The Healing Power of Black Storytelling

I am excited to talk to you all this month about Black storytelling and its healing power. We’ve talked in previous cultural competency blogs about the importance of using books about Black culture when working with a Black child. Today we will talk about the power of Black storytelling, no matter who the reader is.

The Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University published an issue brief called “African-American Children’s Literature: Examining the Genre in Childhood.” The authors say it’s important to talk about many cultures during children’s education. They claim that it teaches children of color their own culture’s strengths. And they say it teaches White children to let go of bias.

Here at ChildSavers, we work with children from many racial and ethnic backgrounds. Many of our children come from Black communities. No matter where they come from, Black storytelling can have a positive impact on our support of their healthy development.

Redefining Normal

For young readers who are not Black, Black storytelling can offer an introduction to Black culture. I remembered how important this is when watching a show on Netflix. In the show, a White child said she didn’t like the skin of her Black peer in pre-school. The parents realized that the child had gotten uncomfortable with people who do not look like her. She had started to see them as not normal. Right away those parents knew they needed to redefine normal.

Through Black storytelling, Black language, musical styles, food, and history become a little more normal in the reader’s mind. If the client we’re supporting is Black, telling stories about Black culture and history may be healing for them. It can serve as an affirmation of who they are. If the client is not Black, this may be an opportunity to learn about the day-to-day strengths of different cultures.

I think the most powerful part about Black storytelling is that redefining normal can heal our relationships. Much of the support we offer at ChildSavers has to do with a child’s ability to form healthy social relationships. One example is how many non-Black children ask Black children uncomfortable questions about Black hair and why we grease it and how we style it. This is because they see Black hair as not normal. These questions can make a child feel alone and left out.

If a non-Black child reads I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastacia Tarpley, the story answers their questions. And Black hair becomes less questionable. It’s not just something you see on “them” over “there.” It becomes a little more familiar just through hearing about it. The relationships a Black child has with folks of other races can begin healing by removing the idea that Black culture is not normal.

Retelling the Story

Another powerful part of Black storytelling is that Black people use Black language and Black culture in the story. The story focuses on Black viewpoints instead of how Black culture is seen by people who don’t live it. Rudine Sims Bishop says in “Reflections on the Development of African American Children’s Literature,” that in the 19th and 20th centuries a lot of books made Black characters seem less than other characters. Black people in those books were a joke. And Bishop says those books were likely not made for Black children.

The authors of “African-American Children’s Literature: Examining the Genre in Childhood” remind us that stories told by Black people are often responding to these and other stories told about Black people. Black people tell stories to rewrite the narratives about Black community.

Books like Bippity Bop Barbershop by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and My Nana and Me by Irene Smalls purposefully push back against racist beliefs. Bishop says that Black people’s responses to racism create a way of looking at the world. That way of looking at the world often shows up in African American children’s literature.

Bippity Bop Barbershop repaints the picture of barbershops as gardens where Black community can grow. My Nana and Me shifts the story of what families can look like and who takes care of us as children. When ChildSavers engages Black storytellers, we become a part of Black children and families’ healing in the chance to tell their truth and break down stigma. ChildSavers can build toward a community that sees Black people as whole and not a collection of stereotypes.

Reminding of Value

Lastly, Black stories give value to some traits in our society which are usually looked down upon. For example, we often live in a society that says it’s each person’s job to help themselves. Black stories lift up the way Black culture values community and relationship. This is healing beyond Black community to validate any person who prefers to work in relationship instead of alone. And no matter the race of a client, ChildSavers can offer that validation by involving Black storytelling in our work.

Similarly, our society often values practical thinking, directness, and to-the-point communication. Living in this society can be hard for someone who doesn’t think that way, whatever their race may be. For example, they may be falling behind or losing hope in school.

Black stories often involve rhythm, metaphor, and emotion. Sometimes Black storytellers take the long and scenic way to give a fuller picture of what could be said much quicker. For a person, whether they’re Black or not, who works best in metaphor and detail, Black storytelling can validate or strengthen how they communicate.

We live in a society where we are told to talk, think, and write based on White cultural values. Black storytelling can be a symbol of healing and resisting. Black storytellers offer historical and cultural truths about Black community from their own perspectives. Black storytelling welcomes people to see Black culture for how beautiful it. This leads to healing between Black community and those who don’t know much about it. Finally, Black storytelling leads to healing for people whose life doesn’t fit into White cultural expectations as they find validation and home in the rhythm and metaphor.

Below are listed a few websites which provide lengthy lists of children’s books either written by Black authors or containing Black main characters or both! I have not read all of these books but I hope you find some you like and use them in your support of our community’s children.

(2016, February). African-American children’s literature: Examining the genre in childhood.

Bishop, R. S. (2012). Reflections on the development of African American children’s literature. Journal of Children’s Literature, 38(2), 5-13

CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.

CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.


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