schomburg” by Carole Weatherford and Eric Velasquez — went viral on Twitter.
The turn to books to combat racism is not new. During World War II, black women librarians created lists of anti-racist books as an explicitly political act. While their work transformed the nature of education, the limitations of their work remind us that change only happens when people act on the ideas in books.
The racist ideology advanced by Nazi Germany inspired a new interest in “intercultural education” in America. Books, national teaching journals and curriculums, among other educational resources and programs, emphasized tolerance toward others. These resources informed students about the political, social and cultural contributions of different ethnic and racial groups.
Black people at home agreed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “books are weapons.” As they worked to expose the hypocrisy of a war for democracy abroad while they were routinely denied their democratic rights in America, they, too, turned to education as an important front in the war against racism. Recognizing that ideas about race developed in childhood, white and black parents, teachers and librarians sought out non-racist books about black life for children. Several black women librarians emerged to meet the high demand, turning reading and book publishing into an anti-racist campaign, long before the term itself was coined.
Charlemae Rollins, the children’s librarian at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, was one of them. 1941 saw the publication of her pamphlet of 72 books about black life entitled “We Build Together: A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life” and “Literature for Elementary and High School Use.” One of the first of its kind, the pamphlet listed books that depicted black life truthfully, called out books that contained stereotypes and established criteria for evaluating children’s books about black people.
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