Preparing History for History

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Today I had a wonderful discussion with Andy Mink who is the Director of Outreach and Education at the University of Virginia's Center for Digital History.  Andy asked me to help out with a workshop for public school teachers in Southside Virginia on the legacy of the Civil War, which I was happy to agree to do.  We touched on the difficulties surrounding the teaching of controversial events and issues, and at one point Andy asked if this is the first time that a crucial moment in American history (meaning the November election) could be predicted.  What a great question.  It is true that much of our analysis of what constitutes a momentous event in history is premised or made possible by hindsight.  So, this may be the first time where we can objectively state that this coming November will be one of the most important elections (events) in American history, regardless of whether Barack Obama emerges victorious.  Of course, if he wins the moment will be elevated to a different level altogether.  

I've written a bit about how an Obama presidency might transform our understanding of Civil War history, but I have not given much thought to the question of how we as teachers need to begin to think about how to prepare our students to understand the importance of this event.  On the face of it, this seems like a unique opportunity.   A few weeks ago I made the decision to begin the new year with the Civil Rights Movement and Harvard Sitkoff's The Struggle For Black Equality as a way to integrate or bridge the gap between history and current events.  I also hope to take advantage of the opportunity to emphasize the 50th anniversary of the closing of Lane High School and Venable Elementary School here in Charlottesville.  The closing of schools as a component of "Massive Resistance" represents one of the low points in recent American history while this election highlights the noticeable progress made in race relations.  Perhaps Obama's candidacy and potential election will help to frame classroom discussions around a more progressive narrative that does not lose sight of the complexity and tragic quality of the subject.  I don't claim to have any hard answers as to how to achieve this balance.  Before we can do so a number of questions must be addressed about how Obama specifically fits into our history of race.  Of course, it is just these types of questions that make for excellent classroom discussions. 

Those of you who work with Essential Questions can easily organize the year around a question which forces students to think about why a black presidential candidate is possible now as opposed to ten years ago or even earlier.  I like the idea of beginning with the Civil Rights Movement and then jumping back to colonization and moving forward.  The book that we are using begins with Jim Crow, but it is easy to imagine classes accumulating questions that emerge, which will serve to guide us throughout the remainder of the year as we explore earlier moments in American history.  Questions will no doubt cover a wide swath from straight-forward historical questions to the deciphering of political cartoons.  Consider the recent controversy surrounding the cover of the German publication Der Spiegel, which featured the White House and above it the phrase, "Onkel Barack's Hutta".  It would have been nice if Spiegel had waited until the start of the new school year to publish such a cover, but I suspect that there will be no shortage of such references as the general election heats up.  The point is that such moments will serve to inform our consideration of other moments in American history, in this case, the 1850s and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I haven't even finished with our end-of-the-year faculty meetings and I am already thinking about September.  It's why I love this profession.

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4 comments… add one

  • Craig Jun 10, 2008

    Have you thought about assigning Ralph Ellison’s first novel, Invisible Man, or his long-awaited, posthumously published second novel, Juneteenth, as background reading? Ellison believed that descendants of the northern army had forgotten their Civil War history every bit as profoundly as the descendants of the southern army remembered theirs. He held that our American notions of identity are inextricably bound to what our ancestors did in the Civil War. Obama’s black ancestors were far removed from that conflict. His white ancestors arrived in America before the 18th century began. I understand a sequel to Juneteenth, Three Days Before The Shooting, is due for publication later this month.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2008

    I am looking forward to the publication of this book and perhaps we can read a few excerpts from it or from Invisible Man. Thanks so much for the suggestion.

  • Michaela Jun 10, 2008

    Kevin, It was not the Spiegel, but the Tageszeitung “TAZ” that published this cover. The Spiegel commented on it discussing the appropriateness of the cover. The biggest concern is, of course, the idea to compare Obama to a slave. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel is well known among Germans and the comparison of an African American man to a slave does not sit well. However, the TAZ editor seems comfortable with it b/c he wants to point out the hubris of constantly referring to Senator Obama as a black man without explicitly discussing why the USA still in the 21st century has such a problem to respect and accept somebody of different skin color who is running for the highest office. It could be interpreted to the extent that we allow our African American citizens to finally use the lunch counter with whites, but we are still uncomfortable to let them run for office. While Germany has its own demons (as to allow foreign workers that moved to Germany in the 60s to become citizens or have equal rights, etc.) it is fascinating that Americans only discuss Obama in terms of his white mother and his African father, but not as what he stands for: an American citizen who theoretically had the right to run for office for more than a century, but could not have possibly done so until now. And what does that tell us about us?? And if one cannot answer that go back to the John Hope Franklin post: how on earth do we justify such oppression…oops I said the WORD.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2008

    Ela, — Thanks for clarifying. I should have taken the time to run this by you before posting. Interesting analysis and thanks for noting that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is known in Germany, which adds an important piece of background information to all of this.

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