Voicing Black Lives

I enjoy reading biographical picture books. When they’re well done, the interplay between the words and images really enliven the story. The picture books focus on a particular aspect of the life making success possible for young readers. Biographies specifically for young adults are rare, but when they exit they usually incorporate photographic evidences to document the history of someone’s life.

I’ll continue revieiwing biographies of Black women as we morph into Women’s History Month because Women’s History Month is Black Women’s history month, too.

Reflecting on some of the bios I’ve seen, I can’t help but think of all the bios I’ve not seen. Looking over biographies shared in the the past month, the biographies of African Americans continues to deliver a carefully curated, conservative collection. The lives of revolutionaries and black nationalists are rarely documented for young readers, re-enforcing the myth of a monolithic community. There are never enough biographies of women. Sure, we hear about Malcolm X more than we used to but what about Sonia Sonchez, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Marcus Garvey, Septima Clark, Martin Delany, Marian Wright Edelman, Dorothy Height or David Walker? As society focuses more on the contributions of young people, we continue to get biographies of jazz musicians and civil rights leaders rather than Hydeia Broadbent, Kya Allums , Samuel Sinyangwe and Trayvon Martin. Writing stories gives validation to their efforts, their causes and their identities. Imagine a teen in Chicago reading a book that walks a teen through the murder of Trayvon Martin and how that became the birth of a movement. Or a youngster in Miami witnessing on paper the purposeful and prideful life of RuPaul. There is neither shyness there nor hesitation there. The socio political climate changes and a sad but necessary truth is that sometimes a book with someone else’s story is all we have to cling to.

Little known black history fact: there were and there are and there will be accomplished African Americans who are disabled and who are lesbian, gay or transgendered. And, their existence should be documented. Erasing them from our history lessens us all.

When you read about Harriet Tubman, how often do you read that she had epilepsy? When is the last time you saw a book about Wilma Rudolph? Did you know that Harry Belafonte, a constant presence in the civil rights movement, had dyslexia? Where is the story of Johnnie Lacy, a leader in the independent living movement and leader for disabled Black women? There are books for young readers on Langston Hughes (that never mention his sexual orientation) but what about James Baldwin? Alice Walker? Audre Lorde? Alvin Ailey? E. Lynn Harris? Bruce Negent? Pat Parker?

Let’s not stop there! Young people have got to know about Afro Latinxs Celia Cruz, Minni Minoso, Roberto Clemente, Pura Belpré and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. And there’s mixed race African Americans such as directors Albert and Allen Hughes, twins of Armenian and African American descent; Bob Marley, August Wilson, Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Jeter.

I’d like to see more biographies told as photographic essays and graphic novels.

For the past 27 days, I would like to think you’ve been surrounded by articles, images and stories of African Americans that were once again taken from the shelf and dusted off. Who else would you like to see in a biography for children and/or teens that speaks to the complexity and diversity of being Black in American today?

What I personally want, what I really want is a RuPaul biography for teens.

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