Protest is not always big and audacious; it can be small acts of courage and resistance. During slavery, many of the enslaved didn’t have the fearlessness of those who risked their lives to plan and carry out escapes and rebellions like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Gabriel Prosser. Some of the enslaved resisted in ways that have been described as “day-to-day” resistance. Such acts entailed faking sicknesses, destroying tools and other plantation equipment, pretending not to understand instructions, and setting fires, and there have even been stories of slaves poisoning enslavers. But one of the most daring acts of resistance was learning to read. Anti-literacy laws were used as a tactic to dominate and perpetuate white intellectual superiority. Those caught in the act of reading or possessing any such materials that would indicate that intent could suffer severe punishment.
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalled how his “owner” Mr. Auld scolded his wife for teaching Frederick how to read remarking, “It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass realized that learning to read was a form of protest and resistance that could lead to freedom. That was true for him then, and it’s still true today. Books can be used as tools to teach about protest and resistance during slavery, the Jim Crow era, and Civil Rights Movement. Most people don’t have big platforms, but for those who have or work with children, using books that tell stories of protest and resistance can allow them to accomplish “day-to-day” acts of resistance in the home, classroom, or community. These stories can equip children with the knowledge and awareness needed to recognize and stand against injustices. The selections listed include picture, middle-grade, and young adult reads.