K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

African Americans leaving for World War I

Ordinary people, important history: Looking at historical events through the eyes of minority groups gives students a broader and more realistic perspective on the past and engages them in a way that traditional approaches do not.

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Black History Month can be a wonderful celebration of the contributions that African Americans have made to American history and culture. All too often, however, those contributions are heralded in February but seldom mentioned throughout the rest of the year. Ideally, every month’s history curriculum should include those contributions, but how do you integrate African American history into the curriculum on a regular basis?

The usual strategies

Curriculum developers, textbook writers, and educators try to work the African American experience into their U.S. History materials, but the ways that they do so (especially in older texts) can fall far short of full integration. Typically, older courses and textbooks fall into one of three broad approaches: "Big Moments in African American History," "Great Men and Women in African American History," or "Add African Americans and Stir."

A more effective way to integrate the history of African Americans — and, in fact, of all Americans — into the curriculum is to teach various topics from their perspective. This shifts the focus of history toward ordinary Americans of various backgrounds and away from the powerful groups (typically, wealthy white men) that tend to dominate stories of the American past — and it makes history more relevant and interesting to all students.

Great Moments in African American History

Most books cover times of great crisis and change for African Americans — slavery, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement — but they often fail to fully cover what happened in the lives of African Americans in between those watershed events. This version of history would lead one to believe that the story of African American history begins with Harriet Tubman, proceeds through the Civil War, pauses briefly to mention the Harlem Renaissance or the Tuskeegee Airmen, and then travels directly to Rosa Parks’ refusal to get off the bus in Montgomery, Ala. But what, for example, was life like for African Americans in the 1890s, and how did it vary by region? How did black communities sustain themselves during the Great Depression? Where were African Americans during the conservative revolution of the 1980s? The "great moments in African American history" approach leaves these questions largely unanswered. In addition, this approach seems to discuss African Americans only when it is absolutely unavoidable — one can’t talk about Civil Rights without talking about the black experience, so it appears in that chapter, but does the African American perspective also show up in sections on industrialization or Vietnam?

Great Men and Women in African American History

Sometimes textbooks focus on individual African Americans who have made a difference in U.S. history. This individualized model may tell the stories of politicians, military officials, business leaders, inventors, or famous entertainers, discussing the contributions of these individuals to the broader culture. While this approach certainly emphasizes the significant historical contributions made by African Americans, it is only as useful as the criteria used to select the featured individuals. Sometimes this model has the same problems as the "great moments" model — students learn about a few key events and their leaders, but little about the rest of African American history. And too often, the individuals singled out are only those whose actions are acceptable to people in power (typically, wealthy white men). If a textbook or course excludes movements, individuals, and groups that challenged the dominant culture, it may present a view of African American history that remains centered on the beliefs and values of white America. The students may learn about George Washington Carver but never hear about Stokely Carmichael or Gil Scott-Heron. Like all historical approaches that center on the lives of "great men" or "great women," this approach provides a view of history from the top down. Individuals with power, wealth, or authority receive a great deal of attention, while the experiences, contributions, and beliefs of the vast majority of Americans are virtually ignored. Such a view of American history can alienate students, giving them a sense that history is not about "people like me" and is not relevant to their own lives.

Add African Americans and Stir

Still other textbooks include African American history sporadically throughout the book, offering insight into black history and culture only as asides. For example, a book may discuss the American Revolution in great detail and then include a paragraph or two about what African Americans or women thought about the conflict. This "add minorities and women and stir" model gives the impression that the real story of an event in the past centers on whites, men, and political, military, or economic leaders; it relegates minorities and women to the sidelines. By separating out the experiences of women and African Americans, such a view of history marginalizes those experiences and sends the message that the actions and views of those groups are peripheral, not central, to the American past.

While these three models are broad generalizations (one hopes that no modern classes only deal with African American history in these ways), they still appear in a good many textbooks and classrooms. As we work to integrate African American history into the curriculum, we would do well to avoid these models, as all three share some common problems. First, including African Americans in any of these three ways never fundamentally shifts the assumptions about what is important in American history. What is "really important" to cover remains the same in each case — the actions, ideas, and experiences of the white men in power — and the African American experience is presented only when it is absolutely unavoidable (the Civil Rights Movement), when an African American did something like what those white men did (George Washington Carver), or when the authors of a textbook feel that they need to "say something" about black history for political reasons (the "add and stir" approach). By separating out the African American experience from the broader narrative of American history, these approaches can serve to marginalize that experience and make it seem less important than other stories that receive more consistent attention. And all of these approaches provide the impression that there were two worlds in much of American history — one white, one black — when, in reality, the lives of whites and blacks, though sometimes in conflict and often unbalanced in terms of power, were deeply intertwined and interconnected

Real integration

But if you’re not going approach black history in one of these three ways, how can you approach it? I would argue that the most powerful way of integrating African American history is to shift the focus of some class topics away from the dominant culture and the powerful white male individuals that are at the center of many historical studies and toward the perspective of other kinds of Americans. For example, select a topic that you need to cover in your social studies course and ask yourself, "How do I currently introduce this topic to my students?" Consider critically the example, story, or perspective that you start with. What does this "first taste" assume to be central to the story? Whose perspective does it reflect most accurately? And is there a way to reframe the discussion — to "refocus the lens" — so as to start from an unusual perspective?

For example, when I thought about how to introduce the topic of Reconstruction to my United States history students at the university level, I consulted several texts for ideas. The textbooks I found usually started their discussion with the devastation caused by the war, the political challenges posed by the war’s end, or the "problem" of what to do with newly freed slaves. I became frustrated that none of these perspectives really took the African American view as central. While many books eventually reached a discussion of the joys of African American freedom, few started with the perspective of the previously enslaved people who were most dramatically affected by the war. In previous classes, I had noticed that students seldom seemed to deeply grasp what freedom meant and what challenges freed African Americans faced in the weeks, months, and years that followed the Confederate surrender.

I ultimately chose to abandon all of the approaches I saw in the texts and open my in-class discussion by sharing a story that I uncovered during my research in the American Missionary Association Papers. The document I found described a parade of children, some 500 strong, marching down the streets of Savannah, Ga., in January of 1865, just a few weeks after General Sherman had come through with his troops. An American Missionary Association official observed that the "army of colored children moving through the streets seemed to excite feeling and interest second only to that of Sherman’s Army. Such a gathering of Freedmen’s sons and daughters that proud city had never seen before! Many of the people rushed to the doors and windows of their houses wondering what these things could mean. This they were told, is the onward march of freedom."1 The children were headed for a former slave market that had been converted into a school by missionary teachers from the North. As one observer noted, "these halls in which the poor slave mother has often groaned in the anguish of her soul as she has seen her darling babes one after another torn from her embrace and sold from her sight — are now resounding with the merry shouts of happy school children."2

I described this scene to my students, using passages from the original documents, and I asked my students to imagine themselves as the parents of some of those children and to write down the thoughts, hopes, and fears that they might have had in a 5–10 minute free-writing exercise. The change in the students’ interest level and enthusiasm for the topic compared to previous years’ classes was extraordinary. Their writing expressed exhilaration at freedom, fears that whites would find a way to re-enslave African Americans, deep desires for educational and economic opportunity, and bittersweet satisfaction that the old slave market was now being used to educate black children instead of condemning them to a life of servitude. Students embraced this perspective in ways that I had never seen when introducing the "standard" version of the story as described in the textbooks. Instead of serving as an aside, the perspectives of everyday black parents and children were the central focus of our class discussions of Reconstruction from that point forward.

In the coming days, we explored other aspects of Reconstruction — the battles between Congress and the president, the perspective of white Southerners, the rise of the Klan, and the ultimate end of the Reconstruction experiment with the election of 1876 — but students kept coming back to the opening story about those schoolchildren and their parents. Whereas in some semesters the election of 1876 seemed just another boring political event to memorize before the midterm, in the semester in which I shifted the focus of Reconstruction toward African Americans, the election became an outrage. Students used terms like "sell-out," "criminal," and "unfair" to describe the federal withdrawal from the South and the rise of Jim Crow. They wondered aloud what happened to the schools set up by the AMA and the Freedmen’s Bureau. They expressed anger that so few politicians considered the impact of their decisions on black Southerners. Having connected to black history in the beginning, they now saw all of Reconstruction through the eyes of black families struggling to retain what they could of their freedom. Their understanding of not only the African American perspective but of all of Reconstruction was much richer for it.

Of course, if every discussion starts with the perspective of African Americans, this model becomes no more useful than the old textbooks that begin every topic from the perspective of powerful white men. But "shifting the lens" on particular topics throughout the year — especially topics that are not traditional "black history" topics — can offer your students new ways of seeing the past. You might consider other groups upon whom you could focus your lens, such as women, immigrants, children, or farmers.

In units that do not begin with an African American perspective, one can include that perspective over time by seeking out diverse examples of key themes and ideas. Students learn wonderfully well from examples of everyday individuals in oral history narratives, personal accounts, photographs, and other "real life" sources. The examples that instructors provide to illustrate key themes and ideas in American history will provide the groundwork for students’ understanding of what constitutes "real" history. When the textbook uses example after example of Depression-era poverty among whites to demonstrate the depths of the economic crisis, and then has a subheading titled "Minorities and the New Deal" at the end of the chapter (the "add and stir" approach), it should come as little surprise that students come to understand the white experience as the "normal" Depression-era experience and the black experience as peripheral to the subject and therefore far less important.3 Simply by introducing examples of African American life earlier in the lesson, alongside the core of the subject matter instead of in a separate marginal section, teachers can change the way students view the examples. When you use some examples from minority groups to teach the key ideas that you want to convey in American history, the history of those minority groups becomes a central part of the curriculum and not simply window-dressing at the end of the chapter.

To find these examples, teachers frequently have to go beyond traditional sources of information. After all, part of the problem we’re addressing here is the lack of good African American history in those sources. Fortunately, the World Wide Web is becoming a treasure chest for such research. Many libraries are placing first-hand accounts on the Web that allow teachers and students to read about slavery from the point of view of slaves and not plantation owners, to explore World War I through the letters of African American G.I.s, to view photographs of African American share-croppers during the Great Depression and more.

The paucity of source material on African American history (and, indeed, on the history of a variety of groups, from the poor to women to immigrants) can provide, in and of itself, a useful learning experience for your students. A conversation about why it might be hard to find out about the lives of freedmen in the years following Reconstruction could allow for creative problem solving and interesting historical thinking. It might also lead to a broader understanding of how history is "made" through the choices, inclusions, and omissions of archivists, librarians, census-takers, photographers, newspaper editors, interviewers, and so on. Ultimately, whatever sources we can find from the imperfect information available to us can enrich our students’ understanding of the past by refocusing the historical lens in creative and inclusive ways.

By teaching at least some lessons through the vantage point of a minority group or some other seldom-heard voice, we can radically change the nature of American history. It becomes, in this model, not just a story about the wealthy, powerful, and dominant, but a story to which all Americans can relate. It becomes a story in which every child in the class can recognize someone "like me." And it becomes a story that is truly inclusive, allowing many groups to be at center stage instead of watching from the wings as the Lincolns, Carnegies, and Eisenhowers bask in the spotlight. And, most importantly, it becomes a story that more truly reflects the realities of the American past — a past in which the vast majority of Americans have not been wealthy, have not been individually acclaimed, and have wielded comparatively little power on the national and world stage. These goals help not only African American students but all of us to understand American history in a much richer and more accurate way.