Black Lives Matter: Building Empathy Through Reading (Part I)

Martin Luther King Jr. March on WashingtonLibrarians are peddlers of empathy. We understand that reading is a chemical reaction between reader and writer producing a visceral engagement with the characters that allows us to live the lives of others, if only for for the space of a novel. We know that when we give a book to a patron, it can be at once an act of revolution, a strike against ignorance, a catalyst for change, a necessary escape, a life-saving event, a clarion call, a moment of peace, or simply a riveting read. Whatever it turns out to be though, it is always founded in empathy. As readers, each book allows us to, at turns, discover, reaffirm or reimagine what it means to be human.

In the wake of the Ferguson verdict and in solidarity with the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is empathy that we need more than ever. Indeed, as I reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, I am reminded of this quote by him: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Ideally, this communication would happen face-to-face, two individuals in dialogue discovering what it means to be the other. However, in certain cases whether due to lack of representation, access, or will, this is simply not possible. What then?

As YA librarians and as educators, I feel strongly that it is an essential part of our calling to do more than simply recommend books to our teenage patrons; we must promote, persuade, and provoke our young readers to pick up those books that broaden and challenge our understanding of what it means to be another and to be ourselves. To echo the #WeNeedDiverseBooks  campaign, we need diverse books because reading can change the world one perspective at a time. And change must come. And it will come because reading is an act of communication that can and does open minds and hearts, transcending our often irrational and unfounded fears to create newfound empathy and compassion.

"Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. MST, 8/28/63." U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection.
“Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. MST, 8/28/63.” U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection.

One thing that has struck me throughout my 15 years as a teacher and librarian, is how often students of all ethnicities have told me that the effects of racism (particularly racism directed towards African-Americans) are exaggerated. Or that these same victims of racism can avoid it if they try. Or that the Civil Rights Movement made everything better and people should stop complaining. Or even that racism simply no longer exists. I believe recent events have convinced most people that racism against Black people not only exists but is flourishing, however many teenagers I’ve talked to still grapple with the other above statements.

Part of the problem is a lack of context; the way in which U.S. history is taught to teenagers doesn’t fully illuminate or explore the Black experience nor does it aim to create compassion, clarity, or solidarity. The average teenager has simply never been exposed to the myriad of stories–from heartening to heroic to harrowing–that comprise the history of Black people in America. And without this exposure, most cannot understand or envision the depth of suffering, injustice, and daily struggle that has defined Black life in America for centuries.

Enter literature and librarians. We can give our communities the very stories that provide the context and, most importantly, the emotional connection so crucial to empathy and change. In thinking about what books to include in this post, I used both of the above concepts as my guide. I wanted to promote books that speak to the Black experience, past and present, and that also speak to the reader’s heart and soul. Part I of this post will look at books spanning from slavery to Jim Crow, while Part II will highlight books from the Civil Rights Movement through today.


Sharon M. Draper’s Copper Sun (2007 Coretta Scott King Award) is an unflinching portrayal of a 15-year-old Ashanti girl’s horrific experience of slavery. It follows her from her village in Africa to a plantation in the Carolinas where she is the victim of brutal physical and sexual assault. Her unusual friendship with Polly, a white indentured servant, provides added complexity to the story while encouraging readers to question their own assumptions and stereotypes. It’s certainly one of the best YA books about this topic and ideal for high school students of all ages.

CHAINSChains by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009 Best Books for Young Adults) is geared more towards middle school students and therefore does not describe the brutalities of slavery to quite the same degree as Copper Sun. Nevertheless, Anderson excels at creating empathy for her characters and this book is no exception. The story of a 13-year-old slave named Isabel and her involvement in the Revolutionary War as a spy for the rebels makes for a unique perspective on slavery at the time, the often hypocritical stance of the revolutionaries in regards to freedom, and the status of women.

Barbara Wright’s excellent novel Crow takes place between Emancipation and the beginning of the Jim Crow era and is inspired by a white supremacist coup that successfully took over the governing body of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. The book revolves around 11-year-old Moses whose grandmother lived through slavery and whose father is a prominent figure in his hometown. The strength of the narrative voice coupled with the exciting plot twists based on true events makes this a must-read for middle schoolers.

Segregation/Jim Crow

emmetttillcoverMarilyn Nelson’s book of sonnets, A Wreath for Emmett Till, (2006 Printz Honor Book) is a masterful and nuanced examination of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an event often described as the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Nelson’s superb use of language and form challenges readers to consider questions of beauty and violence, guilt and redemption all through a variety of perspectives.

Although not a YA novel, Richard Wright’s seminal memoir Black Boy is completely accessible to older teens and one of the most important works to be written by an American author. Wright recounts his journey to becoming a writer beginning in rural Mississippi during Jim Crow and ending in Chicago. Written in extraordinary prose, the book is a powerful and eye-opening portrayal of growing up talented, poor, and Black in America.

Finally, Sharon M. Draper’s most recent novel Stella By Starlight takes place during the Depression era in the segregated town of Bumblebee, North Carolina. It is an honest and intense portrayal of a one young girl’s encounter with the Klu KLux Klan and the events that ensue as a result. A powerful contemplation of humanity’s ability to both love and hate deeply, this is a novel sure to make waves this year.

I’ll end here for now…stay tuned for Part II of this post later this week! Read a diverse book in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

~Alegria Barclay, currently reading Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

3 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter: Building Empathy Through Reading (Part I)”

  1. I am currently reading “Chains” to my fifth grade literacy block, my students are enthralled with the book, setting and circumstances of the main character.
    Thank you for the other titles! I am also looking for short videos to compliment “Chains” to enhance the text with visuals of the time period.
    Great website!

  2. The list of titles and resources for Black History Month is great. As Obama said last night – America is about us. _We_ are going to celebrate Black History Month, vs. celebrating for _them_.

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