February is African-American History Month and libraries all over the country are celebrating this month with a variety of programs and displays. For teens, music and art are tools that will bring them together regardless of their race, religion, sex, and abilities so let’s use these art forms to celebrate this important event in a creative and innovative way. Here are two ideas that will appeal to teens and help them become part of a bigger conversation when it comes to equality and freedom.

record-828983_640Blues & Civil Rights Movement Listening Party

With the return of the record player and vinyl, teens can meet up and listen to a variety of Blues artists while learning the history of the Blues. Select a few artists and throw together a PowerPoint, or Prezi presentation, to provide a little background information about the origin of the Blues and how this genre provided momentum for the Civil Rights Movement. Once you have selected artists, play tracks that will interest teens and throw up the lyrics, or provide handouts, so they can read them while they listen. Once they have finished listening to the tracks, ask questions about the songs and see what kind of responses teens come up with. Here are a few examples from youTube that will definitely illicit interesting conversation:

Just like the traditional book club, we can form the conversation in a similar fashion where the lyrics become the story. Have teens write down their initial thoughts of the songs before discussing the meaning of the lyrics. When everyone has had a chance to write down their thoughts, ask teens to share their interpretations. Once everyone shares their findings, discuss how these ideas convey the meaning of the song. Let teens know that no one has a right or wrong answer, but do ask if this discussion has provided a better understanding of why these songs were incredible tools to help bring awareness to the Civil Rights Movement. If you have the time, or want to turn this program into series, expand upon your program by including the songs of protest of the Vietnam War and the rise of the Black Panther party to inner city violence and the birth of Hip Hop.

If your library doesn’t have access to a record player, you can easily purchase CDs and play them through a sound system. If you have the ability to purchase a record player, it will introduce teens to wonder of record players and provide them with actual evidence as to recording music tracks have evolved over the decades. You can easily purchase a record player on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, Target, and Best Buy. As for the vinyl, you can also easily purchase these online or in stores that carry vinyl. I highly recommend visiting your local record store because you may be able to find used records, which will save you money, but make the experience even more awesome.

fullsizeCreating Artwork Depicting African-American History

In 2007, the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) created an amazing resource called Picturing America where they have compiled a collection of American masterpieces to help students learn about the history of the United States. The NEH also offers resource guides that will help us create programs that will introduce teens to famous artwork that was created to showcase the hardships and triumphs of the African-American people.

Just like the listening party, show some of these paintings and photographs and give a brief history lesson behind these works. Again, I recommend printing out a handout of this information including a colored photo of the work. After presenting the items, have teens analyze them and ask them to write, draw, paint, and/or create something that will capture the meaning of freedom and equality. When teens have completed their works, ask them to show the rest of the group their artwork and explain their piece.

Reassure teens that their projects don’t have to be professionally done, but visuals that capture what we know about the African-American experience and how that has changed the United States of America. If you want to take this experience a step further, introduce Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation into the mix and see how teens envision Lincoln’s words. The sky is literally the limit for this activity so gather all the craft supplies you have and do something thought and innovative with your teens in the library.

What’s great about this activity is that it allows teens the opportunity to express themselves and help them connect events with the past to current events. As teen library staff, teens need programs like these to not educate them about the world they live in, but how the library provides a safe space for them to express their opinions in a constructive way. Teens will also have the chance to get to know one another, which is great since their participation conveys their desire to meet like-minded individuals. Lastly, if you ask your community partners to be involved with program, it will also show teens their community cares about the importance of equality and their right to live in a world without fear and oppression.


  1. Record Player from Creative Commons (http://africanamericanart.si.edu/items/show/15
  2. Untitled, 1950, by Charles While (http://africanamericanart.si.edu/items/show/15)

About Deborah Takahashi

Deborah Takahashi is a Senior Librarian for the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library. Deborah has been working with teens and children for seventeen years and loves every minute. Deborah is also the author of "Serving Teens with Mental Illness at the Library: A Practical Guide."

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