Very often, young ISD girls are encouraged to read the stories of women who have accomplished tasks of significance, tasks both large and small. This encouragement is a way of telling young girls that they matter, that their goals and hopes matter, and that we seek to foster passion, drive, and ambition in their spirits and actions. However, as educators we continue to struggle to teach our girls that it’s okay to dream big because very often our social and academic lessons butt up against a tidal wave of other voices telling young girls to “mind their place”, to “act like a lady”, to “be seen and not heard”, and other such pithless clichés.
Are we educators butting up against culture? A generation gap? A lingering belief that young girls actually do require stifling protection to the point of crushing their dreams? To what degree are educational institutions part of that gendered problem?
Now let’s throw one more monkey wrench into this discussion: Race. How do ISD educators tackle this same gendered question while minding the intersection of race? How do we avoid the chasm of erasure - the neglectful or purposeful omission of curriculum that reflects girls of color? Or a library collection that reflects girls of color?
Step into the ISD library and don’t be surprised to find a large collection of heroes for young girls, but they are predominantly white. Think Amelia Earhart. Think Jane Goodall. Marie Curie. Princess Diana. Joan of Arc, Janis Joplin, Anne Frank. Eleanor Roosevelt. Sandra Day O’Connor. Sally Ride. Go to the fiction section, and young girls are met with a wide range of Katniss Everdeen types. Heroes to be sure. Strong, gutsy, talented, take charge types with moxie and humor. But predominantly white. Indeed, when I did a statistic search of the ISD collection, I discovered that our ISD library had a collection remarkably absent of people of color. Ten percent of our collection featured a protagonist from the African diaspora or Africa itself. Of that ten percent, males’ narratives made up the bulk of our collection. Females of color are not truly erased, but certainly approximating a dangerous trend.
Yes, I’ve discovered my librarian goal and challenge for my tenure here at ISD!
To that end, I present Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by E. B. Lewis. With this picture book, told in poetic verse, ISD students get a hero, a risk taker, a dreamer, and an accomplished woman of color who was the first black woman in America to have an international pilot’s license. Ask most students in 4th or 5th grade, and they know who Amelia Earhart is. And they can tell you about Kitty Hawk and the Wright brothers of North Carolina. They can even talk to you about DaVinci and his flight sketches. But they draw a blank when I ask about Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman.
If you too are drawing a blank, here is a picture book written by Nikki Giovanni that can spark your interest and give you an access point to inspire a love of physics, social studies, and math. If you want to know more about Bessie, the first female African American pilot, click the link. Or come to the library and check out the picture book.