Although I think spotlighting the people, literature, culture, and life experiences of specific groups has a place in our academic programs, I always hope that the “months” do not prevent us from addressing the diversity of human experience at every grade level in every content area throughout the school year.
For example, we know our history textbooks lack the perspectives and first-hand experiences of diverse voices–even when studying a historical event such as post-Civil War Reconstruction that should be centered on the lives of freed slaves. In these cases whenever they occur, it is up to librarians and other educators to engage students with primary sources and literature that share Black experiences and perspectives that are all too often missing in the textbook.
That said, and since I am no longer teaching, I have made Black History Month a time to deepen my own knowledge and understanding of Black history and culture. Last Friday on the PBS NewsHour, historian Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, who chairs the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, offered her “Brief but Spectacular Take on Understanding the Past to Live a Better Future.”
Dr. Berry is dedicated to rethinking the way we teach American history to all students. Her latest book, which she co-authored with Dr. Kali Gross. is titled A Black Women’s History of the United States (Beacon Press 2020). (I have requested the book from our public library; the following information is based on reviews.) The book includes diverse and complex voices from the first African women who arrived on the land that became the United States through to today’s Black women. The authors showcase enslaved women, freedwomen, religious leaders, artists, queer women, activists, and women who lived outside the law. Reviews indicate A Black Women’s History of the United States would be useful for high school as well as for adult readers.
Using Primary Source Documents to Teach and ReTeach History
Not only did I learn about their book in Dr. Berry’s Brief but Spectacular, I also learned about the Teaching Texas Slavery project. Dr. Berry serves as an advisor on the project. From the website: “The Teaching Texas Slavery Project seeks to help teachers rethink the teaching of slavery and race within the context of the K-12 Texas history curriculum… This project involves a two-part process for disseminating content and instruction on how to teach race and slavery. The first part offers an open-access website for using primary source documents on this topic. The second provides workshops on how to use the materials housed on the website. The overall goal is to transform the teaching of slavery and race across the K-12 social studies curriculum.”
The site includes:
- Background information, maps from contact (1528) through Texas statehood (1865);
- Concepts related to race and racism;
- A pedagogical framework for studying race and racism; and
- primary source records and documents (for students to study).
While the site is particularly valuable for educators teaching in Texas, the framework and documents could be used by educators in other parts of the country as well.
This work made a connection for me to a Guided Inquiry Design® inquiry unit I developed for middle school students designed to be cotaught by school librarians and classroom teachers in Denton, Texas. Denton County Before, During, and After the Civil War (2014) focused on using primary source documents to interrogate history prompted by the Confederate monument that stood on the Denton town square until June, 2020).
I would definitely invite students, educators, or anyone to begin any inquiry into Black history with Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s powerful, award-winning picturebook The Undefeated (Houghton Mifflin 2019). Framing teaching and re-teaching Black history in the United States in terms of the strength, perseverance, and resilience of Black people can help all students begin to understand the past and start to appreciate how far our country has come and how far we have yet to go in actualizing “liberty and justice for all.”
Kuhlthau, Carol C., Leslie K. Maniotes, and Ann K. Caspari. (2012). Guided Inquiry Design: A Framework for Inquiry in Your School. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.