Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No Villain, No Idiot, No Saint: Thinking about Ferguson and Teaching Reconstruction

The title for this post comes from a quotation by W.E.B. DuBois in his book, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.
One reads the truer deeper facts of Reconstruction with a great despair. It is at once so simple and human, and yet so futile. There is no villain, no idiot, no saint. There are just men; men who crave ease and power, men who know want and hunger, men who have crawled. They all dream and strive with ecstasy of fear and strain of effort, balked of hope and hate. Yet the rich world is wide enough for all, wants all, needs all. So slight a gesture, a word, might set the strife in order, not with full content, but with growing dawn of fulfillment. Instead roars the crash of hell...”  
For a variety of reasons, Reconstruction can be a difficult period to teach.  And with troubling news coming out of Ferguson daily, this year it may be even more challenging.

So one way to begin a unit on Reconstruction could be by starting with the present. While reading about Ferguson in the paper yesterday morning, I was reminded of William Faulkner's famous quotation:
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
It came to mind when I saw this editorial cartoon by Walt Handelsman:

Wouldn't that be an interesting way to start off a unit on Reconstruction? I cannot imagine that the subject of what is going on in Ferguson wouldn't come up at some point in a unit on Reconstruction. As a friend just recently put it, "Isn't it sad that the most 'teachable moments' arise from the most egregious acts of human indecency?"

Luckily for teachers, there are a lot of folks out there who have been thinking about this. There is a twitter hashtag, #fergusonsyllabus that is pretty active. In fact, there is a #PTchat (Parent/Teacher) conversation tonight on Twitter at 9:00 pm Eastern time with Marcia Chatelein, a professor of African-American history at Georgetown University who started #fergusonsyllabus back in August. You can read about that here. You can find a lot more on Twitter. Here are just a few sites I found online that I think would be helpful, keeping in mind that some of these are from August and don't reflect recent events:

Moving on, but still thinking backwards, I remember the DBQ (documents-based question) I used last spring with 8th graders to conclude our unit on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This is the question I used:

What were the goals of the Civil Rights Movement and was the movement successful?

Students had to first define what they meant by "success," and they understood that a good answer to the above question had to take into account some of the areas in which the movement fell short. The documents included things like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, quotations from Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and some current statistics on income and education.

So when I pulled out my file on the Reconstruction and found the old DBQ I used in that unit, I was struck by the similarities. Here is the question for this DBQ:

To what extent could freed African-Americans regard Reconstruction as a failure?

And then a pile of my notes discussing successes and failures. Both periods--nearly 100 years apart--are so marked with both successes and failures. It is also interesting to me to see how I worded the two questions. The wording seems to suggest that Reconstruction is best understood as a failure, while Civil Rights is better understood as a success. The wording may suggest that, but surely the historic record is surely more complicated.

Either way you look at it, I don't think we can understand the modern civil rights era without first understanding Reconstruction. Frankly, I don't think we can understand race relations in the U.S. today without understanding both.

So how to plan a unit on Reconstructions? A few key issues to consider:

1. What are your dates? 

Do you end with 1877? Or do you also cover the "nadir" period and go on through Plessy v. Ferguson (Ferguson again!)? Both are possibilities. Depends on how you handle the late 19th century. Personally, I like to go up through Plessy v. Ferguson in my Reconstruction unit, and pick the story up again and devote time to the African American experience through the 1910s and 1920s.

2. The corollary to the above, is how much time to you want to devote to the present? 

At one high school I know, U.S. history is taught thematically, so historical issues are always brought up to the present. While I still prefer an overall chronological approach, there is considerable merit to at least referencing the present when we discuss the past. (Wouldn't that be one of the main points for teaching history?)

3. How much depth should you go into about Andrew Johnson's impeachment? 

The year of Clinton's impeachment I spent a LOT of time on impeachment. Certainly, in years where there is a lot of partisan bickering (sigh, is there ever a time when there's not?) it makes sense to devote some time to this and connect it to the larger concept of partisan politics. But always remember that you cannot cover everything. However you decide to teach the impeachment (and I will include some materials for doing an in-class trial), it is worthwhile to allow students to see the texture of the debate. Remember that the lens of partisan politics is not the only way to consider the impeachment.

For background information for you, see this brief article from about how historians have understood Johnson's impeachment. For another view, and background info on Johnson himself, check out the University of Virginia Miller Center's website. (Also check out the Presidential Classroom page, which will lead you to online exhibits and lesson plans. It seems to be especially rich on resources on Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson).

4. How much detail to go into about the horrors of lynching and racial discrimination? 

We cannot ignore the injustice and brutality of life during Jim Crow, but one can err on the other side too. I know, because one year I crossed the line and saw it on my students' faces. I had been reading aloud an excerpt from Leon Litwack's book, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. I had already decided to skip a part that I felt was too graphic and violent. But as I was reading, I saw how upsetting the part I had chosen was -- at least for some of them. I don't mean to suggest that we cannot teach things that are upsetting. (How would that even be possible?) History is full of things that are upsetting. But it is important to think carefully about our pedagogical choices. (For a good resource on this, see the U.S. Holocaust museum's guidelines for teachers. While geared to thinking about the Holocaust, the issues they point out--about contextualizing history, avoiding comparisons of pain, etc.--are wise considerations for teaching about many painful subjects. Definitely work a look.) And of course, it is important to consider the age, experiences and background of your students.

Next post, I will provide some more specific lesson ideas, including some sample documents for the DBQ I mentioned above and for teaching about Johnson's impeachment.

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