Windows on the African-American Experience

February 20, 1991 9 min read

Education Week this month invited a number of black writers, educators, and business, political, and community leaders to answer the following question: “If you could recommend one book to help students better understand the African-American experience, what would it be--and why?” The following is a sampler of responses:

Kenneth B. Clark Author, educator, and psychologist; president of Kenneth B. Clark & Associates Inc., Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin. It is very important in understanding the black experience.

Lisa Delpit Senior research associate at Morgan State University’s Institute of Urban Research and the recipient last year of a MacArthur “genius” award, Baltimore

Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton Taulbert. It tells a story that needs to be told about the sense of family and connections that existed even within a hostile and segregated setting. Also, anything by Maya Angelou. She talks about the African-American experience from a personal viewpoint, so that you be come involved with, and identify with, the characters.

Donald Armstrong Assistant managing editor of Emerge magazine, New York

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It is extremely readable; you are guaranteed to actually read it. It is also very candid, truthful, and hopeful. The ultimate message is one of growth. It’s not preachy in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t sound like your parents telling you to achieve. It offers important lessons in a very subtle and palatable fashion.

Floretta D. McKenzie President of The McKenzie Group,: Washington, and former superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This book should be read so that people can be aware of the prejudices that existed in another time, the way it was. The book goes back to a time when African Americans weren’t recognized, as they are now in some ways, in American society.

Asa G. Hilliard 3rd Fuller E. Calloway Professor of Urban Education, Georgia State University

From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin. It is a good resource book for teachers. The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams. This is suitable for teaching African history. Egypt Revisited by Ivan Van Sertima. This is a good resource book for teaching Egyptian history.

Rebecca Jones Assistant curator, Black History Resource Center, Alexandria, Va.

The Negro in the Making of America by Benjamin Quarles. It has information from the beginning of history to the present and about important blacks who made their mark.

Roger Wilkins Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It is a classic full of insight and passion, and of great literary merit. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It conveys some of the anger, rage, and hurt of an African-American man born in the 1920’s who prospered into a great writer. Beloved by Toni Morrison. It is about the psychological horror of slavery.

Mary L. Pursiful Founder and director of community services, the Black Mountain Improvement Association, Berea College, Berea, Ky.

Developing Positive Self-Images and Discipline in Black Children by Jawanza Kunjufu. The book helps students better understand negative self-images and how to deal with them. Its emphasis is on the importance of education in the black family. It tells how the child’s family can work together. It is high-school reading.

For preschool and elementary students I would recommend books about black inventors and black historians. Children react very well to anything that shows blacks in a positive manner. That helps them understand that being black isn’t about being in slavery or in bondage, but about people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other important leaders.

Molefi Kete Asante Chairman of the African-American studies department, Temple University

Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr. This book is for students who have no background in African-American history and want a general reading. The Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans by Molefi Kete Asante and Mark Mattson. High-school students will be able to see in it a representation of the history and the culture of African Americans.

Herman Reese Consultant, Southern Regional Education Board, Atlanta

The Infusion of African and African-American Content in the School Curriculum, edited by Asa G. Hilliard 3rd. It gives an overview of the school curriculum and a specific outline of the subject. It also gives a listing of books that, if you were making a library or doing research, would be a guide or a starting point.

James P. Comer Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University.

Maggie’s Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family by James P. Comer. It is a black-family success story and too few of them have been written. It also explains the critical differences between the black experience and the experience of other groups. It deals with economic and educational differences and is told as my mother’s oral history. It is my autobiography as a window on both her life and my work with inner-city schools. It was my mother’s belief that education could make a difference.

L. Douglas Wilder Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia

The Story of The Negro Retold by Carter G. Woodson. It is an exceptional book.

Jesse Jackson “Shadow” U.S. Senator for the District of Columbia; president of the Rainbow Coalition, Washington

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. It gives the true struggle of the African-American race and shows the courage they had to stand up for what they believed in, no matter what the consequences.

John Chaney Basketball coach, Temple University, Philadelphia

Books by and about Martin Luther King Jr. He symbolizes more than the fact that the experience of a black youngster, or of any other youngster, represents a great part of humanity. He taught that we must have compassion and under standing of other human beings, and that we must be able to turn the other cheek. Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. This represents what mankind should be.

Richard E. Harris Author and former official of the Arizona Urban League

The First Hundred Years: A History of Arizona Blacks by Richard E. Harris. This is a good starting point for discussing the history of the Southwest because, in addition to the contributions of blacks, it covers Spanish Americans and Native Americans. It shows that the “Buffalo soldiers,” a black regiment of the U.S. cavalry, were instrumental in developing the West.

Anthony Artis Spokesman for Pyramid Books, an African-American bookstore chain headquartered in Hyattsville, Md.

Lessons on History by Jawanza Kunjufu. The community and a lot of schools have used this book for curriculums, and teachers recommend it highly. There is an elementary-school edition and an edition for junior- and senior-high-school students. Afrobets: the Book of Black Heroes From A to Z by Wade Hudson and Valerie Wilson Wesley. It deals with famous blacks in history and gives a short biography of each. I haven’t run across anything else like it; it is like a black dictionary.

James Oglesby Former president of the National School Boards Association; currently an administrator at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo.

Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams [the companion book to the Public Broadcasting Service’s television series of the same name]. It can help African-American students understand the struggles that some of their parents have had to go through in the recent past. It touches on some things that are a part of the history of a people, and that’s something I think students should be familiar with.

Mary Hatwood Futrell Former president of the National Education Association; currently senior fellow and associate director of the center for the study of education and national development at George Washington University, Washington.

Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr. He talks in this book about why the civil-rights movement occurred, how it aimed at dealing with the problems of both minorities and poor people, and why people can’t wait for “the process” to yield results in regard to such areas as poverty, housing, basic human and civil rights. The book is saying that we have waited long enough, that there comes a point when you must be willing to stand up and be counted.

Richard Arrington Mayor of Birmingham, Ala.

From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin. It entails the experience of blacks from the various continents of Africa to the days of the Civil War. It would be helpful to young black Americans to read and to know. It tells how blacks got here and why.

Matthew Prophet Superintendent of schools, Portland, Ore.

“The African-American Baseline Essays” [a collection of essays developed for use in the Portland public schools]. There is a different author for each of the six essays, which consist of mathematics, science, language arts, art, music, and social studies. Every teacher in the Portland school district has a copy of each essay and uses them in the curriculum. This is the third year that teachers have used the essays.

Norman Rice Mayor of Seattle

Any books by Martin Luther King Jr., because he serves as a very positive role model for African-American students. He believed in students and in resolving conflicts in a nonviolent manner. He was a very strong advocate for education.

Clifton L. Taulbert Author and businessman, Tulsa, Okla.

The Promised Land by Elizabeth Bethel. It has an academic base but is done with the heart. It covers a 100-year period of the African-American community--from the 1870’s to the 1960’s--and is an academic book about the lives of African Americans, providing valuable information for all people.

Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored by Clifton L. Taulbert. It covers a contemporary point of African-American history that has been overlooked but is germane to our present and future: the era of segregation in America and how we were able to live through it.

Constance Clayton Superintendent of schools, Philadelphia

Lessons on History by Jawanza Kunjufu. It provides a comprehensive background on African-American history and includes suggested activities providing new factual information and a more accurate portrait of the historical contributions of African Americans.

Jawanza Kunjufu. This is the companion piece for teachers. It is suggested reading for educators because of its holistic approach to developing positive self-images and self-esteem in black children.

Mary Frances Berry President of the Organization of American Historians, commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, and Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania.

From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin. It is a text book that gives a historical perspective to many of today’s racial problems.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Windows on the African-American Experience