What Good Is History for African Americans? | Boston Review

What Good Is History for African Americans?

MELVIN ROGERS

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Photograph: John Sonderman

In the spring of 2012, we sat in the lobby of the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. My father, sister, and I had just left an appointment with his oncologist. My father was tired. He sat slightly hunched over in the chair with his arms crossed. His breathing was labored, and his head was slightly raised, looking ahead. We were waiting for my sister to return from handling some paperwork.

“Well, I think this is it,” he said.

“Oh don’t say that,” I responded.

He shrugged, as he often did, when there was little point in debating the reality of things.

Basic bodily movements consumed so much of his energy. But he managed to turn his head toward me: “Make sure your mother gets my money.”

“I will.”

“You did alright for yourself. You did what you were supposed to do. And you didn’t let the man stop you. I guess it’s all how you looked at it.”

All of this was my father’s way of telling me two things. First, it was my responsibility to take care of his affairs once he was gone. Second, he was proud of me. But his claim that I didn’t let “the man”—white folks—stop me was significant.

What America ‘really’ is, what it amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about it may miss the point.

My father was born in Union, South Carolina, in 1932. He was of a very different generation—a time when racism and exclusion were the hallmarks of daily life for black folks, especially in the South. He never fully let go of that past. It didn’t haunt him minutely, but to a significant extent it shaped his views about what was possible. For example, when I was a junior in high school, he began to wonder what trade I would take up. I told him I wanted to go to college and he responded with familiar language: “The man ain’t gonna let you in his school. You need a trade so you can open up a storefront. Am I wrong?”

I pushed back quickly: “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t know if you’re quite right.” We disagreed, and, as he had done on the occasion of many other disagreements, he shrugged.

My father was not trying to destroy my dreams; he was trying to put them on solid footing, properly connected to the reality he thought we lived. I understood this even when I thought he was wrong. I admired it in him, and I loved him for it. To have him, confronted with the certainty of his end, tell me that I did “alright” for myself was, to say the least, an important moment for the both of us. But for him to suggest that the possibility of my success was partly tied to how I looked at things was even more significant. He was acknowledging an important difference between us—a difference between his past and my present.

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Since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, we find ourselves confronted daily with the enormity of our racial reality. The killing of black men and women by police officers, the arms of the state, is not the only thing. Black Americans continue to struggle disproportionately in employment and education. The depth of these problems led journalist Ta-Neshi Coates to describe the situation as the logical and natural consequence of what American society is about. In The Atlantic in 2013, he observed:

When you have a society that takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when the society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging. It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.

In his recent book, Democracy in Black, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., reinforces this claim when he remarks that valuing white people more than others in this country is “in our national DNA.” Glaude’s book is a sober reflection on our racial reality. On the one hand, it seeks to explain the deep-seated nature of racial disregard that distorts the outlook of both whites and blacks. On the other, he tries to distill from anti-racist activism the energy to reimage the values that orient American life. Unlike Coates, Glaude aims for a radical transformation of American society. But it is not clear what one is to do if one begins with the notion that the nation’s DNA makes it unresponsive to the pain of non-whites, especially blacks.

Little can be denied in Coates’s and Glaude’s analyses; it is fashionable these days, and understandably so, to wear one’s despair on one’s sleeve. After all, since the founding of this country we have seen white supremacy mutate and evolve to frustrate progress toward racial equality. Claims of white supremacy’s death—of the post-racialism supposedly evidenced by Barack Obama’s presidency—have proven premature. In the failures of Reconstruction, the eruption of lynching in the South from the 1880s through the 1960s, the rise and fall of Jim Crow, and the reconstitution of Jim Crow in the carceral state, American society has found new and inventive ways of reminding black Americans of their unequal worth.

There is no need to be naïve. The success of some black Americans in no way indicates what is possible for all black Americans. But the persistence of racial inequality demands a response. And as my father understood near the end of his life, how we respond depends on how we see our racial reality. In other words, how we frame the problem is a critical choice.

We—and here I mean black Americans engaged in struggle as well as white Americans who stand in alliance—must confront some crucial questions. Can American democracy only work if some are privileged while others are oppressed, or are we justified in our hopes for a truly inclusive and fair society? Is American democracy constitutionally at odds with our goals, as Coates seems to suggest? Or might it be conducive to building a society in which we all can live equally and at peace with one another?

How we answer these questions depends not only on which histories we consult, but also the weight we accord to the ones we use. In our historical calculus, we might emphasize the reconstitution of white supremacy, but we could just as easily emphasize the ways in which it has been foiled through multiple waves of racial inclusion. Those who embrace the former as our “true” racial reality find themselves trying to prove to those of us who have benefited from racial struggle why our success is illusory or, at best, temporary. But those who locate America’s identity in its resistance to white supremacy have another problem. They are often unable to see the evidence of systemic racism, or they readily describe it as anomalous, foreign to the structure of our institutions. If the first posture seems unsatisfying because it denies human agency and gives the past too much power over the future, the second risks turning a blind eye to the ways white supremacy is often bolstered by institutional support and state violence. Both sides fail to distinguish between the somewhat different tasks of studying the past and narrativizing the past in a way that is useful for moving society in an auspicious direction.

What America “really” is, what its history amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about this may miss the point: we ask such questions of the past less to understand who we have been than to aid us in making decisions about who we should become. This is, we might say, the aspirational quality of the American imagination. The best of the tradition of anti-racist struggles in the United States, including our current Black Lives Matter movement, is nurtured by this idea.

We should stop trying to pinpoint the “true” or “real” identity of the nation as it relates to the status of people of color. Rather, the only question worth asking, if an inclusive democratic society is our goal, is how we should interpret the history of our racial past in order to sustain our hopes. Responding to this question will capture what democracy has always been about: people trying to determine for themselves the kind of society they want to inhabit. This is a utopian—dare I say revolutionary—impulse because it sees democracy as an exercise of our moral imagination, struggling to be realized in practice. We need not look despairingly upon the past because it overdetermines our present; neither do we need to see the past as anchoring a long arc of justice or an inevitable march toward progress. We can instead say simply that there is work to be done and it is ours to do. This is our trade.

Source: What Good Is History for African Americans? | Boston Review

An Introduction to the Black Arts Movement | Poetry Foundation

“Black Arts Movement poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti wrote, “And the mission is how do we become a whole people, and how do we begin to essentially tell our narrative, while at the same time move toward a level of success in this country and in the world? And we can do that. I know we can do that.”

Source: An Introduction to the Black Arts Movement | Poetry Foundation

We Should Stop Saying “People of Color” When We Mean “Black People”

“That being said, we need to stop saying “people of color” in instances we mostly (and sometimes only) mean “Black people.”What I’m saying is a bit meta, but the public use of the term POC seems to have become less about solidarity, and more concerned with lessening the negative connotations and implicit anti-Black reactions (fear, scorn, disdain, apathy) to Blackness. In popular discourse, POC is often a shorthand for “this issue affects Black people most directly and disproportionately, but other non-white people are affected too, so we need to include them for people to listen and so people to understand we aren’t talking about race as only Black vs. white.”Saying POC when we mean “Black people” is this concession that there’s a need to describe a marginalized group as “less” Black for in order for people (specifically, but not only, white people) to have empathy for whatever issue being discussed.”

Source: We Should Stop Saying “People of Color” When We Mean “Black People”  

Go to the profile of Joshua Adams

Lessons From McGraw Hill: The Eurocentric Influence on History Textbooks and Classrooms – The Atlantic

Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.

The recent blunder has to do with one bubble in particular. Pointing to a patch of purple grids extending throughout the country’s Southeast corridor, the one-sentence caption reads:

The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.
The photo that spread through social media was taken by a black Texas student named Coby Burren, who subsequently texted it to his mom, Roni-Dean Burren. “Was real hard workers, wasn’t we,” he wrote. Roni-Dean quickly took to Facebook, lambasting the blunder: the reference to the Africans as workers rather than slaves. A video she later posted has been viewed nearly 2 million times, and her indignation has renewed conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement while attracting coverage by almost every major news outlet. “It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” she told The New York Times. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”
McGraw Hill swiftly did its damage control. It announced that it was changing the caption in both the digital and print versions to characterize the migration accurately as a “forced” diaspora of slaves: “We conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves,” the company said in a statement. “We believe we can do better.” Catherine Mathis, the company’s spokeswoman, also emphasized that the textbook accurately referred to the slave trade and its brutality in more than a dozen other instances. And McGraw Hill has offered to provide various additional resources to any school that requests them, including supplemental materials on cultural competency, replacement textbooks, or stickers with a corrected caption to place over the erroneous one. But Texas school districts were already in possession of more than 100,000 copies of the book, while another 40,000, according to Mathis, are in schools in other states across the country.

“We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees. We are teaching twig history.”
If nothing else, the incident may serve as yet another example of why social studies—and history in particular—is such a tricky subject to teach, at least via textbooks and multiple-choice tests. Its topics are inherently subjective, impossible to distill into paragraphs jammed with facts and figures alone. As the historian and sociologist Jim Loewen recently told me, in history class students typically “have to memorize what we might call ‘twigs.’ We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees,” said Loewen, best known for his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “We are teaching twig history.”

This is in part why a growing number of educators are calling for a fundamental shift in how the subject is taught. Some are even calling on their colleagues to abandon traditional models of teaching history altogether. Instead of promoting the rote memorization of information outlined in a single, mass-produced textbook, these critics argue that teachers should use a variety of primary-source materials and other writings, encouraging kids to analyze how these narratives are written and recognize the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials. In an essay for The Atlantic earlier this year, Michael Conway argued that history classes should focus on teaching children “historiography”—the methodologies employed by historians and the exploration of history itself as an academic discipline:

Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose the American national story.
But according to Loewen, the shortcomings of the country’s history teachers make the improvement of its instruction, let alone the introduction of historiography, a particularly difficult feat. Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)

MORE ON HISTORY EDUCATION

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In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.
A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history. They just happen to be assigned to it.”
This disconnect can take a serious toll on the instruction kids receive, according to Loewen. Absent a genuine interest in history, many teachers simply defer to the information contained in textbooks. “They use the textbook not as a tool but as a crutch,” Lowen said. And chances are, that makes for a pretty lousy class. Loewen suspects that these and other textbook woes are largely why students frequently list history and other social-studies subjects as their least favorite classes. And perhaps it’s why so few American adults identify them as the most valuable subjects they learned in school. In a 2013 Gallup poll, just 8 percent of respondents valued history most, while just 3 percent voted for social studies. (First place, or 34 percent of votes, went to math, while 21 percent of respondents selected English and reading.)

And as the McGraw Hill example demonstrates, the textbooks teachers rely on so heavily are prone to flaws. A National Clearinghouse on History Education research brief on four popular elementary and middle-school textbooks concluded that the materials “left out or misordered the cause and consequence of historical events and frequently failed to highlight main ideas.” And the flaws can be much more egregious than isolated errors, disorganization, or a lack of clarity—sometimes they’re fundamental distortions of the contexts leading up to many of today’s most dire social ills.

Source: Lessons From McGraw Hill: The Eurocentric Influence on History Textbooks and Classrooms – The Atlantic