BU CEED: Learning How to Cause Good Trouble – The Role of Racially Affirming Literature

BU’s Center on the Ecology of Early Development recently published one of their first blog posts. You can read the reflections of Dr. Stephanie Curenton and Cata Hopkins here or on the CEED site

Last month, CNN aired the new biopic film John Lewis: Good Trouble honoring the life and legacy of the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. The film details Lewis’ work from the “Freedom Rides” of 1961 all the way through his decades of service and leadership in the U.S. Congress. The story of his unrelenting commitment to the fight for a more just America offers so much from which we can learn. But perhaps the most urgent lesson Lewis’ legacy teaches us is that when we see something that is not right, we must say something. We must act, even–and sometimes especially–if that action stirs up some trouble. He reminds us that what is legal is not always just, and what is just is not always legal. And that we must stand up for what is just, even when it is not allowed. When we stand up for justice, that’s good trouble. 

At CEED, our Literacy for Liberation initiative is focused on teaching children and families about racial justice using racially affirming storybooks. John Lewis himself often cited his discovery of a comic book called “Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story,” which detailed the work of Dr. King in a way that was accessible to children, as the initial catalyst behind his understanding of the civil rights movement and the role he wanted to play in it. And we at CEED too believe that racially affirming literature is central to raising an inclusive, anti-racist generation ready to take action against injustice. Racially affirming literature is meant to help children make connections and build positive narratives around racial identity and justice. Such books might offer historical context to the concept of race, they may teach readers the skills they need to become advocates for justice, or they might simply serve as a reflection of the lived experiences of racially minoritized children in order to provide representation and allow readers–if they identify with the story’s characters–to feel seen and validated. Racially affirming books often feature children of color as the main characters, and they capture these characters’ agency, ideas, identities, and full range of emotions.

One example of a racially affirmative story that calls directly on the teachings of John Lewis is Lisa Moore Ramée’s juvenile novel, A Good Kind of Trouble. The novel gets its title from the journey taken by main character Shayla; a journey on which Shayla learns how to think about the role of race in her self-identity and how to stand up for what she knows is right, even when it’s not easy or “cool” or even allowed. As Shayla learns about the Black Lives Matter Movement and the role she wants to play in it, we see the teachings of John Lewis manifest in a way that’s relatable and relevant to a seventh-grader. Shayla’s story helps readers develop the critical thinking skills they need to process the world around them, and it holistically captures and validates the full humanity of a Black child navigating all the usual drama of middle school while also learning how to understand race and its impact on her identity and her friendships.

Check out the video below to hear reflections from Ariana, a ten-year-old fifth grader, on A Good Kind of Trouble.

Ensuring that children have access to these types of stories is an important way to support them as they develop their unique self-identities and begin to understand the roles race and racial justice may play in those identities. We use literature to reflect reality. Stories are foils meant to provide us with new perspectives through which we can view our experiences and seek to make sense of them. When we give our children access to stories that feature characters who look like them and plot lines that reflect their own experiences, we empower their imaginations to explore what’s possible, we affirm the ways in which they view the world, and we encourage within them a love of reading, which is, ultimately, a tool of liberation. 

For more resources on racially affirming books, check out the list on our website curated by CEED’s research scientists, Dr. Jaqueline Sims, Dr. Stephanie M. Curenton, and Dr. Shana E. Rochester as part of their work on The Pittsburgh Study

Additionally, Netflix recently released a show called Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices, which showcases Black celebrities performing read-alouds of children’s books written by Black authors. A list of the featured titles can be found here, as well as some background information about the show. And lastly, if you didn’t catch the showing of the John Lewis biopic, you can rent it here and watch it any time. 

Keep fighting the good fight.