In her recent book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World, Michele Borba laments this phenomenon. “Empathy is widely underestimated by moms and dads, as well as the general public … in trying to make our children feel good, we tend to focus on their cognitive, social, and physical feats,” she writes. “Overlooked are their moral accomplishments like compassion, generosity, thoughtfulness, and concern for others.”
She explains that one way a child’s empathy, or “moral imagination,” can grow is via reading. I can attest to this claim, for when I was 16 years old, my father strongly suggested I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Though my family is white, my father helped fight discriminatory housing during the civil rights movement, so we regularly talked about social issues like racism as I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s.
John Howard Griffin was a white man who had his skin medically tinted so he could “pass” for black as part of an experiment in the late 1950s. Published in 1961, Black Like Me recounts Griffin’s six-week journey as a black man on a Greyhound bus traveling through the racially segregated South. The indignities he detailed had a striking impact on readers of all ethnicities, causing a surge of empathy and adding fuel to the civil rights movement.
Reading Black Like Me had a large impact on me just as it does most readers. I did not realize at the time that people could still be treated so unjustly, and that literature could have such a moral component. From that point on I gravitated to African-American literature as an English major in college, culminating in a dissertation in graduate school that focused on traumatic novels about American slavery and its aftermath.
Like my father decades ago, I recently encouraged my own 16-year-old daughter to read Black Like Me. I wanted to raise her awareness of racial issues that continue today. As she explained to me, “It made some things come to life for me that I didn’t realize.” It has also informed her reading of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, which she is now studying in school and which I used to teach as a college professor. The combination of these powerful books has enabled our family to experience a generational cycle of awareness of black history, at least in part.
For my daughter, the most poignant line from Beloved is on the last page, when the narrator paradoxically states: “This is not a story to pass on.” We talked about how that statement has several meanings, one of which is that the horrible injustices of slavery should never happen again. But another meaning is that the story of slavery is not one to “pass” on, as in “I’ll pass on listening — or decline to listen — to that story.”
Black History Month reading for younger children
Black Like Me and Beloved are more appropriate for teen readers, especially during Black History Month. For younger children, other empathy-expanding recommendations might include Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine (ages 6 and up), Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson (ages 8 and up), and Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen (ages 12 and up). Parents could also check their local libraries for additional age-appropriate suggestions.
Of course, while reading about racism helps build empathy, it is not the same as doing something more concrete to fight it. That’s why my wife and I were proud of our daughter when she recently became one of her high school’s Diversity Fellows, a group that explores ways to achieve a more just and respectful society. We made sure to celebrate her moral milestone, and quickly shared the news with her grandfather.