Monday, February 4, 2013

Black History Month - fact and fiction

  • "Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943.
  •  Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer

Last year, I reviewed a copy of Russell Freedman's, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).  The story of their friendship and the "back story," was so interesting, that I thought it might make a good topic for a Black History Month program for younger children.  I began searching for a way to communicate to a young library audience the connection between the history of African Americans and these two great men. In researching, I found that the founder of African American History Month (it was originally called Negro History Week), Dr. Carter G. Woodson, initiated this cultural celebration in 1926, and chose February because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are both celebrated in February. (1)   I then discovered an earlier book, Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (Henry Holt, 2008), that recounts the friendship but targets a younger audience.  Even better, it has a companion DVD.  So, I planned a Lincoln and Douglass birthday celebration, featuring the Lincoln and Douglass picture book and an explanation of the founding of Black History Month. Perfect, right?

Well, not quite.  In reading Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship, I found several discrepancies.  As it turns out, the timeline included in the picture book's back matter is correct, but some dates within the book's narrative are not. For example, Freedman's thoroughly researched book has the initial meeting of Lincoln and Douglass as a central theme. The picture book gets the date wrong.  Though the picture book still has merit and will be useful to introduce Douglass and Lincoln to a young audience, I can also use it as a teaching moment.  Always check to see that a book has been properly researched if you plan to use it as a representation of factual material.

Oddly, the same thing happened to me last year.  I sketch out my programs many months in advance to satisfy printing and publicity deadlines.  I fill the details in later.  Last year, I offered a Black History Month program on Follow the Drinking Gourd (Knopf, 1988).  While investigating resources, I found that the story, while well-known and generally accepted, is more folk legend than truth. (2)  Again, the story is not without merit and I was again able to use it as a teaching moment.  Besides the obvious lesson, we looked at ways in which to read the stars without a compass.

I understand narrative license.  I understand that it's particularly useful in treatments of difficult topics for younger children.  I also understand, however, that there is a concerted effort by our nation's leaders to raise a new generation of critical thinkers, and to achieve that end, the use of nonfiction books will rise dramatically.  It is up to us as librarians, teachers, caregivers and parents to discern fact from fiction, even when the line between them may be indistinct.  In doing so, we will help children to navigate a world where information is everywhere for the taking, but truth must be mined.



Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Apples with Many Seeds.

And don't forget, February is a perfect time to head over to The Brown Bookshelf; each day in February will feature a different artist in this annual celebration of Black History Month and children's literature.







(1) Library of Congress, "African American History Month"http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/african-american.php (Douglass' actual birthdate is not known conclusively)
(2) Follow the Drinking Gourd
http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/

9 comments:

  1. Great post - narrative licence is taken from time to time, which presents factual problems. This relationship, in particular, is so important for our kids to know about - it speaks to the challenges both men faced in overcoming perceptions and prejudices. Thank you for sharing this!

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    1. I don't mind narrative or artistic license so much if there's an Author's Note with an explanation.

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  2. Interesting that there would be such a discrepancy in a nonfiction book. Does make it much less useful.

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  3. Really enjoyed your post today. I love that you connected seemingly 'good' books with teachable moments. Great way to emphasize the importance of critical thinking and verifying information when researching.
    Thanks for participating in this week's Nonfiction Monday event.
    Tammy
    Apples with Many Seeds

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  5. This is depressing and discouraging. Seems like editors and authors also need to be able to discern fact from fiction. I also think, though, that factual errors are something kids need to know to look out for from a young age. I'm not sure it was completely clear to me till I read newspaper articles about events at which I had been present. It was clear, suddenly, that fact often goes out the window.

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    1. Ever been "quoted" in a newspaper? That can be a real eye-opener too!

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  6. Great job grabbing the teachable moment! Those conversations have a way of sticking long term for kids - they will never forget the revelation that a book could be wrong and that they can discern the truth through thoughtful consideration. Glad you linked to the Brown Bookshelf too - what a fabulous resource there!

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  7. Great post, Lisa. It's always the odd moment when a book presents one form of historical narrative that's not quite accurate. Especially when there's so much at stake! Thank you for this thought provoking post, and for contributing it to this month's Carnival of Children's Literature.

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