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Asking the Clergy: What books can help children learn about racism?

From left, Rabbi Debra Bennet of Temple Chaverim,

From left, Rabbi Debra Bennet of Temple Chaverim, Sanaa Nadim, Chaplain of the Islamic Society Interfaith Center at Stony Brook University, and the Rev. Henrietta Scott Fullard of the Long Island District of African Methodist Episcopal Churches. Credit: Gladys Hecht; Newsday / John H.Cornell Jr.; African Methodist Episcopal Churches

Demonstrations across the United States about the role of law enforcement in American life have brought conversations about race to the fore. This week’s clergy discuss books, speeches and Scripture that can teach children to welcome diversity and understand the history and effects of systemic racism.

Associate Rabbi Debra Bennet

Temple Chaverim, Plainview

Children are never too young to learn about race and racism. Begin with "We’re Different, We’re the Same" (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1992), by Bobbi Kates, which examines our differences and similarities and emphasizes how wonderful these differences are.

For children in the early years of elementary school, "Let’s Talk About Race" (HarperCollins, 2008), by Julius Lester, explores how race is an essential component of our identities and highlights the importance of seeing one another’s humanity. "Freedom River" (Hyperion Books, 2007), by Doreen Rappaport, tells the story of a former enslaved person who helps rescue others from slavery. It’s a great jumping off point for elementary school discussions on compassion and heroism.

"Harbor Me" (Penguin Random House, 2018), by Jacqueline Woodson, is a great choice for children in the later years of elementary school or early middle school. The book, which tells of students who come together to discuss racism and inequality within our society, is a good conversation starter. For teens, I’d recommend "Just Mercy: Adapted for Young Adults: a True Story of the Fight for Justice" (Delacorte, 2014), by Bryan Stevenson, which focuses on inequality within the criminal justice system and the fight for freedom by the wrongfully imprisoned.

The Rev. Henrietta Scott Fullard

Presiding elder (retired), Long Island District, African Methodist Episcopal Churches

With the discussion of racism becoming a more inclusive conversation all over the world, it’s the perfect time to engage individuals about racial discrimination on the job, in schools and at churches. Children can certainly benefit from hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream Speech," given in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Text and audio of the speech are available at

King famously said that "the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." Sadly, church is still one of the most segregated places in our nation. It’s also a good place to educate children about racism. The Bible teaches us that all people are created equal and that love must be at the core of our being. The essence of Jesus dying on a cross is to unite the world against sin and racism, so that we will be able to conquer all of the injustices in the world. The fulfillment of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 shows that God is not for just one race or people. Jesus put it perfectly in Matthew 22:37-40, when he said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Sanaa Nadim

Chaplain, Islamic Society Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University

Muslims come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. In an ordinary Muslim Sunday school classroom in the United States, children are exposed to a variety of cultures and backgrounds, which tends to create an awareness and understanding of differences.

Nevertheless, Muslim children are often asked confusing questions about their identity by peers or friends. These questions may be related to their own race or ethnicity, or Islam. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor's award-winning book, "Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You" (Philomel Books, 2019), is a children’s picture book that stresses the importance of asking and answering questions. It beautifully captures the constructive quality of this dialogue through the building of a community garden.

Muslim children often ask their parents questions about Islam, or have friends who are curious about the faith. I always recommend "The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family" (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019), by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, which carefully explores the connections among schooling, Islamic tradition and family. It offers a deeper understanding of the tradition of wearing the headscarf in Islam and its meaning for two sisters, one of whom wears the headscarf and one who does not.

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