Article: How Black Art Can Spark Conversations with Children

PBS Kids, February 21, 2019, By Aisha White, Ph.D.

This weekend, while reading picture books with my grandchildren, we landed on a book about artist Clementine Hunter, Art From Her Heart, Folk Artist Clementine Hunter. Clementine Hunter, a self-taught folk artist, grew up working on a plantation and painted everyday life there, from the work in the cotton fields to baptisms and funerals. As we read, I asked my grandchildren: What do you think of the vibrant images? How did the illustrator make use of size, texture and color? We talked about Hunter’s life and its influence on her paintings, like what a plantation is and how people were forced to work there for free. When we got to the page that describes how Hunter finally had her art displayed in a museum but was not permitted entry, the eldest declared “That’s not fair!” and they wondered why anyone would do that.

When presented in ways that children can appreciate, art has been proven to produce academic benefits such as increased vocabulary, plus math and reading growth, as well as behavioral benefits such as social-emotional learning. I’ve come to see the ways that children benefit from exposure to art by artists who look like them, in particular the young African American children served by the program I direct. Art that elevates our darkness is something we should experience like a daily meal. It’s nourishment for our mind and soul.

The arts in general, and Black art in particular, can help children resist race-based negativity, giving them the strength, confidence and self-assurance that will help protect them from racial injustices for years to come.

Learn Black History Through Art

Through exploration, children can uncover the stories behind the works of Black artists:

  • Jacob Lawrence’s pieces take us to plantations, where enslaved Africans worked. His work also gives us a glimpse of the great migration, when over six million African Americans migrated from the South in search of greater opportunities in the North during the early and mid 1900s.
  • Romare Bearden’s captivating collages provide a space for discussions about urban settings and the great jazz eras during the 20th century from his childhood living through the Harlem Renaissance. Artists, musicians and writers were always around and they later inspired his artwork.
  • While Bearden used collages, Elizabeth Catlett used painting and printmaking to depict the struggle of Black people through art, focusing often on sharecroppers and civil rights activists. Her iconic Sharecropper image creates openings for conversations, not only about her unique style, but about the Black farming tradition, and inequality.
  • Contemporary artists like Kehinde Wiley also play an important part in depicting Black history through art. Wiley’s work presents majestic, resplendent and regal portrayals of everyday contemporary Africana people, the most notable being his portrait of President Barack Obama. His hip-hop influence resonates with many young Black children and opens a space for dialogue about current Black urban settings and experiences.

Read Picture Books Featuring Black Illustrators

Picture books, both those that specifically celebrate Black art and those that feature Black illustrators, are the way many children have their first up-close and personal experience with remarkable, professional Black art. From Come Look with Me to Radiant Child, a plethora of picture books about Black art and artists are readily available at your neighborhood library or bookstore.

Works by well-known Black children’s book illustrators bring authenticity and reverence to images of Africana people. Many of their books cover eras and heroes from Black history. Here are some wonderful read alouds that feature Black illustrators and history:

  • We Are the Shipwritten and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, who uses oil paintings to tell the story of the gifted athletes of Negro league baseball.
  • The Cart that Carried Martin, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Don Tate. Tate uses soft colors to convey hope in depicting the funeral procession of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Bold Women in Black History, written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. Initially a personal project for Black History Month, Harrison created this biographical collection of notable Black women from history with their portraits in her signature style.

Talk about the art with your children by asking: What stands out to you first and why? Are different materials used? What shapes do you see? These books allow space to discuss colors, like the color brown, in ways that are non-judgmental and in a context that celebrates things that are dark. Many Black artists are conscious of the stigma assigned to blackness, and their work takes an intentional, in-your-face stance that says all black is beautiful.

Engage in Black Art with Kids

Using one of my favorite artists, Jacob Lawrence, for inspiration, parents and caregivers can try these activities and check out these books about his life: The Great Migration; Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence; and Jacob Lawrence in the City.

Lawrence liked to use very few colors in his paintings. In The Migration Series, he painted with the same colors from panel to panel. Ask your child to use only the colors red, yellow, dark green, slate blue, and brown ­— The Migration Series colors — in a picture they draw themselves. Next, they can fill in black and white paintings from the series. Afterwards, ask them to talk about their pictures. Was it hard to use only five colors? If so, why?

As another way to introduce the visual arts to young children, ask them to look at a Lawrence image. What do they see? Have them call out the various colors and which ones they believe the artist used most. Ask questions like: Why do you think the artist chose to use those colors in particular. Where do you think people are in this particular image? Are there particular shapes that appear frequently, like circles, squares, or diagonal lines? Do the people look happy, sad, anxious? Why?

Aisha White, Ph.D. photoAuthor: Dr. Aisha White is the director of the P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) Program at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. Learn more about the program at

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