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Hitting a Nerve: Teaching Black History in English Class

To paraphrase a friend’s reflection on being a black student during units on black history at her school in the UK: Year after year, it is a repetition of atrocities from slavery to racism, and I am tired of hearing that we are just victims and nothing else.

Those of us who end up teaching units on black history are not always historians nor do we all have any lived experience as black people. Over the past decade, I have repeatedly taught units on black history, race, and racism, all in the contexts of ESL/EFL classes both in the US and in Colombia. While my undergraduate degree is in history, I’m primarily trained as an English teacher, and teaching black history certainly requires a different set of skills than teaching verb tenses or writing effective emails because those things don’t hit, collectively, at issues as varied and deep as pride, injustice, rectification, responsibility, love of culture, current and past politics, and white normativity.

I want my students to be informed about how racism functions, past and present, but I don’t want them to feel like my friend in the example above — reduced to a sum of atrocities. Below is a brief list of work-in-progress maxims about teaching classes that I repeat to myself as I address the topic. It is what I try to do, as a white teacher, in classrooms where students may have had no previous academic discussions about the topic.

A multiplicity of stories

It is important that our students be informed about past and present racism. It is also important not to teach that blackness is synonymous with victimhood. If the black history we teach is only measured in terms of terribleness, it may be time to diversify our content.

Does the black history I teach include a multiplicity of stories from creativity, art, and innovation, to joy, humor, and literature? The Black Diaspora? Black thinkers?

It is not my job to provide one definitive story of black history, but to open the door to this multiplicity of stories that the students can engage with.

There will be resistance

Talking honestly about black history will touch upon racism. And that is a difficult conversation to have because it implicates so many of us. There will be resistance.

Where one student hears, "This is a story of how my ancestors resisted and overcame," another student will hear, "This is just a story about how my ancestors were bad."

Anticipate and manage this resistance. Such fragility need not be terminal. If I was doomed to occupy the highest level of white fragility I have ever felt, I would not be writing any of this.

There’s no need to make enemies of students who resist; this corners them into a place from which they cannot change their minds without losing face. That benefits nobody.

Instead, demonstrate enthusiasm and appreciation for the subject. And remember, the quiet ones are taking notes, too. Recognize, redirect, and swiftly move on.

Give Everyone a Stake

One way to model enthusiasm and to redirect resistance is to give everybody, especially in a multi-racial classroom, a stake in the topic.

Am I giving all students the opportunity to research and present, write about, create art, or teach a facet of black history they are curious about? Am I allowing them to be investigators and contributors, or treating them as wrongs to be righted?

You Can’t Outrun the Discomfort of Racism

In the US, we have no widespread model for how to talk about racism in a way that actually works. In white households, the racism conversation is often reduced to, "Racists are bad. We are not bad. But black people do bad things, too." Learning black history, on a social level, can mean unlearning such old patterns and acquiring new ways of being with one another, with history, and with ourselves. The teacher is not outside of this process. Are you modeling more constructive ways of reacting that would be healthy for students to adopt, or do you continue to model the hostility to the subject that is so prevalent?

You can’t outrun the discomfort of racism. Instead of showing fragility, work on modeling humility and openness.

Hold off on Opinions

Asking students what they think about black history or racism can turn into a round of "Let’s share our long-held prejudices and reveal how little we’ve thought about this." It can be unpleasant for black students to hear their classmates’ thoughts if these are unsympathetic, and difficult for the non-black students to retract those thoughts if they have declared in favor of them publicly.

If you are going to discuss racism, give a sociological definition and analyze instances through that lens. Making questions focused on academic content rather than opinion can lead to much more fruitful classes for everyone.

Is it Nice to be Black in My Classroom?

And perhaps the most important litmus test: Is being a black student during my lessons on black history a pleasant experience? Are non-black students learning about the ills of racism at the expense of black students in the class? Is my classroom a space where black students enjoy the lessons, where there is space to love their heritage and culture, see themselves in the texts, criticize, joke around, feel somber, define themselves, and take pride in the millions of stories that are theirs? Or is it a unit they must suffer through the ignorance of others and the narrowness of the curriculum, as my friend who was tired of only hearing about victimhood?

I think it’s clear which answer is preferable, and that is the class I strive to teach.

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