Kids and Race Back-to-School Book Club: We Came to America and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

by Katharine Strange

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“We are all immigrants” is a common refrain when Americans discuss immigration. And while well-intentioned, this statement doesn’t include the experiences of many African Americans and Native Americans. It’s tempting to paint a rosy picture for our children of the American melting pot, but teaching these half-truths only gives our kids things to unlearn in the long run.

Parents frequently ask Kids and Race how they can talk about difficult racial issues, such as slavery, with their kids. A few simple statements of fact go a long way, which is one of the reasons why Faith Ringgold’s We Came to America is so fantastic. It explains basic facts of how different groups of people came to America at a level even small children can understand.

But the text doesn’t end with how different racial and ethnic groups came here. It describes how we overcame our pain through art, music, and culture. Ringgold explains that “Our food, our fashion, and our art Made America GREAT.” The book ends with the refrain, “In spite of where we came from, Or how or why we came, We are all Americans, Just the same.”

If you are unfamiliar with Ringgold’s work, she is the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King-award winning author and illustrator of such classics as Tar Beach and Harlem Renaissance Party. Her illustrations are beautiful and her texts are accessible yet poetic.

Bottom Line: We Came to America is a beautiful history lesson for kids aged preschool and up.

 
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Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together was first released in 1997. This updated, twentieth-anniversary edition begins with a thorough, yet concise overview of what has changed in America between 1997 and 2017. It follows the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, student protests on college campuses, and finally the election of Donald Trump.

This overview of recent history is helpful, however, the heart of this book (and the original 1997 version) explores individual racial identity development from preschool to old age. Why do children self-segregate in the cafeteria? Because of where they are in their identity development. While young children happily integrate when given exposure to people of other races, once kids hit middle school they are facing the realities of what it means to inhabit a racial identity. Black boys and girls encounter more prejudice and are perceived by adults to be older than they are and more deviant than their white peers. As a result of this (along with positive affiliations of what their racial identity means) teens and tweens often self-segregate.

Bottom line: Dr. Tatum does a fantastic job taking the heady academic topic of the psychology of racial identity and breaking it down for lay people. This book is a must-read for teachers and parents, particularly if your child is of a different race than you.

Bonus: Jasen Frelot and I will be discussing this book in an upcoming podcast! Keep an eye out!