35 Diverse & Inclusive Books for ‘Back to School’

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Hello Literally Cultured Readers!

Wow! I can’t believe a new school year is upon us, and whether a teacher, parent, or a caregiver — will be one that will surely be different than we have ever experienced before. I myself am gearing up for returning to school as full-time online teacher. Among the myriad of concerns I have, probably the biggest one is how to effectively build an online classroom community.

While building community was at the forefront of my mind in curating this list, as you know, representation and diversity in my picture book selections has always been my top priority. I kept these two goals in mind when selecting the books on this list. Even as a 4th grade teacher, picture book read alouds are a MUST. I am always looking for new or new (to me) titles that will resonate with my students and my own children — and in this case, that touch upon important social situations, emotions, feelings, and interactions within the school setting. Additionally, because many teachers like myself will not be in a brick and mortar classroom, I have included online versions of the texts that are available to read for free (for educators) on Epic.com. Click on the Epic logo when you see it to be redirected to the book on the website.

Still want more? Check out my “Back to School” book list from 2019 here!

Thank you for continuing to explore my book recommendations and I hope you have a safe and fun start to the school year!

Happy Reading,

Shannon

All Welcome Here

Written by James Preller & Illustrated by Mary GrandPre

The bus door swishes
Open, an invitation.
Someone is not sure . . .

The first day of school and all its excitement, challenges, and yes, anxieties, are celebrated here in connected haiku poems. A diverse cast of characters all start―and finish―their first days of school, and have experiences that all children will relate to.

ABC Ready for School: An Alphabet of Social Skills

Written by Celeste Delaney & Illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

C is for cooperate. G is for grow. P is for play! This friendly and reassuring alphabet book helps young children (and those who care for them) consider, explore, and discuss a wide range of skills related to school readiness. Kids preparing for kindergarten or preK will learn social skills from A to Z, building or reinforcing their knowledge of the alphabet at the same time. Charming art brings the skills to life with encouraging scenes of fun and learning in the classroom, on the playground, and more. A special section for adults presents ideas for helping children get ready for this big change and have a successful start to school.

Grandmother School

Written by Rina Singh & Illustrated by Ellen Rooney

Every morning, a young girl walks her grandmother to the Aajibaichi Shala, the school that was built for the grandmothers in her village to have a place to learn to read and write. The narrator beams with pride as she drops her grandmother off with the other aajis to practice the alphabet and learn simple arithmetic. A moving story about family, women and the power of education―when Aaji learns to spell her name you’ll want to dance along with her. Based on a true story from the village of Phangane, India, this brilliantly illustrated book tells the story of the grandmothers who got to go to school for the first time in their lives.

When Charley Met Emma

Written by Amy Webb & Illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard

When Charley goes to the playground and sees Emma, a girl with limb differences who gets around in a wheelchair, he doesn’t know how to react at first. But after he and Emma start talking, he learns that different isn’t bad, sad, or strange–different is just different, and different is great!

This delightful book will help kids think about disability, kindness, and how to behave when they meet someone who is different from them.

Butterflies on the First Day of School

Written by Annie Silvestro & Illustrated by Dream Chen

Rosie can’t wait to start kindergarten—she’s had her pencils sharpened and her backpack ready for weeks. But suddenly, on the night before the big day, her tummy hurts. Rosie’s mom reassures her that it’s just butterflies in her belly, and she’ll feel better soon. Much to Rosie’s surprise, when she says hello to a new friend on the bus, a butterfly flies out of her mouth! As the day goes on, Rosie frees all her butterflies, and even helps another shy student let go of hers, too.

Danbi Leads the School Parade

Written & Illustrated by Anna Kim

Danbi is thrilled to start her new school in America. But a bit nervous too, for when she walks into the classroom, everything goes quiet. Everyone stares. Danbi wants to join in the dances and the games, but she doesn’t know the rules and just can’t get anything right. Luckily, she isn’t one to give up. With a spark of imagination, she makes up a new game and leads her classmates on a parade to remember! Danbi Leads the School Parade introduces readers to an irresistible new character. In this first story, she learns to navigate her two cultures and realizes that when you open your world to others, their world opens up to you.

I Am Because I Choose

Written by Patrice McLaurin & Illustrated by Dian Wang

I Am Because I Choose is an engaging picture book that encourages children to embrace their most amazing SUPERPOWER which is their power to CHOOSE! Each page demonstrates how children can become whatever it is that they choose to be while highlighting the positive consequences that can result from making good choices! The book is also a wonderful Social Emotional Learning tool that can be easily used to help facilitate the core competencies of SEL. It fosters an understanding of the important connection between behavior and personal choice, thus promoting self-awareness, which consequently results in better decision making. Furthermore, it emboldens children with the knowledge that they get to choose how they behave and empowers them by allowing for ownership of their choices. This will ultimately work to assist children in eliminating the urge to blame others for what it is that they choose to do. 

a kids book about bullying

Written by Elizabeth Tom

Sometimes kids can be mean. Really mean. While sticks and stones might break some bones, words will always hurt more.  This book explores how hard bullying can be and how complicated it can be to call it what it is when it’s happening.  

Our Class is a Family

Written by Shannon Olsen & Illustrated by Sandie Sonke

Teachers do so much more than just teach academics. They build a sense of community within their classrooms, creating a home away from home where they make their students feel safe, included, and loved.

With its heartfelt message and colorfully whimsical illustrations, “Our Class is a Family” is a book that will help build and strengthen that class community. Kids learn that their classroom is a place where it’s safe to be themselves, it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s important to be a friend to others. When hearing this story being read aloud by their teacher, students are sure to feel like they are part of a special family.

I Promise

Written by LeBron James & Illustrated by Nina Mata

Just a kid from Akron, Ohio, who is dedicated to uplifting youth everywhere, LeBron James knows the key to a better future is to excel in school, do your best, and keep your family close.

I Promise is a lively and inspiring picture book that reminds us that tomorrow’s success starts with the promises we make to ourselves and our community today.

Where’s Rodney?

Written by Carmen Bogan & Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Rodney is that kid who just can’t sit still. He’s inside, but he wants to be outside. Outside is where Rodney always wants to be. Between school and home, there is a park. He knows all about that park. It’s that triangle-shaped place with the yellow grass and two benches where grown-ups sit around all day. Besides, his momma said to stay away from that park. When Rodney finally gets a chance to go to a real park, with plenty of room to run and climb and shout, and to just be himself, he will never be the same.

I’m Gonna Push Through!

Written by Jasmyn Wright & Illustrated by Shannon Wright

Hold your head high. No matter what stands in the way of your dreams, remember this: YOU can push through anything!
If someone tells you it’s too hard, don’t you 
ever listen. You tell them, “I’m gonna push through!”

Inspired by a mantra written for her third-grade students, Jasmyn Wright’s uplifting call to “push through” is an invitation to young readers to announce their own power and to recognize and reaffirm that of others, regardless of setbacks. Her empowering words not only lift children up, but show them how to lift themselves up and seize their potential.

Your Name is a Song

Written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow & Illustrated by Luisa Uribe

Frustrated by a day full of teachers and classmates mispronouncing her beautiful name, a little girl tells her mother she never wants to come back to school. In response, the girl’s mother teaches her about the musicality of African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names on their lyrical walk home through the city. Empowered by this newfound understanding, the young girl is ready to return the next day to share her knowledge with her class. Your Name is a Song is a celebration to remind all of us about the beauty, history, and magic behind names.

My Name is Bilal

Written by  Asma Mobin-Uddin MD M.D. & Illustrated by Barbara Kiwak

When Bilal and his sister Ayesha move with their family, they have to attend a new school. They soon find out that they may be the only Muslim students there. When Bilal sees his sister bullied on their first day, he worries about being teased himself, and thinks it might be best if his classmates didn’t know that he is Muslim. Maybe if he tells kids his name is Bill, rather than Bilal, then they would leave him alone. Mr. Ali, one of Bilal’s teachers and also Muslim, sees how Bilal is struggling. He gives Bilal a book about the first person to give the call to prayer during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. That person was another Bilal: Bilal Ibn Rabah. What Bilal learns from the book forms the compelling story of a young boy grappling with his identity.

S is for School

by Greg Paprocki

An ABC primer that introduces your brilliant baby to what to expect when they’re ready to go to school.

Lots of kids look forward to going back to school each fall. This collection of 26 illustrations featuring words from A to Z will introduce toddlers to what all the fuss is about in a unique and engaging way. Included are artist Greg Paprocki’s colorful and wonderfully detailed illustrations that bring to life concepts from the school bus to the classroom, including activities, school subjects, friends, classmates, and teachers.

Oopsie-Do!

Written by Tim Kubart & Illustrated by Lori Richmond

From Grammy Award–winning musician and TV host Tim Kubart and illustrator Lori Richmond comes a lively picture book debut that reassures children that it’s okay to make mistakes!

When a girl drops her snack or scrapes her knee, does she get upset? No! She says, “Oopsie-do!” Readers will delight as they follow along and call out the OOPSIE-DO! refrain throughout the story.

Goodbye Brings Hello

Written by Dianne White & Illustrated by Daniel Wiseman

There are many ways of letting go. 
With each goodbye, a new hello.

From being pushed on a swing to learning how to pump your legs yourself, from riding a beloved trike to mastering your first bike ride, from leaving the comforts of home behind to venturing forth on that first day of school, milestones are exciting but hard. They mean having to say goodbye to one moment in order to welcome the next.   
  

The Unicorn Came to Dinner

Written by Lauren DeStefano & Illustrated by Gaia Cornwall

The unicorn smells nice, but she is very rude. She never waits for an invitation to come over―she walks right in and tracks heart-shaped hoof-prints across the carpet. She sits in Elizabeth’s chair and makes a complete mess of the house. She even sleeps in Elizabeth’s bed.

But the unicorn is no ordinary unicorn . . .

In The Unicorn Came to Dinner, author Lauren DeStefano and illustrator Gaia Cornwall invite parents and their kids to talk about feelings―especially worries and anxiety―and ultimately about how to be yourself.

All Are Welcome

Written by Alexandra Penfold & Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

Discover a school where—no matter what—young children have a place, have a space, and are loved and appreciated.

Follow a group of children through a day in their school, where everyone is welcomed with open arms. A school where students from all backgrounds learn from and celebrate each other’s traditions. A school that shows the world as we will make it to be.

a kids book about belonging

Written by Kevin Carroll

This is a book about belonging. It tackles what it’s like when you feel like you belong to a group or family or team and what it’s like when you don’t. It addresses what it feels like when you don’t fit in, or when others don’t want you around. This book teaches kids how to belong to themselves and how that helps them belong anywhere.

Fun and Games: Everyday Play

Written by Celeste Cortwright & Illustrated by Sophie Fatus

Follow a diverse group of children as they enjoy their favorite games! Readers can delight in familiar play like hide-and-seek to more unusual activities like tangrams, all while learning about the importance of taking turns and participating. Includes educational endnotes about the cultural origins of the featured games and toys.

From Far Away

Written by Robert Munsch & Saoussan Askar, Illustrated by Rebecca Green

When Saoussan immigrated with her family from war-torn Lebanon, she was only seven years old. This picture book tells the story of how she had to adjust to her new home in Canada. She describes the frustration of not understanding the teacher when she started school, not knowing how to ask to go to the bathroom, and being terrified of a Halloween skeleton. This is the perfect book to help kids empathize with immigrant children whose experiences are very similar to Saoussan’s.

The Honest-to-Goodness Truth

Written by Patricia C. McKissack & Illustrated by Giselle Potter

If telling the truth is the right thing to do, why is the whole world mad at Libby?

“Tell the truth and shame the devil,” Libby’s mama has told her. So whatever is Libby doing wrong? Ever since she started telling only the truth, the whole world seems to be mad at her. First it’s her best friend, Ruthie Mae, who gets upset when Libby tells all their friends that Ruthie Mae has a hole in her sock. Then Willie gives her an ugly look when she tells the teacher he hasn’t done his homework. It seems that telling the truth isn’t always so simple.

Be Kind

Written by Pat Zietlow Miller & Illustrated by Jen Hill

When Tanisha spills grape juice all over her new dress, her classmate wants to make her feel better, wondering: What does it mean to be kind?

From asking the new girl to play to standing up for someone being bullied, this moving story explores what kindness is, and how any act, big or small, can make a difference―or at least help a friend.

With a gentle text from the award-winning author of Sophie’s Squash, Pat Zietlow Miller, and irresistible art from Jen Hill, Be Kind is an unforgettable story about how two simple words can change the world.

The Day You Begin

Written by Jacqueline Woodson & Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

There will be times when you walk into a room
and no one there is quite like you.

There are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it’s how you look or talk, or where you’re from; maybe it’s what you eat, or something just as random. It’s not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it.

Book or Bell?: The Story of a boy, a great book, and a loud bell

Written by Chris Barton & Illustrated by Ashley Spires

The first page has Henry hooked. The second page has him captivated. The third page . . .

BBBBRRRRIIIIINNNNNGGGGG! . . . will have to wait. That is, unless Henry ignores the bell, stays put, and keeps on reading the most awesome book.

By not springing up with the ringing of the bell, Henry sets off a chain reaction unlike anything his school or town has ever seen. Luckily, Mayor Wise, Governor Bright, and Senator Brilliant know exactly what the situation calls for: A louder bell. MUCH louder.

My Panda Sweater

Written by Gilles Baum & Illustrated by Barroux

A quirky kid doesn’t mind too much when classmates tease her for dancing in her beloved sweater with panda ears. When she outgrows the sweater and donates it, she starts to think about the stories behind the clothing she sees. When she sees her panda sweater again, this time being worn by a new classmate who recently moved to town looking for a safer place to live, she knows she’s found a new dance partner. Brought to life by sweet, quirky artwork by beloved French illustrator Barroux, this timely story addresses difficult topics, such as immigration, with a light, engaging and child-friendly approach. It also offers the perfect opportunity to start conversations about a wide range of important subjects for social-emotional growth: bullying, friendship, sharing, new experiences and self-confidence.

Our Favorite Day of the Year

Written by A.E. Ali & Illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

Musa’s feeling nervous about his first day of school. He’s not used to being away from home and he doesn’t know any of the other kids in his class. And when he meets classmates Moisés, Mo, and Kevin, Musa isn’t sure they’ll have much in common. But over the course of the year, the four boys learn more about each other, the holidays they celebrate, their favorite foods, and what they like about school. The more they share with each other, the closer they become, until Musa can’t imagine any better friends.

Greetings, Leroy

Written by Itah Sadu & Illustrated by Alix Delinois

The first day at a new school is nerve-wracking enough, never mind when it’s in a new country! In this lively picture book from award-winning storyteller Itah Sadu, Roy realizes he may come to love his new home as much as he loves his old home.

Rulers of the Playground

Written & Illustrated by Joseph Kuefler

One morning, Jonah decided to become ruler of the playground.

Everyone agreed to obey his rules to play in King Jonah’s kingdom . . .

Everyone except for Lennox . . . because she wanted to rule the playground, too.

I Got the School Spirit

Written by Connie Schofield-Morrison & Illustrated by Frank Morrison

Summer is over, and this little girl has got the school spirit! She hears the school spirit in the bus driving up the street–VROOM, VROOM!–and in the bell sounding in the halls–RING-A-DING! She sings the school spirit in class with her friends–ABC, 123!

The school spirit helps us all strive and grow. What will you learn today?

A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices

Written by Sally Derby & Illustrated by Mika Song

In a unique narrative, readers meet a diverse group of six children ranging in age from Kindergarten through fifth grade. With nerves and excitement each child gears up for a new school year by hustling in the morning, meeting new teachers and new classmates during the day, and heading home with homework and relief by day’s end.

Simple, bright illustrations focus on each child and his/her worries, hopes, and successes on the first day of school.

David Jumps In

Written by Alan Woo & Illustrated by Katty Maurey

This lyrical tale, written in simple free verse, tells how a game with roots in ancient China — called elastic skip in this story — helps a boy find his footing on his first day at a new school.

It is David’s first day at his brand-new school. He doesn’t know anyone. At recess, he stands alone and watches the other children enjoying their activities on the playground, from practicing soccer moves and climbing monkey bars to playing hopscotch and daydreaming in the grass. Bundled deep inside David’s pocket is a string of rubber bands, knotted and ready for a game of elastic skip. But will anyone want to try that game? he wonders. Will anyone want to play with him?

Ruby’s Walk to School

Written by Kathryn White & Illustrated by Miriam Latimer

It’s Ruby’s first day at school, and it feels like there are beasts lurking around every corner! How will Mom help her find her courage? Ruby and Mom’s adventures open the door for caregivers to ask children about their anxieties about new experiences.

Lola Goes to School

Written by Anna McQuinn & Illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw

Lola and her family prepare for the first day of school the night before, then get up early, take pictures, and head to class. Lola puts her things in her cubby, chooses her activities, reads, plays, and has a snack. Before she knows it, it’s time to sing the good-bye song and rush into Mommy’s arms for a warm reunion. A comforting, cheerful read that demystifies the school day for preschoolers and kindergarteners.

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I Am Every Good Thing: Q & A with author Derrick Barnes

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As a mom of three Brown boys, my pursuit of books with positive representation of Black and Brown boys is neverending… and Derrick Barnes answered the call. He quickly become one of my go-to authors, and following Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut and King of Kindergarten… I found myself anxiously waiting for “what’s next?”.

And let me tell you, he did not disappoint.

I Am Every Good Thing, another collaboration between Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James, releases September 1, 2020…and you should probably go ahead and preorder it now. My immediate response to Derrick when I first read it was: “Are you considering making this in wallpaper? I think I need to plaster my sons’ walls with all of these positive words and images about boys just like them”.

Summary: The confident Black narrator of this book is proud of everything that makes him who he is. He’s got big plans, and no doubt he’ll see them through–as he’s creative, adventurous, smart, funny, and a good friend. Sometimes he falls, but he always gets back up. And other times he’s afraid, because he’s so often misunderstood and called what he is not. So slow down and really look and listen, when somebody tells you–and shows you–who they are. There are superheroes in our midst!

I knew I wanted to do something special to not only highlight this book, but honor Derrick and hear directly from him the inspiration behind this life changing book. I am forever grateful for his willingness to answer my questions, but even more grateful that he has chosen to channel his gifts into books that portray my sons for who they are and all they dream to be…and written by someone who looks like them.

I am forever grateful for his willingness to answer my questions, but even more grateful that he has chosen to channel his gifts into books that portray my sons for who they are and all they dream to be…and written by someone who looks like them.

Literally Cultured: What inspired you to begin/finish writing this book? 

Derrick Barnes: I began this book, as a poem, after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer in 2012. I didn’t finish it, but I picked it back up after Michael Brown and Tamir Rice were both murdered in 2014. I finally reworked and finished it after H&M put out an international ad, where a little African boy wore a green hoodie that read ‘Coolest Monkey In The Jungle‘. Enough was enough. If anyone is going to tell the story of what it means to be a Black boy in America, it’s going to be us, not them; not the media, not pop culture, not corporate America. Us.

Literally Cultured: What do you hope readers will take away from reading I Am Every Good Thing?

Derrick Barnes: Two things: 1) Black boys all over the planet have loved ones that are grooming them, preparing them, teaching and guiding them towards extremely bright futures. We love our sons and want nothing but the best for them. And 2) Black boys are not a monolith. I have four sons and they are all totally different. No matter where Black boys come from, I along with the people that love them want them to win in life. They are not living breathing stereotypes that fit like jigsaw pieces into your biases, only useful for your entertainment, and to justify your ridiculous fears. They are human beings capable of extraordinary feats. 

Literally Cultured: As soon as I read the first page I was overcome with intense emotions, picturing my sons, and reflecting on the current world they face –how do you deal with the emotional impact of a book (on yourself) as you are writing the story?

Derrick Barnes: My job as an author of children’s books that highlight the brilliance of Black and Brown children primarily is to fill their lives with characters, stories, and affirmations. Period. I write in the same way that I raise my sons, and that is to say that we will be optimistic, hopeful, positive, and intent on making positive change in this world. I have no time to dwell in darkness, sadness or any other non-productive mindset. I’m about teaching truths and holding up a mirror to our babies to always remind them of how amazing they are.

Literally Cultured: Your son Silas was the inspiration for Crown, was there anyone in particular that was the inspiration or is featured in I Am Every Good Thing?

Derrick Barnes: This book’s protagonist was just an amalgamation of every Black and Brown boy in the world. Although, the cover model this time was the son of illustrator, Gordon C. James. His name is Gabriel.

Literally Cultured: What is your favorite page of the book, and why?

Derrick Barnes: My favorite page is probably the “Boom-Boom-Bap-Boom-Boom Bap” page. It was my homage to the Golden Age of hip-hop. Gordon did a great job of showing the lyricist as a superstar MC, having fun, controlling the crowd, and more than likely, spitting some socially conscious, positive lyrics.

Literally Cultured:  I am so thankful that my sons are able to reap the benefits of having texts that are written just for them, written by someone who looks like them…was there any author that influenced you or that you looked up to as a child (or growing up)?

Derrick Barnes: Langston Hughes. Period. He was a master poet, essayist, short fiction writer, and we’re both from Missouri. As I grew into my voice as a writer, I became more and more aware of the opportunity to carry on his tradition as a scribe that highlighted the beauty and the triumph of Black life in America. He is definitely one of my heroes.

My son, Langston, loves Derrick’s book “The King of Kindergarten”.

Literally Cultured: What do you hope your legacy will be as a writer?

Derrick Barnes: Legacy is so important to me. So important. All of us have been given a charge to do something with our lives to make it better than it was before we came. No matter what gifts or talents you’ve been blessed with, we should use them to lift people up. To help someone see themselves and their lives as being valuable. That’s how I see my work. When all of this is over, I pray that my work inspires generations of children to hold their heads high and to be the very best versions of themselves.

To help someone see themselves and their lives as being valuable. That’s how I see my work. When all of this is over, I pray that my work inspires generations of children to hold their heads high and to be the very best versions of themselves.

Derrick Barnes, author of I Am Every Good Thing

And one more of my favorite pages…

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Dear Khloe: Love Letters to My Little Sister

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When I first connected with St.Clair Detrick-Jules I knew I wanted to do something special to honor her first book release, but also honor the special women in my life that I feel could contribute to the ever-evolving conversation surrounding Black hair.

When it comes to Black hair, one would think our society had made great strides in embracing, respecting, and honoring natural beauty. In recent years, a variety of children’s books have been released with the sole purpose of celebrating what is natural and lovable about Black hair (Hair Love, Crown An Ode to the Fresh Cut, My Hair is a Garden, My Hair is Poofy & That’s Okay, I Love my Hair!, Happy Hair, and Bedtime Bonnetjust to name a few). There’s even the fact that the short film Hair Love, written and directed by Matthew Cherry, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. 

While there have been quite a few things to celebrate, we also have to acknowledge that there is still much room for improvement. While the publishing and entertainment industries seem to be ahead of the curve, our educational institutions still continue to uphold policies and practices that are not only discriminatory, but harmful. As the K-12 Diversity Chair of a large central Ohio school district, and mother to three biracial children, I can only hope that the stories we share, whether through literature or experience, continue to spark action and change of these policies…telling our children…yes, we want you to love yourself for who you are, but maybe even more importantly, we love you for who you really are, too!

I can only hope that the stories we share, whether through literature or experience, continue to spark action and change of these policies…telling our children…yes, we want you to love yourself for who you are, but maybe even more importantly, we love you for who you really are, too!

St.Clair’s book, titled Dear Khloe: Love Letters to My Little Sister, began out of love for her little sister; who became self-conscious of her afro when she was just four years old. What started as a letter, turned into a large-scale visual collection and stories of Black women with natural hair from all over the United States. 

St. Clair’s mission through this book, and inspired by her sister is clear:

I want you to love the melanin in your skin and the curls in your hair, and I don’t want it to take so long. 

I want to lead by example. I want to teach you how to love yourself by loving myself, by introducing you to other Black women who love themselves. As Black women, we have to stop waiting for the world to love us, and we have to start loving ourselves, unconditionally.

My mother-in-law, Andreatta
My sister-in-law, Ardath

Interview

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of your own hair?

GWD: Strong. Beautiful.

RD: Can I say a phrase? Because whenever I think of my hair, this is how I think of it…and everything this phrase represents: “Side Part, Curl Under”.

AG: (laughs)

RD: Because I feel like that is a safe, a safe space. That is a very safe space for black women and their hair.

Auntie Gail

AG: It’s the go-to.

RD: Yeah it’s the go-to but for me it has always helped me assimilate…and exploring within myself whether or not that is something that I want to do or something that I feel I need to do. But it’s always been my safe space with my hair…side part, curl under.

GWD: Controversial.

AG: It’s a novelty, especially here where I am (Boston), it really identifies me as a novelty. 

How did your school experience influence your hair journey (K-12)?

RD:  For me middle school was really challenging because that’s when we started having struggles with my hair and because I was one of the very few black students at my school it was hard, especially because I just didn’t want to stand out and feel different. So one of the ways that I would deal with it was by wearing a bandana, but because I was one of the only black students wearing a bandana, I would get in trouble for wearing a bandana...because obviously if you’re a Black student and wear a bandana, you are affiliated with a gang. I remember getting in trouble so many times and not understanding why it wasn’t ok for me to wear a bandana when other girls got to wear headbands. 

And then I started cheerleading. That added extra pressure because everyone had to have their hair up in a ponytail with a bow…and that was a different struggle. That was when I went back and forth between weave, then transitioned to a wig…Then there was collegiate cheerleading, where my appearance was weighted the same as my hardest stunt or most difficult tumbling technique in try-outs. 

So I think that’s why I just rested with “side part, curl under” because their was just this constant pressure and need to assimilate, and I was just trying to make my hair look as much like everybody else…so then I wouldn’t feel different, so I wouldn’t feel bad about myself. 

GWD: For me my mom went out on a limb. In 5th grade I wanted an afro, and that was very controversial, and very black power…and she got a lot of flack for that. And there were people who back then told her and me that it was “very ugly” and “why would you let your daughter do that?”.My pediatrician (an older white man) even said to her “this is not an OK style, this is not how she should be wearing her hair”. 

My pediatrician (an older white man) even said to her, “this is not an OK style, this is not how she should be wearing her hair”. 

GWD: Now, another memory I have of that time, when I first decided to wear my hair in an afro we had a new girl come to school who had the most beautiful afro ever, she looked like Angela Davis…tall, light-skinned, with this huge afro, great. And I was like great, when I decided to wear my afro, they sent a little mini Angela Davis here to my school….I was supposed to be the one getting all of the attention. But I credit my mom for being the pioneer and letting me try that. But overall it has definitely been a journey. 

Similar to what we are seeing in K-12 institutions these days, have you ever had that experience in your workplace, whether you felt like you didn’t get a job because of your hair, or were asked to change your hair?

GWD: Before I loc’d my hair, I would always wear my hair straightened to an interview. Then once I got the job I would get comfortable with doing natural things with my hair. 

I did have one job though, at a K-8 charter school (2013), where they changed the rules for students and teachers, that no one could wear their hair in locs or braids…and this is a charter school that served mostly Black, some Brown kids, about 50% of the teachers were Black, and I was told I’d be OK because I’d be “grandfathered in”. But they actually put into the contract that that was one of things they would consider when deciding whether to hire someone. 

But they actually put into the contract that that was one of things they would consider when deciding whether to hire someone. 

AG: Early on in my career I was on relaxer mode, and later on, it was more of straightening my hair at the onset of a new job until I got comfortable. I think it’s a shame that I felt the need to do that. 

GWD: Well it’s the culture. 

AG: Right, and I feel like we have gotten past the whole culture of beauty being only a size zero with flowing straight hair…and we know it not to be true. 

RD: I feel like we know that it’s not true but it is something that I know that I constantly struggle to embrace. Like every time I wash my hair, I have to blow dry and straighten it. And the other day, Del (her fiance) was like “you don’t have to blow dry and straighten it”, and i responded with “ughh yeah I do, do you not see my hair?” and he was like “but I like your little curls”. And I just wonder,

how long will it take to undo that initial reaction in my brain, and get comfortable with who I am

If there was one thing that you wanted your white counterparts (women, men, friends, colleagues, etc.) to know about Black hair, what would it be?

GWD: There is nothing that needs to be done to it…to make it beautiful,  make it acceptable..that the way my hair grows out of my scalp, is just fine.

No other culture is criticized or looked down upon because they let their hair grow out the way that it grows out. We don’t tell people from various different countries/cultures that you are going to have to do x, y, and z to your hair in order to be accepted. We are the only ones that are asked to do anything different in order to be accepted. 

There is nothing that needs to be done to it…to make it beautiful,  make it acceptable..that the way my hair grows out of my scalp, is just fine.

RD: Our hair is not a fad. There are people who appreciate the style, embrace it for what it is and understand the culture behind it…but then you have people, like the Kardashians, that are like “oh my boxer braids” (pause) um those are cornrows, and they’ve been around for a really long time. 

GWD: Oh yes, cultural appropriation…that’s a whole other can of worms. 

It’s the true representation of our society’s culture of “we only want something when it works for us”. 

Final Thoughts

In the Foreword of Dear Khloe, clinical psychologist, natural hair stylist, and author of PsychoHairapy, Dr. Afiya M. Mbilishaka, offers the following insights that I want to leave you with:

The self-discovery of beauty within the lives of Black women with natural hair is critical in restoring balance, order, and justice to our communities. This very book, and the visual narratives collected in it, aim to disrupt the centuries of conditioning that teach us natural hair – and, in particular, tightly coiled hair – is ugly or unattractive. As we know, the truth is often quite simple, and right in front of us. The truth of Dear Khloe is that natural hair is not ugly or messy or hard to manage; natural hair – and the confidence that a Black woman has around her hair – empowers both herself and generations to come.

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Say Her Name

Out of all the experience and knowledge gained this last weekend at #ncte19, this might be the takeaway that is closest to my heart. First of all, I love Zetta Elliott (that’s a given)…but this book, and these words, are everything. As some of you already know, I have been writing poems for about a year now, trying to find a way to not put the weight and responsibility of my worries and anxiety on my husband—but to put my inner struggle, my mental burden…my fear…into verse on paper. With every single headline, or story of injustice, blatant ignorance, and gross incompetence…the pain grows, almost unbearable. So in an attempt to quell the fear I carry with me for my husband, our three sons, my family members, my countless friends…I too, turned to poetry.

Thank you Zetta for these words, your protest on a page.