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Beyond MLK and Rosa Parks

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

In honor of Martin Luther King Day today, I searched my daughters’ bookshelves for a story to read with them. I realized, however, that we have probably been reading the same books every MLK day for the last five years. While these books are important, inspiring reads, I decided it was time for something different.

I explained to my children that because they already knew a lot about Martin Luther King, we were going to read a story about a different African American who influenced history. “Rosa Parks?” they asked. “No,” I replied. We went on to read a story about James Forten, an African American who fought in the Revolutionary War and later went on to own a thriving business in Philadelphia. Forten used his resources to contribute to the abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage causes.

I must admit though that the response of my children disturbed me. Are Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks the only historical Black figures they know about? If I had told my girls that we were going to read a story about a White person who influenced history, I don’t think they would have defaulted to one or two people. In fact, I know they would not have.

Thinking back to the start of the school year, I recalled that the first several months of my fifth grade child’s social studies curriculum focused on early explorers, who all happened to be White men. Sure, there was the occasional sidebar on an “inspirational” or “courageous” African American, Native American, or woman. Yet, it is obvious that the inclusion of these stories served as afterthoughts to satisfy political correctness, rather than as the featured events. And if people of color and women are rare sights in K-12 literature, finding an individual with a disability in a textbook is like spotting a unicorn (except of course for the compulsory Helen Keller story).

So what happens when people with disabilities, individuals of color, and females serve as the “supporting cast” in the history books rather than claiming starring roles?

The concept of “mirrors and windows” in education has been gaining traction recently. A “mirror” is a piece of literature that reflects one’s own culture or background, while a “window” provides a viewpoint of an experience that differs from one’s own. Mirrors are essential because they allow students to see themselves in literature and in history. Mirrors show respect for an individual’s background and culture, and foster a sense of belonging. They provide children with “possibility models” - demonstrating that people who look like them have made tremendous contributions to history. Windows, on the other hand, are equally significant because they allow students to gain different perspectives into other ways of life and being. Windows spark curiosity and foster understanding of others. They help children see that while there might be differences between groups of people, there are commonalities as well.

If Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks serve as the only mirrors for Black children and the only windows for children of other races, what does that communicate to students? That there are only two individuals of color who made truly valuable contributions? That these people are the exceptions instead of the norm? Providing a limited worldview to students is both inaccurate, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie cautions against these limited narratives, warning of “the danger of a single story.” Adichie argues:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

The stories we tell our children matter. The texts we elevate in our curriculum matter. Mirrors and windows matter.

It is time to move beyond MLK and Rosa Parks in recognition that multiple narratives matter.

A photo of two teenaged girls sitting on steps outside.  Their faces are not included in the photo.  Both girls have long dark hair, are wearing jeans and appear to be looking at a book together.

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