Classroom resources for infusing African American studies

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook asked several respected educators and education advocates locally and nationally to suggest a resource that could be tapped to infuse African American studies into the K-12 classroom. Below are their suggestions.

The list below does not include the wealth of resources on the African roots of African Americans. Some authors whose work is useful background include: Edward Robinson Jr., John Henrik Clarke, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Ivan Van Sertima, Yosef ben-Jochannan, and George James.

For instance, Robinson is a local scholar who contributed to the School District’s African American curriculum, and also co-authored Journey of the Songhai People.

Deidre Farmbry, founder and CEO of The Urban Education Fund, and former interim superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of the School District:

Visually stimulating by virtue of its haunting sketches of the horrors of the Middle Passage is a large art book titled The Middle Passage, by Tom Feelings (Dial Books, 1995). You can feel the depth of human suffering and inhumane treatment through the artist’s use of motion and light in his soul-stirring black and white drawings. In addition, the book’s introduction was written by historian John Henrik Clarke, who gives an overview of the Atlantic slave trade from a historical and psychological perspective.

Deborah Wei, principal, Folk Arts and Cultural Treasures Charter School:

Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching (Deborah Menkart, Alana D. Murray, and Jenice L. View, eds., published by Teaching for Change and PRRAC, 2004), provides lessons and articles for K-12 educators on how to go beyond a “heroes” approach to the Civil Rights Movement. As one of the most commonly taught stories of people’s struggles for social justice, the Civil Rights Movement has the capacity to help students develop a critical analysis of United States history and strategies for change. However, the empowering potential is often lost in a trivial pursuit of names and dates. The book includes interactive and interdisciplinary lessons, readings, writings, photographs, and interviews, with sections on education, labor, citizenship, culture, and reflections on teaching about the Civil Rights Movement.

Linda Mizell, writer, lecturer in education at Tufts University, consultant:

Documenting the American South (DocSouth),, is a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to an extraordinary digital collection of texts, images, and audio files related to Southern history, literature, and culture from the colonial period through the first decades of the 20th century. Currently DocSouth includes seven thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs.

Marsha Pincus, English and drama teacher at Masterman School and Ruth Wright Hayre Teacher of the Year:

High school English and drama teachers can introduce students to the plays of August Wilson. Wilson, who until his untimely death this summer was often referred to by critics as America’s greatest living playwright, has written a 10-play cycle that chronicles the experiences of African Americans during every decade of the 20th century. Infused with the aesthetic of the blues and bursting with the language and spirit of “ordinary” people, Wilson’s plays can breathe life into the social and political issues and events students are studying in history classes.

Paula J. Paul, public school educator, diversity educator, and educational consultant:

Africans in America, America’s Journey through Slavery by Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith (Harcourt Brace, 1998). Through years of teaching American history and African American history to middle and high schoolers, I was always searching for resources that could fill in the gaps of ignorance and misinformation about the institution of slavery. Africans in America provides a unique foundation from which to approach the teaching of that institution. This book is based on impeccable research, slave narratives, photographs, and stories. It is a fabulous read for high school students as well. Africans in America was also a public television series:

Toni Bynum Simpkins, senior program associate for the federal GEAR UP initiative:

Langston Hughes’ works illustrate his immense versatility as a writer. This Harlem Renaissance author produced a rich array of material that includes poems, novels, short stories, volumes of fiction, plays, children’s poetry, musicals, operas, autobiographies, radio and television scripts and magazine articles, as well as the editing of seven anthologies. Hughes’ body of work added to the African/African American curriculum would give our students a wealth of comparative work to enjoy and an in-depth understanding of the many aspects of literary art.

Bill Bigelow, editor, Rethinking Schools:

At the River I Stand is a 56-minute film celebrating the strike of 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. It’s inspiring, it’s heartbreaking. This is the struggle that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died supporting. But it’s the workers and their fight for dignity who are center-stage in this often-overlooked story. A vital resource for any high school history class. Available from

Eric K. Grimes (Shomari), youth development specialist, founder of Black Men 4 Black Youth:

A set of books by Velma Maia Thomas (Crown Publishers), has a good combination of solid historical information, sample documents, artifacts and pictures … one contains a CD with music. They are: Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation; No Man Can Hinder Me: The Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song; Freedom’s Children: The Passage from Emancipation to the Great Migration; and We Shall Not Be Moved: The Passage from the Great Migration to the Million Man March. The interactive layout and design seem to engage students more readily than a traditional textbook format. Most appropriate for middle and high school students.

Deborah Menkart, director, Teaching for Change; co-editor, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching:

Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier. (Henry Holt, 2005). Award-winning writer Nikki Giovanni’s new book is the antidote to all the stories about tired, old Rosa Parks who single-handedly desegregated the buses. Here she is placed firmly in the Movement (along with Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon) and the key historical events of the time. The text is accessible to young readers, but without sacrificing the complexity of the story, and the paint/collage illustrations are radiant. An ideal resource to honor the life of Rosa Parks and the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Some recommended nonprofit organizations for additional resources: