25 September 2020 Blogs

7 Ways to Disrupt the Normative Narrative in American History

How to confront hard history according to Prof. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

By Courtney Suciu

There is increasing awareness about how the voices, insights and experiences of historically marginalized people have been omitted from the common version, or the normative narrative, of American history. As a result, “hard history” – the ugly parts of our past, like the horrors of slavery, that are difficult to acknowledge and learn about – have been glossed over or omitted.

So how can we open our minds, and the minds of students, to more comprehensive understanding? And why is it important?

As part of a monthly speaker series held at ProQuest, Prof. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author and associate professor of American history at Ohio State University, shared 7 strategies to help researchers, educators and students confront hard history and disrupt the normative narrative.

    1. Focus on Black humanity
      For example, the language we use, such as referring to enslaved people as slaves, has a dehumanizing effect. Calling people who were held in bondage “slaves” reduces to them to their status and overlooks their humanity.
    2. Context is everything
      Acknowledging the systemic violence and discrimination against African Americans as racial terrorism puts the actions of African Americans navigating around white supremacy into context so we can better understand the decisions Black people have made.
    3. Understand traditions of organizing
      African Americans did not passively accept racial oppression but have historically formed communities and social networks in order to challenge and resist white supremacy.
    4. Learn about the wide range of strategies and tactics for change
      Teaching and learning around Black history is often focused on the non-violence of the civil rights era to the exclusion of other tactics, including the willingness of African Americans to take up arms in self-defense against white supremacy.
    5. Acknowledge the high price of freedom
      The fight for civil rights and human rights came at a steep cost for many African Americans who have lost their homes, jobs and their lives in the struggle for Black freedom.
    6. Appropriately measure victoriesand defeats
      Victories are often hidden in events that may look like defeat, such as the historical loss of an African American electoral candidate who succeeded in challenging white authority and encouraged voter registration by appearing on the ballot.
    7. See the continuum of struggle
      What’s happening in the streets today with Black Lives Matter is a part of ongoing protests and persistent resistance against racial oppression, going back to the 1900s and the slave abolition movement led by African Americans.

Watch a recording of Prof. Jeffries presentation to learn more about teaching hard history.


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