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How Do We Talk to Students About Racism?
09 Sep 2020

How Do We Talk to Students About Racism?

Teaching students the hard history of slavery and race relations in the U.S. to better understand the present and prepare for the future

By Courtney Suciu

How accurate is the version of U.S. history most of us have been taught?

We recently discussed this topic with Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of American History at Ohio State University. He is also the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press) and the upcoming book Stealing Home: Ebbets Field and Black Working Class Life in Post-Civil Rights New York, as well as chair of the Teaching Hard History advisory board at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

According to Jeffries, most us have been taught a history within a narrative framework that doesn’t adequately explain the role of slavery in the foundation of the U.S. and its ongoing impact on race relations. But “hard history” complicates our understanding by looking truthfully at the past from the perspectives of people who have traditionally been overlooked or intentionally ignored.

Jeffries calls this “disrupting the normative narrative” and said, “we have to disrupt it because the normative narrative is really useless. It doesn’t help us make sense of what happened in the past, what’s happening now and where we want to go in the future.”

What is the normative narrative and why does it need to be disrupted?

“The normative narrative is received wisdom about the American past. It is not complicated enough at best; it is fictionalized mythology at worse,” Jeffries explained.

The normative narrative, he continued, is often “nostalgia masquerading as history.” In one example, Jeffries described a visit to Montpelier, the historic estate of James Madison, fourth U.S. president and architect of the U.S. Constitution. It was also a plantation where more than 100 people had been enslaved over the course of Madison’s life.

Jeffries recalled his awe at visiting the location and seeing the library where Madison conceived of the Bill of Rights; then the guide invited him to the cellars of the mansion and instructed the professor to run his fingertips along the wall. Jeffries felt little bumps and indentations in the bricks – prints left by the tiny hands of the enslaved children who made them.

These are the kinds of details that tend to be left out of the version of history many of us have been taught; the normative narrative doesn’t talk about how the library where Madison envisioned a nation where “all men are created equal” rested on a foundation of bricks made by the children he enslaved. And, according to Jeffries, when the normative narrative does talk about slavery, its impact tends to be minimized by dehumanizing the people who were enslaved, such as by referring to them as “slaves” rather as human beings who were brutally held in bondage.

“When you cast people out of the human family, you can literally do anything to them,” he explained. This is how slavery was justified in the past, he pointed out, and how often acts of racism and xenophobia are perpetuated and overlooked today.

So, what is the solution? Jeffries said we must disrupt that normative narrative by truthfully teaching the history of African American enslavement, white supremacy and racism in the U.S. – or what is called “hard history.”

Teaching hard history

Teaching hard history means re-centering the historical narrative to include the humanity – the lives and experiences – of those who have traditionally been marginalized, such as those who were enslaved. “When you recognize the humanity of enslaved people,” Jeffries said, “you talk about the way they resisted, the way they survived.”

Focusing on the suffering of slavery pushes people away, he explained, but all students can connect with resistance, from the Black abolitionist movement to the ways enslaved people communicated with each other through song and storytelling. From this perspective, “Black students can see themselves reflected in the history, and that’s empowering for them. But it’s empowering for white students, too, because they can relate to the humanity,” Jeffries said.

“Ultimately, we are talking about the story of this nation, which includes all of us,” he continued. “We need to stop solely identifying with whiteness in the past which leads us to identify with enslavers rather than the enslaved.”

According to Jeffries, centering whiteness in education starts from a young age. Elementary school students celebrate President’s Day learning about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, portrayed as national heroes. Then, in middle school, “most students go on to learn about slavery and how bad it was,” he said. Students struggle to reconcile the two ideas. “They start thinking, ‘If great men like Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, how bad was it?’ This creates confusion and causes kids to shut down because it doesn’t make any sense.”

As an alternative, Jeffries said, “Imagine if our kids were taught from a young age to identify with historical figures like Harriet Tubman. It doesn’t change the contributions men like Washington made, but it centers the humanity of Black people who were enslaved and really fought to make this a more perfect union.”

When students are taught history according to the normative narrative, it can be a shock when they get to college and are introduced to hard history in Jeffries’s classes. He described the process they go through is something like the stages of grief.

At first, they are “in disbelief about the history of lynching and other forms of racial terrorism because no one taught them about it. They say it didn’t happen because their teachers would have told them. But then I show them the evidence and they get angry.”

But they’re not angry at Jeffries – they are angry because they’ve been misled. Then that anger turns to sadness as students begin to question what the history of slavery and racial terrorism “says about the nation and our past,” the professor explained.

“But they always want to learn more,” he said. “Students want to know the truth.”

Using primary sources to disrupt the normative narrative

The evidence Jeffries provides his students is usually in the form of primary source materials. Historical records and documents are often used in his classes to prompt discussion and to encourage students to “think like historians.”

“Sometimes I share with students everything I know about a document but other times I’ll give them just a snippet, without any context, and say ‘let’s figure out what we don’t know and do some investigative work’,” he said.

Primary source materials can uncover various points of view on a single incident. For example, Jeffries referred to the papers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights group formed in 1960, and how the organization’s meeting minutes described an event where peaceful protestors were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. The SNCC Papers also include a report on the same incident from the Alabama State Police that portrayed SNCC as a terrorist organization.

“How do we make sense of that?” Jeffries asked. “What is the narrative that gets constructed when you look at police records, but you don’t bring in the meeting minutes and the voices of the SNCC activists? By asking these questions, I’m teaching students how to critically analyze these documents, so they learn how to interpret these things for themselves.”

Jeffries also frequently uses the NAACP Papers in his classes to demonstrate how the contributions of small, local chapters of the organization contributed to the broader civil rights movement. “Teaching about the civil rights movement often focuses on the big names, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was everyday people, working people, laborers, students doing much of the work.”

People like Rosa Parks, whose name first comes up as secretary of the NAACP branch in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1940s. Jeffries said students are surprised to discover that she’d been an activist for 10 years before the famous bus boycott. And when he points them to the Detroit branch papers from the 1970s and 1980s, they are again surprised that her activism continued for decades afterward.

“Students say ‘Wait a minute. That’s 40 years of history! Why do we only learn about that one day [when she refused to give up her seat on the bus]?”

“This is why we need primary sources, so we can see how the Black freedom movement has persisted over time,” Jeffries explained. “We can tell students, ‘here are the pieces of the puzzle; now you tell me what the bigger picture is.’”

Preparing students for the world we live in

Asked how he measures success as an educator, Jeffries said things like course evaluations from students don’t tell him as much as what he hears from past students. And in the last few months, he’s been hearing from them with increasing frequency.

As Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world following the murder of George Floyd, people who Jeffries has taught in the past – up to nearly two decades ago, when he first began his teaching career – have been reaching out to talk about current events.

“Not a single one of them has said ‘Dr. Jeffries, help explain to me what is going on,’” he said. “But every single one is like ‘your class made it possible for me to understand what is going on,’ and their question is ‘what do we do about it?’”

“As these students were reaching out,” Jeffries continued, “they weren’t just saying ‘I was in your civil rights class,’ or ‘I was in your survey class.’ They would say, ‘I was in your civil rights class and I remember the day we had the debate about the Birmingham church bombings,’ for example. It was specific class discussions that stuck with them 20 years later.”

“That to me, as an educator, is the mark of success,” he said. “It’s not just about how students think about the past and present, but how they move through the world, putting it right.”

Sometimes, Jeffries said, white parents express concern that teaching history in a way that disrupts the normative narrative teaches white students to feel guilty about slavery and racial terrorism. He responds to this by saying, “No young person today is responsible for anything that happened in the past, or even what is happening right now. But they are responsible for tomorrow, and we have to prepare them for the challenges ahead.”

And, according to Jeffries, that means preparing them address the issues of a world that doesn’t look like the mythological one they’ve been taught with the normative narrative. “The only way to help prepare for tomorrow is by helping students understand how they got there,” he said. “That’s why we have to teach the truth.”

Watch the webinar with Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries to learn more about teaching hard history using primary sources.

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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu

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