Black Studies

Whenever I imagined no longer teaching at Touchstone, I knew that I would leave some thematic explorations without ever having arrived at the level of understanding I wanted, for the kids, or for me. Here’s one topic like that–really a set of topics: the economic expediency and cruelty of the slave trade; the Civil War and its complicated relationship with the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States; the Civil Rights Movement and the long, unfinished struggle to translate that legal abolition into true equality of rights and opportunities, a truly inclusive democracy.

I do feel good about some of what we did, and particularly about my students’ wholehearted openness to every attempt. Beginnings can be seeds for growth–so in the next post, I’ll describe some of what we tried, for whatever help it can provide to learners and teachers continuing to think about these things.

In this post, I’ll share a few of the sources for our initiatives.

First, though, why did this matter so much to me? Why was it hard to feel satisfied? In trying to figure out engaging and faithful ways to teach about these aspects of United States history and our present, I wasn’t just being conscientious. The drive to do justice to these topics has deep emotional roots in my own childhood experience, which included, among other things, some integrated schools at a time when they were unusual.

Not that everything was working well there. For part of elementary school I attended a tiny two-room rural school along with the children of black farm workers, many of whom had only recently stopped being migrant laborers, and had settled in our potato country year-round. I could tell much more than a post’s worth of stories about how my parents’ relatively liberal attitudes framed my child’s-eye-view, and left me perplexed. When I was still very young I learned, from an unofficial part of the curriculum, that the world was not fair, and was less fair for some people than for me. I also got to know those kids, at least a little.

My high school was integrated in the way many high schools are now: everybody going through the same big doors, but minimal mixing in most classes. Only some of the white kids took the college prep classes, and a few black kids did, too—so the segregation I observed was not absolute, but complicated, with white privilege everywhere visible and nowhere acknowledged.

Chorus, open to everyone, I loved. But the select group that sang at Rotary was almost entirely white. Most of the people who post on the ‟Remembering…” page on Facebook are white. A little informal reunion a few years back was entirely white. Something that almost didn’t happen–but did happen, also–feels lost.

I haven’t lived in that place since I was twenty, and I’ve been storing up questions ever since–including questions about the things I worried about but never challenged–or took part in and never challenged. And of course I’m leaving out the hardest things to tell.

That kind of unresolved partial knowledge can be a good place to start a careful poem—or a really careful curriculum exploration.

I hope it’s obvious what I mean by careful. I never told my students about the details of my experiences at any of those ages, because I knew how much emotional whammy they packed for me. I sought out sources for us to share that would be as inclusive as possible in their views. I treated myself as another learner who had been at it a little longer—with no other authority than that.

I did have some great help, starting with wonderful literature for children and young adults written by African American authors–with the beginnings of a good collection of these left in my classroom library by the previous teacher at my level, Christine Lindeman. There are so many places online and elsewhere to get help finding these books, if you need it; I’m not going to try to duplicate that, beyond sharing a link or two. (Here’s another link, to an online bookstore specializing in books that show people of color from the whole world, but especially African Americans.)

Freedom-s-Children-Levine-Ellen-9780380721146I made frequent use of a collection of oral histories called Freedom’s Children, in which African-American adults looked back on their involvement, as young black Southerners, in the desegregation struggles of the late 50’s and 60’s. Kids the ages of my students (average age, 11) or only slightly older–or in some cases even younger–played important roles in history, sometimes choosing that, sometimes thrown into it. My students were fascinated.

Many people who live in Massachusetts don’t seem to know about the Mass Moments published by MassHumanities, but they are a gold mine for teachers, and for anyone who wants to know more about the political, social, and cultural history of the state and our country. You can get the eMoment links delivered in your email, daily, and I know several people who live outside Massachusetts who nonetheless read them all.

Here’s a link to a recent eMoment about the first arrival of slaves in Massachusetts. Here’s another about Malcolm X’s years in Massachusetts. Almost all the eMoments have further links to online sources, and/or information about other published sources. Some, including the eMoments about African-American history, are supported with special materials for teachers.

Beginning with the Mass Moments and working out into materials linked to or cited by them, I learned more than I’d ever been taught, or even read on my own, about slavery in the north. I learned about Mum Bett, who got help from a white lawyer to sue for her own freedom, and won, in one of several cases that led to the abolition of slavery within Massachusetts. I learned about the ways the northern colonies (and then states) continued to profit (hugely) from slavery, even after we had outlawed it within our own borders.

I learned more about the high-profile abolitionists whose names I already knew, but also about other people prominent at the time and completely unknown to me, such as David Walker, an important black abolitionist and writer. I learned about slaves who fled to the part of North Carolina liberated by northern troops, including troops from Worcester. Some of those emancipated slaves came north to join Worcester’s small black community, with support from the parishioners of several abolitionist Worcester churches.

The history I learned in school was dominated by big names and dates and too much to memorize; as a result I took a pass on history in college, and may never stop regretting that. But the history I have explored on my own–with the help of resources like MassHumanities–has led me more and more into imagining the lives of ordinary people, and I have found that deeply rewarding.

First FruitsBecause all this matters to me in a way beyond teaching, I’m now reading First Fruits of Freedom, by Janette Thomas Greenwood, a Clark University professor whose research helped open up that Worcester abolitionist history. That led me to a great blog, rich with primary sources, called After Slavery.

Turning in a different direction, I decided to reread Virginia Hamilton’s YA novels about the Underground Railroad in Ohio, beginning with The House of Dies Drear.

Last year I heard the poet Martha Collins read from her book White Papers, an exploration of white privilege triggered in part by her father’s memory of a lynching in the town in which she grew up. Meanwhile, a Touchstone colleague got me started reading a blog by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a young black sociologist, and I’m linking here her recent post about historically black colleges and universities.

I’m not planning curriculum for young adolescents right now, and not sure that I will again. So where am I heading with all this? It’s possible that I am just trying to grow into the kind of better-informed citizen we need, in order to build that truly inclusive democracy I dream of. I’m not done with my own education.

Teaching—including the teaching of oneself—is a relay race. Except it’s not a race. Just a relay. Anyway: here, pass it on.

One thought on “Black Studies

  1. Pingback: Learning by Shape-shifting | a year to think it over

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