Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Vivian L. Gadsden


Issues concerning race and racism have long been considered too difficult for young children to comprehend. Underlying this perspective is an assumption that there is a common lived experience for all young children. While there are some universal aspects of coming of age that connect children of all backgrounds, young children of color experience childhood in distinctive ways. Few empirical studies on early racial awareness have exclusively examined African American children’s perspectives, a group in the U.S. whose contemporary social location and historical experiences of marginalization enable them to develop convictions and offer insights about societal conditions. Numerous studies over the past 20 years on early literacy and learning have pointed to the significance of sociocultural contexts in supporting young children's literate capabilities and capacity to articulate the conditions of their worlds (e.g., Comber, 1999; Ghiso, 2011; Souto-Manning, 2009; Strickland et al., 2004; Zapata, Fugit, & Moss, 2017). Despite the richness of this work, there is relatively limited research about how young African American children make meaning of society and racialization through multiple literacy practices.

Drawing upon three sources of qualitative data—participant observations, literature circles, and interviews—I studied what five African American first-graders at an urban, community school understood about historical and contemporary racialized circumstances, how they represented their sociopolitical knowledge, and the socialization sources and messages upon which they drew. Grounded in a sociocultural approach to literacy (Street, 1995), critical literacy (Freire, 1970), Critical Race Theory (Bell, 1992), and developmental science on young children’s emerging knowledge and identities (McKown, 2004), three primary findings emerged. First, all of the children, during their participation in the series of literature circles, expressed understandings and critiques of five issues: incarceration, policing, politics, enslavement, and personal moments of unjust treatment and exclusion, and described how racism operated to exacerbate them. Second, their literacy meaning-making practices—dialogue, drawing, and dictation—were characterized by imaginative thinking, intertextuality, and nonlinear temporality. Third, their understandings of racialized social issues were influenced profoundly by everyday experiences with their parents, active engagement with media, and the race conscious critical pedagogy of their school.

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