Teaching Black PerspectivesRoundup
tags: African American history, teaching history
Julia W. Bernier completed her PhD in African American Studies at UMass Amherst. She is an Assistant Professor of History at W & J College. Her work focuses on the lives of enslaved people, slavery, and abolition in the nineteenth century United States. She is also interested in studying and addressing slavery’s afterlife on university campuses and beyond. She is currently working on her book about self-purchase in the United States which will be published with the University of Pennsylvania Press. Follow her on Twitter @jwbernier.
Shortly before leaving office, the former president established the 1776 Commission. It was formed to control narratives about the history of the United States and maintain white supremacist propaganda that erased the nation’s histories of settler colonialism, slavery, and anti-Blackness. The commission’s report, released on January 18, 2021 was posted on the White House’s website for only two days. It, however, sparked outrage amongst professional historians and others on social media and in the press. Despite this backlash, the report’s eventual removal, and the current administration’s move to end the commission immediately upon taking office, the larger forces directing its political project have long histories and remain at work in the continued and expanded fight against Critical Race Theory and other imagined curricular threats. These are not just intellectual debates over how we analyze and narrate the past. As Keisha N. Blain has recently reminded us, it is, instead, a “matter of life and death.” African American historians and activists have always understood the stakes of these arguments and the importance of teaching Black perspectives on the history of the nation.
Those who now fight teaching the history of the United States have, in part, been responding to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, which was published in 2019 by the New York Times on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “20 and odd” captive Africans in Point Comfort, Virginia. The 1619 Project attempted to address the role that slavery played in the founding of the United States, its continued influence on our present, and the role that African Americans have played in shaping American democracy. The project asked popular audiences to readjust how we understand the nation’s past, making slavery our continued—or continual—origin story. In this way, the project built off the work of Black Studies scholars like Saidiya Hartman who configured the idea of “slavery’s afterlife” as one in which “black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”1 Indeed, more radical scholarship like this offers us important ways to critique the framing of the 1619 Project itself in useful and generative ways, unlike those of right-wing ideologues.2
The uprisings in the Spring and Summer of 2020 in response to the police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade and others and the resulting calls for abolition were also an important catalyst for the 1776 commission and its broader manifestations. These protests saw the removal of monuments to white supremacy and settler colonialism across the world. These actions had historical significance. But, they were also public acts of historical narration that offered alternative ways to understand the past and what else might be possible.
Happening during a global pandemic, these events were met with counter-revolutionary force. From the state violence that met protesters, to attempts to limit American history to the realm of fantasy, politicians worked to quell insurrection by using a mix of methods that have a deep history in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, United Daughters of the Confederacy led efforts to memorialize the Lost Cause in public spaces and in schools. In the same period, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) turned to educational reform as part of its white supremacist platform.
These efforts have continued to manifest themselves across the nation, as local school boards and state governments attempt to control curriculum (some of whom have succeeded) and enact censorship at local libraries.
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