Black History IS American History

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February is Black History Month, and an appropriate time to reflect on how we as educators teach black history throughout the year. Black History Month is not an opportunity to take a break from the “regular” curriculum to teach uncontextualized snippets of black history. I always cringe when I see this approach to black history in schools during the month of February. I saw one school play music by black artists every morning—and I quickly realized it was just any song by any black person, ever. I’m not sure Bills, Bills, Bills by Destiny’s Child appropriately shines a light on black history. We also see frequent use of African American biographies in schools throughout February. Reading a 30-second Wikipedia entry of George Washington Carver during one day in February misses the point of Black History Month, and if students only know him as the “black peanut guy,” they lose the context. They lose the larger point that Carver’s obsession with peanuts was an attempt to insulate the Southern rural economy against fluctuations in the cotton market.

To underscore this point, let’s consider the words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, considered the father of Black History Month. In 1926, Dr. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History declared the second week of February “Negro History Week,” to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. At the time Dr. Woodson said:

“We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”

Negro History Week, which later evolved to Black History Month in 1976, was always about the inclusion of black history in academics, not the singling out of black culture for an arbitrary period of time every winter. It calls attention to the need for an inclusive curriculum. If you do not teach about the role race plays in history, you do not see the whole story –there’s no untangling race from American history.

So if I contend that playing a Destiny’s Child song or reading a biography to your students isn’t exactly the way to go, how should educators teach black history—during February and every other month?

1. Emphasize ALL of black history

Most U.S. history classes place an extraordinary focus on the 1607 to present time frame. Sure, maybe you spend a few weeks on pre-Columbus Native societies and the era of discovery and exploration, but 90% of the course focuses on Jamestown onward. If “black history” overemphasizes the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it deemphasizes the truth—that Europeans first settled in America in 1607, and the first enslaved Africans arrived in America in 1619. The story of America is the story of different cultures, and so much of the history of this nation is defined by race relations, and challenges and progress of this multicultural society.

TulsaRaceRiot-1921

Tulsa Race Riot, 1921

This makes me think of the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921. White Tulsa residents basically deputized themselves and caused the destruction of over 1,000 homes and businesses, the death of perhaps 300 people, and left around 8,000 homeless. And most Americans have never heard of this. For good reason. It’s not in most history books.

The New York Times explained in 2011:

“The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place. Ever since the story was unearthed by historians and revealed in uncompromising detail in a state government report a decade ago — it estimated that up to 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 left homeless — the black men and women who lived through the events have watched with renewed hope as others worked for some type of justice on their behalf.”

Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. should very rightfully be included in U.S. history classes, but we as teachers must reflect on what else would be important to include in other eras, what should be included that is often left out, how did everyday and lesser-known people MAKE history, what would help students contextualize a time period? The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is just one example of an answer to that question. It is included in the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance chapter of Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook.

I also participated in a fantastic simulation on the Tulsa Race Riots at the National Council for Social Studies Conference last November. Teacher and facilitator Linda Christensen had us assume the roles of various people associated with the riots and we interviewed each other. It was intense, emotional, and I left that session feeling fortunate to know so much more about the Tulsa Race Riot. Her lesson, with role cards, questions, and graphic organizer, is located here.

2. Add more depth to the more well-known facets of black history

Many students know about Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that (kinda-sorta) desegregated schools in 1954. As I’ve taught U.S. history, I’ve encountered some myths students have about this case that need correcting. First, some students fail to realize it took decades to enforce this ruling, and de facto segregation still exists today. Second, many students believed prior to 1954 African American students went to inferior schools, with leaky roofs, old textbooks, and bad teachers, uphill, both ways, etc. In fact, many segregated schools for African Americans had excellent facilities with a high quality of education. Carver High School in Montgomery County, Maryland comes to mind. (It is now the MCPS district office, where my office is located.) The point was not that the schools were inferior based on quality and availability of resources, the point was by design segregation is inherently unequal.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

To help bring depth to the topic of school desegregation, I would have my students analyze the experience of Ruby Bridges. Her story is quite remarkable. She was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. She was one of six black children in New Orleans to pass a test that determined whether they could go to an all-white school. Wait, there was a test for this? To determine the “best candidates?” That’s worth exploring. When she went to the previously all-white school on the first day, she thought it was Mardi Gras. Why else would there be large crowds of people in the streets of New Orleans shouting and throwing things? She didn’t realize they were angry over her entry into the school. She was taught in isolation for a year at the school—only one teacher there was even willing to teach her.

Discovery’s American Heroes Channel is honoring Ruby Bridges this month. Here’s a video of how one teacher used the story of Ruby Bridges with her students.

In addition, several resources on Ruby Bridges are part of Discovery Education Streaming and Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook, including a core interactive text and several videos.

3. Let history speak for itself!

Consider this excerpt from the 1st edition of the American Pageant textbook in 1956:

The average ex-slave, freed by the war and the 13th Amendment, was essentially a child. Life under the lash had unfortunately left him immature—socially, politically, emotionally. To turn him loose upon the cold world was like opening the door of an orphanage and telling the children they were free to go where they liked and do as they wished. One of the cruelest calamities ever to be visited upon the much-abused Negro was jerking him overnight from bondage to freedom, without any intermediate stages of preparation… The hapless Negro was in some ways even more of a menace to himself.

This simplistic, false, condescending narrative was presented as fact, with no quotes from African Americans living through Reconstruction. This, unfortunately, was not an anomaly. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, reached this conclusion when he first surveyed 12 U.S. history textbooks for the first edition of his book in 1995. He wrote, “No book can convey the depths of the black experience without including material from the oppressed group. Yet not one textbook in my original sample let African Americans speak for themselves about the conditions they faced.”

The availability and accessibility of primary sources on the Internet has revolutionized social studies instruction. Students, as active learners in a 21st century classroom, can now corroborate secondary accounts with primary source material. The teacher, no longer the “sage on the stage,” can provide these sources and tasks and guide and facilitate inquiry. This, however, can require extensive and time-consuming lesson planning.

Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook provides teachers with many firsthand accounts throughout U.S. history. Just one portion of one unit, 1.2 Slave Life and Culture, provides a plethora of primary sources that stand in stark contrast to the “old-school” textbook account of slaves from 1956:

Excerpt from Still’s Underground Rail Road Records, 1886.
Excerpts from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives, “Escape from bondage of Adah Isabelle Suggs”
Excerpts from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives, “Slavery as Seen through the Eyes of Henry Wright”
Excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845
Excerpts from The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1832
Excerpts from Twelve Years a Slave Narrative of Solomon Northup
Excerpts from interviews conducted 1936–1938 with elderly African Americans who had been born in slavery
Free At Last [folk song]
Many Thousand Gone[folk song]
Massa Gwine to Sell Us Tomorrow [folk song]

Providing these resources to students alone is not enough to craft inquiry-based, student-centered instruction; the task assigned to students is critical to achieve that goal. Social Studies Techbook includes activities aligned to these sources, including document-based investigations into slave family life and culture, and a “You as Artist” activity to allow students to analyze several African American spirituals and create responses that express a perspective on the condition of oppression.

The American Pageant excerpt from 1956 is not entirely irrelevant in a 2014 classroom. Teachers can also have students analyze primary sources, like those listed above, alongside the old textbook accounts. This would serve as a valuable lesson in corroboration, historiography, and historical interpretation.

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: “All we want is make us free.” Letter from an 11 year old Amistad captive to President John Quincy Adams – DEN Blog Network

  2. Gullah.TV said:

    Excellent article, you captured my attention with your headline, “Black History IS American History”. We encounter so much misinformation or blatant misunderstanding about blacks in the history of the US. In our situation, we are focused on the “Gullah” people and culture and most people are surprised to learn that most of America’s blacks can trace their roots to this area of the country. Most slaves entered this country through the ports of the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

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