Roll out Black History Monday and roll out the biographies. This month is always filled with lives of the successful, accomplished and little known African American heroes and sheroes who contributed to the improvement of life in American. While these individuals have overcome most obstacles in front of them, they’re often unable to clear the hurdles that would allow them to be part of mainstream American history. Black History is too often seen as tangential to American history.
The lives of those who have gone before us are important, particularly for young people who are learning to maneuver their way in the world. By their example, those who have successfully overcome odds give us all a belief in the possibilities of life as well as a road map for getting there.
While entire libraries could be filled with biographies, finding those that truly inspire readers can be a challenge. I’ve spent the past few days searching my library’s collection of children’s biographies and wanted to dig in and update, deselect and read!! So many of the books in that collection, particularly those written for 9-12 year olds were clearly written to accommodate school research. The books are fact laden with little effort to inspire and engage readers. You know those books: the ones that are often part of a set, written by someone who has 4 books coming out on one year and the others are about World War II, dolphins and the inner workings of cell phones. Or, they have bobble heads on the cover. Those books will not be considered this month.
Carol Jones Collins prescribes the following for biographies.
“Black biography should reflect the author’s vision. It should reveal the many selves of the subject and tell the reader how the subject came to be the person he or she became. It should not merely chronicle a life, displaying the dry facts of a person’s life, but should explain that life, but should explain that life. It should engage itself deeply in the emotional life of the subject. As for the biographer, he or she should not be afraid to display emotion or passion, for this is what separates good biography from bad biography. Vision, passion, regard for the subject, lively prose, and a willingness to seek beneath the surface are all qualities of good black biography.”
Don Tate, well known children’s illustrator has also grown into an accomplished author of children’s biographies. He provides the following advice for writing biographies, advice that will provides much complexity in its simplicity.
“There is no formula for finding the right person or subject to write about. My advice would be the same whether an author chose to write about their own culture or cross-cultural: Do your research and find a subject who excites and inspires you. Your story will absorb the enthusiasm.” source
I think particular challenging to African American biography for young readers is to not be lost in the subject’s deficiencies, not to wallow in how much they’ve had to overcome. This would be as likely to reinforce deficit thinking as well as it would reinforce the myth of the ‘Super Negro’: that extraordinary individual is able to overcome all odds. In the hands of those who have mastered the biography, people like Tonya Bolden, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Carole Boston Weatherford, Phillip Hoose and Larry Dane Brimmer the lives will be extensively research and narratives constructed in ways that display the lives of fully actualized people. Collins goes on to describe the noteworthy techniques employed by Lerone Bennett (What Manner of Man) James Haskins (James Van DeZee:The Picture Takin’ Man), Walter Dean Myers (Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary), Elaine Feinstein (Bessie Smith), Mary Lyons (Sorrow’s Kitchen the Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston) and Virginia Hamilton (Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave; W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography; Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man).
There are reasons why we pull out the biographies in Black History Month. African American biographies allow us to dig deep into the lives of successful African Americans. The lives of these individuals are contextualized in eras and locations of what America once was and remind us what we can grow into becoming. Their stories are often germinate in tiny towns other than New York City and connect to many on a geographic level such as Michael Jackson in Gary, IN or Adam Clayton Powell in New Haven, CT. Others relate to the hopes of and dreams built upon a skill or passion. Think of Michael Jordan, Romare Beardan or Leontyne Price. They give the African American child a place where they can stand on the shoulders of those who have come before and it provides them a reason to put their should back and hold their heads high. Can they not do this for white, Asian, Native American or Latinx children? These biographies can also provide honor and praise to someone who was unable to obtain it during their lifetime. I think of Bayard Rustin. Marian Anderson. Claudette Colvin.
Over the balance of this month, let’s explore African American biographies for children and young adults. Of course there will be reviews, but let’s also discuss the limits and possibilities of these books. They’re a very important part of African American history. We are all an important part of African American history.
Collins, Carol Jones. (1994) “African American Young Adult Biography: In Search of the Self” in African American Voices in Young Adult Literature edited by Karen Patricia Smith.