Thursday, February 28, 2013

Black History Month?

Heather Cox Richardson

Any high school history teacher knows that February is Black History Month. And almost any American high school student can tell you who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was, because schools tend to focus on him around the time of the federal holiday that honors him.
But, sadly, many Americans know little else about black history.

In an interview with Mike Wallace, Morgan Freeman objected to Black History Month, pointing out that black history should not be relegated to a single month. Black History is American history, and should be taught as generally as any other kind of American history.

Easy, huh?

The last thing high school teachers need is more extra lessons tacked on to old histories. They don’t have time for what they have to do now. So how can we tackle Freeman’s legitimate complaint?

To teach American history in such a way that it includes all Americans requires not simply tacking “black” stories onto a standard “white” history (or tacking on “women’s” stories, or “Indians’” stories, or “immigrants’” stories, or, as Freeman points out, “Jewish” stories). It requires reconceptualizing what we are trying to teach (which was, after all, the point Freeman was making to Wallace).

How can we rethink American history to include all Americans?

Thomas Nast engraving, "Emancipation,"
1865. Library of Congress.
For the late 19th century, the period after the American Civil War, the central questions for all Americans were how to get food, shelter, clothing, and how to stay alive. So far, so good. But those questions could not be answered without serious consideration of who was a citizen in the newly reconstructed nation. Who should make the laws? White men? Black men? Women? Immigrants? Indians? Who should be able to protect himself or herself by testifying in court? Who should be able to hold property and have control over a family?

The question of citizenship after the Civil War necessarily involves politics, economics, and culture. And, although white men dominated the courts and the government, their voice was only one of many powerful voices arguing to define the rights of citizens. Poor black men demanded the right to testify in court; rich white women married to abusive men demanded the right to have access to their children even in the case of divorce. Indians demanded their right to protect their land; immigrants demanded their right to wages that would enable them to rise. Although some succeeded and some failed, all these voices together forged a new concept of what it meant to be an American.

Focusing on the construction of citizenship in the post-Civil War era is one way to reframe American history to be the history of everyone.

It’s a start, anyway.


Eric B. Schultz said...

I'm no expert in teaching history, Heather, but I think some of the old dead white guys have to give some ground to the really interesting "other" stories that have been hidden for so long. It'll take time, but look what just happened in Statuary Hall (see with Rosa Parks. I see it as a really, really good sign that black history has become our history and may no longer need special status. Once you get there intellectually,the curriculum follows. Maybe it takes some time, but it happens.

Randall said...

Great post. Left me thinking about how teaching history is always attached to contemporary debates and to coverage.

Over at the US Intellectual History blog there's been a fierce debate about what counts as intellectual history. Though the back-and-forth has gotten a little out of hand, it's worth the read.