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The Importance of a Black Bookshelf

We believe that “if she can see it, she can be it.” That’s one of the reasons we created Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic, so that Black children could see inspirational role models who look just like them! Another reason we created Black Girl Magic is that we believe in the importance of a Black bookshelf for all children. 

For Black children, learning about people who look like them or come from a similar background is crucial in building confidence and helping them succeed. For non-Black children, telling Black stories year-round teaches them empathy for those that don’t look like them or have cultural differences from them. 

We partnered with Cashawn Thompson, editor and writer of Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic, to discuss the importance of building a Black bookshelf early on in childhood development. 

The Black cultural experience is rich with love, laughter, triumph, and plain old, everyday, wonderfulness. These are things that African-American writers have always written about. There have been countless books written about how we love one another, mourn losses, cook, sing, and dream. These books are how we invite others to recognize our humanity in a country that has historically either ignored it or stripped it away from us entirely. 

I believe that having a Black bookshelf is also important to people who don’t identify as Black. Black people’s experiences in America as told through our literature is currently a niche genre, patronized, by and large, by other Black people. I remember devouring books by Black authors like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou as a young teenager because I was so interested in the lives of Black Americans of the past. 

I later moved on to authors like Carl Weber, Mary Monroe, and BeBe Moore Campbell, who were telling stories of contemporary Black people and how they dealt with our changing world. Their storytelling had a profound effect on how I saw Black people in the world and how I saw myself. Every book I read made me want to read more. It helped me understand a lot of what I saw around me in terms of race, ethnicity, community, love, and justice. I believe these same epiphanies can occur in people who are not Black, through reading the work of Black people. 

Parents should begin building their children’s “Black bookshelf” as soon as they can. Babies start recognizing racial differences before their first birthdays and by the time they begin kindergarten, they have already internalized racial biases based on what their families believe and the media they consume. 

More often than not, people who don’t identify as Black find themselves relying on biased media depictions of Blackness for their understanding of Black people and our culture. Way too often, Black people are represented through the clouded lens of racist stereotypes that don’t respect the full beauty of our experiences. It saddens me to know that a lot of what people think they know about Black people has no basis in truth.

Reading books to babies and toddlers that highlight and celebrate the experiences of Black people helps them develop a more positive understanding of them. It’s never too early to teach children about cultural differences. 

The beautiful prose of J. California Cooper and the illuminating poetry of Lucille Clifton can take any reader into the fascinating depths and breadths of Blackness. While Black people have experienced unfathomable mistreatment, we are so much more than the scars and reverberating echoes of our painful collective past. Blackness is both strength and fragility, screams and whispers, nightmares and peace. So much Black literature depicts the nuances of who we are with deftness and clarity. Building a Black bookshelf for non-Black people is building a cultural bridge, and that connectedness is how we will see each other more clearly.