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What Makes An American?
In I Am An American: The Wong Kim Ark Story by Martha Brockenbrough with Grace Lin readers learn the true story of Wong Kim Ark, a man born in America to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1873. When racist treatment of Chinese people intensified, Kim Ark helped his parents move back to China. He went to visit them in late 1894, and upon his return was held prisoner for four months by the American authorities, who questioned his paperwork and told him he didn’t belong here.
Having been born here, he maintained that he was an American citizen and had every right to be here. He had to defend himself all the way up to the Supreme Court, even though the Fourteenth Amendment (“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”) was ratified in 1868.
Eventually, he won his case. But Wong Kim Ark continued to face racist treatment, and eventually moved to China, where he died sometime after World War II.
America Claims Inclusivity, The People Disagree
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified a full thirty years before Kim Ark won his case before the Supreme Court. Kim Ark was only twenty-five years old and had already spent three years of his life fighting to be recognized for what he was: an American citizen, who had every right to every privilege his citizenship should have afforded him. But because people in authority disagreed with the law, he was imprisoned and repeatedly told that he did not belong here because his “heritage was not ‘American'” (read: white).
Over one hundred years later, we still aren’t as far away from this despicable racism as we should be. The Asian-Americans have been racially targeted ever since the first reports of the virus came from Wuhan, China. Violence against Asian-Americans has escalated significantly since the beginning of 2020. We still have much work to do until all Americans are truly treated as equal under the law.
This book sparked a long conversation with my boys about what it means to be an American, and the rights that everyone should be granted. We talked about how to fight to ensure those rights are safe, and how calling attention to it and taking action for equality is the opposite of racism (contrary to some opinions that pointing out inequality is somehow racist).
My absolute favorite conversation, though, happened when we were reading the pages about Kim Ark’s Supreme Court case. I asked the boys if they noticed anything about the Supreme Court, if they represented America well. “No, Mommy!” my oldest yelled, “they are all white men!” (This conversation was perfect to follow up with reading Thurgood, about our country’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, and happened to coincide with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court).
It’s written for elementary age. My preschooler was able to follow along, but the conversation about citizenship was a little over his head. He understood better when we described it as “belonging.”
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden)
Hidden Figures: Brave Women in STEM Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly is a great kids' version of the 2016 hit movie Hidden Figures. My kids really don't appreciate movies that aren't Marvel or comedy yet, so...
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Harriet Tubman)
The Many Roles Of Harriet Tubman Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome was a favorite book for my kids from the library because it's a Wonderbook, which has a "read to you" option. This book not only included the story, but background assistance telling the...
United States v Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (Jackie Robinson)
Jackie Robinson Refused To Get Up For A White Man Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus, Jackie Robinson refused to give up his seat - and he was called before a court martial trial for it. United States v Jackie...