Future Civil War historian killed

Future Civil War historian killed in Iraq: Read the story.

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Some Thoughts About Teaching Reconstruction or Why Is History So Damn Depressing?

It happens every year in at least one of my classes and usually around the time of Reconstruction. One of my students comments or asks a question that reveals a deep frustration with American history and particularly the role of racism in it. And when the issue is raised everything stops in my class to discuss the issue. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that one of the main topics or themes covered in the course is the history of racism — in my opinion the most important issue that I can teach my students. The problem, of course, is the danger that you leave students with a sense that American history is one long tale of corruption and racial hatred.

Part of the problem is that most of my students have never seriously studied the history of racism. I teach in a predominantly white private school with very few black employees and the students are from fairly wealthy families in predominantly white neighborhoods. All of this lends itself to a certain level of defensiveness whenever the topic is raised. Some students no doubt feel threatened or believe they are being made to feel partly responsible for the past. It is difficult to make clear to the students that the goal is to understand how societies develop along racial lines so that we can more clearly address the nature of the problem. How did colonization, the cultivation of tobacco, the demand for rich land, and a labor force shape a slave nation by the middle of the 18th century? Throughout it all I try my best to make it clear that black slaves never surrendered some level of autonomy, but continually negotiated and took advantage of opportunities for self expression and autonomy. The point I am trying to make is that a close look at racism and slavery can be taught in a way that reflects the kind of story that most Americans relish in, which is the desire for freedom involving stories of individuals and groups and the lengths they are willing to go to achieve their ends.

Reconstruction is a perfect opportunity to make this point as clearly as possible to my students. Most of our time in class is spent analyzing how black and white Americans worked together to achieve certain political ends during the turbulent period following the Civil War. The story in and of itself includes all of the components that make for the quintessential American story. Yes, the story ends with the Redeemers back in power, but that did not end black political action – a point that C. Van Woodward reminded us over 50 years ago in Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 and one that I am still learning about as it relates to the Readjusters here in Virginia. The history should be taught not simply to reveal the hideousness of racism, but also as part of the exciting story of American freedom. The trick is to bring my students to the point where they see themselves in the slaves and the newly-freed blacks in the same way that many white Americans have traditionally identified with the Founding generation. In short, these are stories that can empower young people.

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New Civil War/Lincoln Blog: Check

New Civil War/Lincoln Blog: Check out Civil War and Lincoln historian Brian Dirck’s new site, A Lincoln Blog.

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New Abraham Lincoln Website

New Abraham Lincoln Website: Check out Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom, which is sponsored by The Lincoln Institute and The Lehrman Institute. It contains plenty of primary sources for classroom use and a section for “Teachers Only.” It looks to be quite interactive.

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Update on African American History and Culture Museum

From the Voice of America:

“February is Black History Month in the United States, when Americans are encouraged to learn about and appreciate the many contributions African Americans have made to American society. Those efforts got a boost this week (January 30) when the Smithsonian Institution announced its plan to build a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where, in about 10 years, it will join the of the capital city’s famed national museums monuments.”

Looks like the museum will be located right next to the Museum of American History. I’ve already contributed to the funding of this worthy endeavor and I encourage you to do the same.

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Blight in the Classroom

We wrapped up our discussion of Reconstruction with an analysis of David Blight’s North and South Magazine article, “Race and Reunion: Soldiers and the Problem of the Civil War in American Memory” (Vol. 6, No. 3, 2003). I threw this image up on the board to examine the evolution of Robert E. Lee in American memory–three of the most prominent southerners.

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Black History Month

Today is the beginning of Black History Month, which was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Week. The question of whether this month should be set aside in recognition of African American history was recently addressed by actor Morgan Freeman on a recent episode of 60 Minutes. Freeman stressed his opposition to the holiday on the grounds that it created an artificial distinction between black history and American history. I agree with Freeman. That said, regardless of the appropriateness of the holiday it is essential that we step back to acknowledge why Woodson believed it was necessary in 1926. Using a textbook by Eric Foner means that my students are reading the most up-to-date account of how historians, including Foner, have interpreted the Reconstruction period. To give them a sense of how historians have evolved in their understanding of this controversial period I’ve been reading passages from W.E.B. Dubois’s phenomenal study, Black Reconstruction. Yes, he probably goes a bit too far applying Marxist categories, but it is the most complete study of how African Americans shaped their history by engaging in political action in one of the most dangerous settings imaginable. The final chapter is titled, “The Propaganda Of History.” Dubois asks: “What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? ” From the textbooks he references:

1. “The Negroes got control of these states. They had been slaves all their lives, and were so ignorant they did not know the letters of the alphabet. Yet many now sat in the state legislatures and made the laws.”
2. “In the South, the Negroes who had so suddenly gained their freedom did not know what to do with it.”
3. “Some legislatures were made up of a few dishonest white men and several Negroes, many too ignorant to know anything about law-making.”
4. “These men knew not only nothing about the government, but also cared for nothing except what they could gain for themselves.”
5. “Legislatures were often at the mercy of Negroes, childishly ignorant, who sold their votes openly, and whose ‘loyalty’ was gained by allowing them to eat, drink, and clothe themselves at the state’s expense.”

One of my students asked who authored these various passages. My response: “Some of the brightest historical minds that this country has ever produced.” Let’s have the debate about the appropriateness of Black History Month, but let us not forget the history that it sought to address.

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A Foreign (i.e. Fresh) Perspective

I had a very interesting encounter yesterday with one of my AP students who happens to be Korean. She is extremely bright, but struggles with the language and her writing. At the same time she is one of my hardest workers and best of all this student is relentless in her quest to better understand American history. Few students have made more progress. A few of the other students in the class are aware of her intelligence and accord her a great deal of room to express herself. Unfortunately, the majority display little patience, which is unfortunate because she is extremely insightful and has a great deal to offer. On average we meet 3 times a week in my office just to talk about the readings and her interpretation. Yesterday was one of those days where she was unable to express herself sufficiently regarding Lincoln’s political/leadership style. I told her to continue to think about it, but time ran out. I then told her to come back to my office after her last class to see if we couldn’t clarify her ideas. She came back to my office with her thoughts already written down and was easily able to express what was on her mind. Turns out what she wanted to say was that Lincoln understood the external pressures that influenced his wartime policy, but that he was somehow able to steer it down a road that corresponded closely to his own personal interests and “morality.” (She was of course referring to L’s policy regarding slavery.) She made the point that “it is almost as if Lincoln was one step ahead of everyone else.” I think this is a remarkable insight. What took the cake, however, was her next comment — apparently something she’s been thinking about for quite some time. Up until recently this student believed that she was at a disadvantage compared with the other students who have grown up learning about American history. The breakthrough for her was realizing that in fact her foreign birth is an advantage as she doesn’t have to juggle a traditional view that explains important events and leaders in heroic terms. Teaching is full of surprises. Guess who just walked into my office to talk about today’s reading?

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