Teaching African American History, Update #1

Teaching is always a blast. This semester has been even more of a blast than ever before. I’m teaching United States History Since 1877 at the University of Houston and United States History Since 1877, Texas History, and African American History at Alvin Community College. I’m in the classroom in front of students twelve hours a week and spend many, many, many more grading all of their daily writing assignments, preparing lessons (note: I don’t use the word “lecture”), answering emails, etc. 

I want to spend some time particularly sharing information about my African American History class. Since being offered the opportunity to teach this class last August, my plan has been for the course to be discussion-based with few or no “lectures” and to have the focus be on what Black people have done per se, not what White people have done to them. I wanted it to truly be a focus on Black History and a look at History with a very different set of glasses. I ended up deciding to require eleven texts, all of which are free or inexpensive – three of these are films, two are novels, and one is an overview of African American History. I’m also assigning a few academic articles, and we’ll look at other smaller primary sources and videos in class. Check out the syllabus and full details here.

This class was also advertised all along as having no major exams. I did this in part hoping it would be a good “selling point,” in part from a stand point that there would be so much material looked at in a new way an exam would potentially be overly hard, and from a stand point that exams are by no means the only way to access student learning. In place of exams, students will be graded on in-class participation, leading the discussion over one of the books, writing a final paper, and writing blog posts each week and replying to each other. We’re still getting everyone started on the details of how to blog, but I am blown away by the power of this assignment and the conversations these blogs are starting. Blogs can be about anything related in some way to Black History. Check out their blogs (linked directly below with permission – yes, there are only seven in the class counting me!) and please join their conversations: 

The first week of class we spent time covering the background of Black History.

We talked and read about:

  • Black History vs. “regular” History
  • historiography
  • “race” vs. “racialized”
  • “white” vs “White”
  • “slave” vs. “enslaved” / “master” vs. “enslaver”
  • White Privilege, Whiteness, Blackness
  • how to analyze primary sources 
  • agency and oppression 
  • the Long Civil Rights Movement vs. the Civil Rights Revolution
  • using White sources as a necessity at times to study Black History 
  • bell hooks and the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy 
  • White people studying and talking about Black History 
  • intersectionality 
  • the negative consequences of Brown v. Board of Education
  • and much more! 

Readings for week one came from Major Problems in African American History. Other essays included “Afro-American History: Myths, Heroes, and Reality,” “African-American History: Origins, Development, and Current State of the Field,” andHow Race-Studies Scholars Can Respond to Their Haters. This last article was optional, and the class uniformly said it was the best one and should be required! 

We did one activity where I asked every one to draw out a world map with all of the major landmasses. EVERY ONE drew the continent of Africa about the same size as the United States or as Greenland (most maps show Greenland as being wayyyyyyyyy to large)- the same as maps wrongly show it everywhere, all the time. We then talked about the true size of Africa and the implications of this for Black History. 

At the end of the first week, I told them, and fully meant it and still fully mean it, that they were just as good and better than most graduate students and that our class was running like a really, really good graduate seminar. 

This past week went very well, too. We continued with some introductory information and talked about enslavement. Readings and discussions included: 

  • equality vs. equity 
  • the debates surrounding the difference between “African American” and “African-American” and the politics of grammar 
  • analyzing the vastly different numbers given by different authors related to the Atlantic Slave Trade
  • the Arab Slave Trade 
  • enslavement in Africa
  • the ethics of comparative history
  • analyzing artistic depiction of the Middle Passage from this book and whether or not “it matters” that the artist is Black  
  • how textbooks have presented enslavement to school children over time by analyzing the corresponding chapter in this book 
  • implied rhetoric of exclusion in the Declaration of Independence and other founding texts 
  • legacies of enslavement as analyzed through DNA based on this article
  • the harm comments along the lines of “blacks have a lot to thank slavery for” cause 
  • and much more!  

This next week, week 3, we’re reading and discussing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. Depending on how much time we have left, I have some other cool activities planned! 

I’m really looking forward to the rest of the semester. AND I’m really glad that the students are rising to the challenge, as I see students as a group do in class after class, time and time again. I’ve never regretted challenging students.

I keep telling the students in this African American History course that this is their first graduate course! Look for more updates as the semester continues.