Teaching Black History Beyond Bondage—All Year Long

Students can develop a complex understanding of Black history by studying the rich history of West Africa, stories of resistance to oppression, and the contributions of the African diaspora.

We should affirm the importance of teaching Black history all year long as educators. After all, American historian Carter G. Woodson conceived and established Negro History Week (later renamed Black History Month) not only to celebrate Black achievement but also to encourage schools to include Black history studies throughout the curriculum and to provide students with a space to display their scholarship throughout the school year.

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From primary to secondary school, all students in the United States are required to learn about the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and their descendants. Indeed, no student can graduate from middle school without having learned something about the history of slavery in America. However, the documented history of Black people in this country is far more rich, more complex, inspiring, and luminous than a legacy of slavery and oppression. As educators, we must be careful not to teach this history in a reductionist manner. Here are three ways to teach Black history beyond bondage throughout the year.

BLACK HISTORY DOES NOT BEGIN WITH THE ENSLAVEMENT OF AFRICANS

Teaching Black history from this perspective has two significant classroom benefits. For starters, the vast majority of enslaved Africans whose descendants became Americans were from West and Central Africa. In this sense, Black history as it relates to America begins in West and West Central Africa.

Teachers of world history or world cultures can concentrate on the legacies and accomplishments of historical figures from precolonial West African empires such as Mali, Ghana, and Songhai that existed before the Middle Passage. Teachers should forge and affirm a link between those cultures and the many Black people in America today.

Furthermore, teachers should contrast the framing of West African empires as the origins of Black history with the way pre-revolution American history is associated with the origins of the United States, which begin in Europe. When we teach pre-revolutionary American history, we concentrate on the European countries that colonized North America—England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands—rather than the continent as a whole.

Similarly, teachers should encourage a specific geographic focus on the individual empires of West Africa as the heritage of Black people in America. Students (and sometimes adults) frequently think of Africa as a country or monolith. A more diverse focus encourages children to consider Africa as a vast and diverse continent.

WHEN TEACHING ABOUT OPPRESSION, CENTER RESISTANCE

A number of people have been attributed the quote “Where there is oppression, there will be resistance.” Whatever its origins, the concept contained within offers us, as educators and lifelong learners, a valuable, holistic perspective on histories typically written by war winners and conquerors of nations.

There was opposition to the transatlantic slave trade from the start. Africans on board refused to eat and jumped overboard in protest. There was opposition to slavery even as it survived the American transition from colonies to country. Social studies textbooks frequently highlight notable rebellions and rebels such as the Stono Rebellion, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and John Brown.

However, American historians such as Joseph Holloway have documented numerous insurgencies and planned uprisings from as early as 1526 until 1864, just before the Civil War ended. Ida B. Wells led the anti-lynching movement after the Civil War. There is no shortage of resistance-themed lessons and stories to incorporate into US history studies.

Teachers can assist students in locating resistance. “Where is the resistance?” ask students when they come across the topic of oppression, whether in social studies or English language arts. The relationship between oppression and resistance invites students to engage in inquiry and engagement. This raises a number of critical questions:

1 Does that make sense?
2 Should the majority always have the final say?
3 Is there ever a time when violence in society is justified?
4 What are the rights of all humans?
5 Is conflict required for change?
6 What is the connection between violence and liberty?
7 What’s the connection between oppression and resistance?

Pedagogically, questions like these hook the class, spark discussion and keep students engaged throughout the lesson.

TEACH THE DIASPORA

Many modern descendants of West Africans are now dispersed across North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, and Europe as a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade. When it comes to teaching the diaspora, there is no shortage of Black history content. Teach students about the Haitian Revolution and how it resulted in the creation of the Western Hemisphere’s first Black independent country. As Haiti came to represent Black independence, this independence resounded throughout Black communities throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

Compare the uprisings of enslaved Africans in America to the Maroon communities in Jamaica when teaching about them. Teaching the diaspora starts with recognizing the existence of Black people and African culture outside of the United States, such as the history of Black people in Mexico or Panama.

Recognizing the African diaspora also allows for an inclusive pedagogy that emphasizes the similarities shared by African descendants around the world. In fact, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the foremost research centers and libraries dedicated to the African diaspora in the United States, is named after Puerto Rican historian Arturo A. Schomburg. (I was fortunate enough to be able to take my students to this museum on a field trip.)

Teaching the diaspora allows students from diverse backgrounds to find cultural commonalities, especially in schools with sizable Black and Brown populations, by connecting diaspora students to a sense of the majority. Non-White people are commonly referred to as minorities in the United States. Learning about the diaspora helps students of African descent from different cultures and countries understand their connection to a global population as a majority. Teaching students about the history of the diaspora allows them to be proud of being a part of this global community.

 

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