March 20 - Today's post contributed by Renée Watson
Using Our Voices for Something Good: Teaching the Story of Florence Mills to children
by Renée Watson
“I want my voice to sing loud like the birds outside my window.”
“I want my voice to calm my baby brother when he is crying.”
These are a few of the responses I’ve gotten during my author visits to elementary schools when I ask young people, “How can you use your voice for something good?” I ask this question because, for me, introducing them to Florence Mills in my picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird is an opportunity to teach them not only about a Harlem Renaissance jazz singer and dancer, but it’s an opportunity to talk about their dreams and goals, a chance to show them that no matter their age or where they come from they have a voice and they can use that voice for something good.
Florence Mills used her voice for signing. As a young child she was dancing and singing, winning contests all over Washington, DC. But she also used her voice to stand up for her friends and to stand up against segregation. At a very young age, Florence was invited to perform at an established theater and when her black guests were told they couldn’t come in to see the performance because the theater was for whites only, Florence refused to perform. The manager begged this little pint-sized girl to perform and it wasn’t until he snuck her guests in that Florence agreed to take the stage.
Amazing courage for anyone during that time, but especially for a young child.
During my author visits, I talk with students about this scene. At a recent school visit in Harlem, all of the children agreed that Florence’s guests were being treated unfairly. I asked them what they think it took for Florence to stand up to the manager of the theater. There was a collective answer.
Then, we talked about times when they witness something unfair and how they can be brave and use their voice for something good. Answers included standing up to bullies on the playground by telling a teacher, not joining in when someone is being teased, and trying new things.
We also talked about Florence’s signature song, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird.” This was Florence’s cry for equal rights. We talked about how singers, poets, and artists can use their talent to share important messages and how art can do more than entertain.
I love asking young people to think of an issue they want to bring attention to. From no more violence in the world, to cleaner streets, to more parks, there is no shortage of ideas children want to address.
I don’t want to give them false hope. I don’t want a class of third or fourth graders thinking that just because they write one poem about world peace or no more homelessness that the next day they will see significant change. I point out to them that Florence didn’t get to see the change she was fighting for. And she didn’t only do big things that everyone could see. She disguised herself and visited the sick in hospitals, she gave food to beggars as she passed them, and she loved sharing candy and talking with children in her Harlem neighborhood.
I try to encourage young people to see there are small things they can do everyday to make a difference in their world. I want them to start small. That is why talking about singing to a baby brother or reading poems at a nursing home is the perfect answer.
As we celebrate Women’s Heritage this month, I am reminded of how women have been forced to keep silent, how we had to fight for the right to vote, and how our voices are sometimes overlooked, disregarded, or muted even now.
It is my hope to share Florence’s voice, along with the voices of my other sheroes like, Myrlie Evers, Lucille Clifton, and the women of Sweet Honey in the Rock with young people—boys and girls—so that the legacy of standing up through protest, poem, or song continues generation after generation.
Renée Watson is the author of Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. Her work has received several honors including a NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction.
One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. Her picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, is based on poetry workshops she facilitated with children in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Renée has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers through out the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. For more information on Renée, please visit www.reneewatson.net.