This month (February) is Black History Month in the United States. Therefore, I’ve seen many posts around the internet that highlight the stories of individuals who had previously been written out of the narrative. I applaud this effort. I love seeing these stories utilized more in classrooms, and I think it’s great that educators are making a concerted effort to do so.
It’s Not Enough
Still, I think more needs to be done. History isn’t just the stories of individuals. When we discuss the history of the United States (or the history of the World) with our students, there is a predominant narrative that we share as educators. We might discuss that narrative through direct instruction. Or, we convey that narrative through the materials we include in our classrooms and the topics we encourage our students to investigate. The narrative we tell in our classes, the story we convey, the story our students investigate? That story needs some rewriting also.
The Story is Incomplete
The whole narrative needs to become more cognizant of the fact that there are actors in our history that were purposely left out of the history books and the storyline. They were left out because they were members of groups that were purposely being marginalized, or because they were reacting against the narrative of progress that U.S. History likes to promote. With that erasure, the story is incomplete. When we frame history without those stories, it really changes how the story is told.
Although Black History Month obviously highlights the history of Black Americans, this is also true for other ethnic groups that have been marginalized and written out of the narrative. (This same line can be drawn towards women’s history also.)
Woodrow Wilson and Racism – An Example
For example, if you’re a teacher of U.S. History, you’re probably aware of Woodrow Wilson. When I was in college, I had only studied the economic aspects of his presidency. Then, when I started teaching about his presidency, the textbook I utilized mostly talked about World War I and his stroke after pushing for the League of Nations. It’s a legitimately a sad story on some levels, as he had been so forthright in his attempts to have it passed that he pushed his health beyond repair.
The textbook I was utilizing mentioned Wilson’s racism, his showing of “Birth of a Nation” in the White House, and the continued segregation of the U.S. military. When I read this, my first thought was – yep. This makes sense, it’s “of the times.” The narrative failed to mention the push back from African Americans who questioned Wilson’s policies and his racism. If it was there, it was barely there.
Then, somewhere along the way, I read about the St. Louis massacre (often called the St. Louis Riots), and then the Silent March. All were a reflection of the tension brought about by the Great Migration and the competition for jobs. The Silent March (NYC 1917), was a reaction to the St. Louis massacre and lynchings around the country in general. Days later, a group of African Americans (including Madame C.J. Walker) brought a petition down to D.C. to deliver to Wilson. They wanted him to address the lynchings. He wouldn’t even meet with them.
A More Honest Narrative
When this little piece of the piece of the narrative is added back in, it really changes the story of Wilson. It wasn’t just that he continued the segregation of the past, he actively promoted that segregation and discrimination – even when he was faced with it head on. From what I’ve read, this story was not singular.
It also changes the story of the Civil Rights movement. It’s often told as though the movement started in the 1950s. However, with the story of the Silent March, it’s clear that the movement had earlier origins. African Americans were pushing back early and often. There’s never a time when they weren’t
As much as I’d like to claim that I’m aware of all these stories that modify the narrative, I’m not. I read and research, but they’re not as readily available.
That’s where the narrative needs rewriting. Those stories should be weaved through the narrative and should be just as commonly known. The same holds true for the history of Mexican Americans, and Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, and so on and so forth.
It’s about Agency
It’s not just about adding in Black stories to show them as “victims” of history. As teachers, if we merely discuss the horrors that have been inflicted on marginalized groups, we run the risk of making it seem as though those groups were just reactors to history, not actors in history. We make it seem as though history was done to those who were not in power. Even though there was a significant power imbalance, they were still participants in the storyline. They were still actors, and they still had agency. Events weren’t merely put upon them, and they certainly weren’t just victims.
Our History Reflects Back on US
It’s also not just about conveying a more even narrative. For most students, they only get a chance to glance at history. Think about the subtext when Black people are shown as only victims or passive reactors in history. Some American History includes stories of Black people that are just astonishing awful and sad to read. Those stories do need to be told. However, that story leaves out the agency of Black Americans. It’s an agency that is a part of the narrative – pushing back and propelling history on a different path. It can’t just be separated and sanitized into isolated accomplishments. They were (and are) part of American History and influenced its path.
I’m sure some history teachers are doing this already. However, those teachers who don’t have as much of a background in history might not be aware of the more inclusive narrative that exists. After all, much of it is not included in textbooks (particularly those written for the elementary and middle school levels), and teachers don’t usually have time to do that research independently.
With this dialogue, I’m not really speaking to history professors at the college level or even teachers at the high school level. Instead, I’m speaking to those of us who teach at the younger levels, most especially in middle school. We might be a child’s earliest interaction with a history that moves beyond a simplistic story.
Therefore, I challenge you to try mixing up the narrative with just one of your units. Look carefully at the story you’re telling. What’s missing? How could that tale be more accurately and effectively portrayed? What could you have your students read? What questions can you ask? How do you want your students to see American History?
This is such an important post, thank you for sharing! One activity I like to do is have students rewrite the narrative. I have them read a passage in their textbook and then I give them mostly primary and some secondary sources that share information that has been left out. Students then use the documents to rewrite the textbook passage. One example I do is Nat Turner, who gets about a paragraph in our textbook. I think I’ll have to add Woodrow Wilson to the list.
That’s a really good lesson idea!