Black characters in children’s literature are disappearing as schools limit history courses
In mid-January, two weeks before Black History Month, the Florida Department of Education rejected the new A.P. African American Studies course. The state agency claimed the content “significantly lacks educational value.” Earlier this month, the College Board announced it revised the Advanced Placement course, making parts of the curriculum optional like those that touch on intersectionality and contemporary issues.
How the precollegiate course was trimmed down over complaints of alleged untruths became part of the bigger conversation: Black children being impacted by the removal of instructional materials that show people who look like them.
More books focused on accurate U.S. history and featuring Black characters are being banned nearly every day across the country. The stakes are higher, with the rise in legislation such as Florida’s Stop WOKE Act and bills to ban books with “sexually explicit” content. These efforts impact all children, but Black children are seeing a higher impact with not being able to see themselves in books that have been on shelves for years and generations because a parent filed a complaint about revisionist history and inappropriate references.
There was a 306% increase in Black main characters on the front book covers of children’s best-sellers between 2012 and 2020. But by 2021, a year after the Black Lives Matter movement was spurred by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black characters had been disappearing, with a 23% decline in children’s best-sellers having a Black main character.
This data is from WordsRated, a research data and analytics group. The group also recognized 2020 as the first year that Black characters outnumbered White characters on the front covers of children’s best-sellers. But these are books that had already been approved for publication a year or two earlier.
Yet there was a decline as the attention on the Black Lives Matter movement declined, WordsRated finds. In 2020, at the height of the movement, many literary agents said they would prioritize works queried by Black aspiring authors in the name of social justice. It’s not clear if enough of a new crop of traditionally published Black authors have emerged as beneficiaries to these industry promises.
Book bans multiplied by schools cutting Black history curricula means children are not given the full picture. And families may struggle to fill those gaps when parents and guardians work during the day. Some families are going out of their way to buy banned books to make these books featuring Black characters best-sellers. We saw this phenomenon last year with the astronomical sales of Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby after Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas used it in a presentation in Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings.
Still, the domino effect always comes back to the freedom to read and learn beyond biased interpretations. There is hope we’ll see Black main characters in more books once fresher data is available.
Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions of people of African descent in the U.S. More than ever, their creative and artistic contributions are being hidden from children who may not seek the knowledge later in life if they’re not exposed to the information in the first place. Here’s a video from Black Miami Dade that talks about how a group of Black teachers wrote a book to ensure Black history entered and remained in their classrooms.