Sunday, February 1, 2015

W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Black Americans during the Progressive Era

I hesitated about the title of this post. I fear it sends the message,"time to talk about two important Black men before we get to Martin Luther King" and minimizes the importance of so many other people and issues. So please understand I don't mean that before reading on.

In my last post about the Progressive Era, I pointed out that the Progressive Era was noteworthy as the beginning of conservationism in America, and yet the environmentalists of the Progressive Era had fundamental disagreements about what conservation means.

Similarly, it was clear that Black Americans faced many difficulties during the period from 1890 through the 1910s and action needed to be taken. But while Blacks agreed that changes needed to be made to improve Black lives, they did not always agree about how that should be done. Progressives like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington are the two most well-known black leaders of their time and their views differed dramatically, not unlike the opposing views of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, who both considered themselves conservationists. And of course, there were Progressives who were white who supported one or the other of them, and white Progressives who supported neither. So both this post and last support the reality that the term "Progressive" is a very loose one.

Teachers often focus on W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. And for good reason. But before I get to them, I note that the spotlight on these two tends to obscure other important Black leaders and events. George Washington Carver is one of them. While looking for something else pertaining to Black History Month, I came across this interesting article about Carver from NPR's codeswitch blog.

Langston Hughes

Also, for the record, I am writing this on the birthday of Langston Hughes, not only the best poet for teaching about civil rights, but also a fascinating character (put his autobiography, The Big Sea, on your summer reading list!). And I urge you not just to rely on his famous poem "A Dream Deferred," but on many others. The problem with this poem, like the last part of King's "I Have a Dream" speech is that they are so overused by teachers (my son has read "A Dream Deferred" 3 years in a row in English class! So unless you are teaching second grade, they have likely already read it. And check out today's Google Doodle:


While he really becomes famous in the 1920s, and thus, you might be better off delaying a discussion of him until you get to the 1920s, I bring him up in this post because one, today is his birthday. Two, he once worked for Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month and that is just an interesting coincidence for today. Three, he is a child of the 1910s and this must have colored his poetry. And lastly, this is a great opportunity for an interdisciplinary connection you can make with some of your fellow English teachers, and creating any sort of interdisciplinary connection takes time. Here are few links to interesting info about Hughes and his poetry are below.

Ida B. Wells and Lynching

Another important individual to focus on during this period is Ida B. Wells Barnett, a muckraker and crusader against lynching. Read here for some background information about her. You can use her to focus a lesson about lynching. I mention lynching not without a good deal of trepidation. It occurs to me that teaching about it could possibly be the most controversial lesson you teach all year. Ironic, isn't it, that you could go on and on about all sorts of horrors during the Civil War, the Indian Wars or even the Holocaust, but there's something particularly disturbing--to me, anyway--about lynching because it is a subject that is rarely touched on in U.S. history textbooks or classes (see the chapter by Loewen I refer to below). It is an ugly part of American history that is widely ignored or hushed up. I discussed the difficulties of teaching about it in an earlier post (scroll down to: 4. How much detail to go into about the horrors of lynching and racial discrimination?) which you may want to check out if you didn't see it originally.

Resources for thinking about and teaching about lynching:

NAACP and their campaign against lynching:

Although not recorded until 1939, Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" is a historically significant performance. Based on a poem of the same name (also not published until well after the Progressive Era), it describes lynching like nothing else can. Might be worth showing to students.

(Or you could try this contemporary version by Jose James, which I saw live a few weeks ago at his concert in Hyde Park, Chicago. Indescribably moving.) 

And now, one more digression before I get to Washington and DuBois.

I am currently teaching the social studies methods course this semester, and one of the key messages I am trying to send to these teachers-to-be is that there is no substitution for a solid background in your subject area. I can give them all the strategies, methods and cool ideas in the world, but unless they know some history, those things will do little for them or their students. Hopefully, they have gotten a good start in the 3+ years of college education they have already had. But 30+ credits in history (only some of which is likely in American history) is not enough to give them everything they need to do a good job of teaching.

I am learning new things all the time and am constantly amazed by all that I don't know. (For example, just last semester, when teaching 8th grade U.S. history I learned about new information we have about the Cuban Missile Crisis. As I had not taught about that in quite some time, this was new. And it significantly changes how we can understand this crisis. But more on that when we get to the Cold War).

Why this digression? I think one of the reasons we have a tough time with the period 1890-1920 (or even later) of African American history is, that unless you have taken an African American history course in college or grad school, or have read a lot on the period, it is unlikely that you know a whole lot about it. For me,  99% of my worst lessons were lessons on topics that I did not know very well.

So one suggestion I have for you, if this is one of your weak areas, are a few short articles/chapters listed below. Together, they make a good "crash course" that will help you understand and develop a few good lessons on the period.
  • Eric Arnesen, "Reconsidering the 'Long Civil Rights Movement,'" 2009. Historically Speaking 10 (2): 31-34. Happily, this article is available online here.
  • chapter 10 of James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History. This chapter is about what historians refer to as "The Nadir" or low point, for African Americans. Other chapters in this book are also very useful, so if you can, you may want to buy it. But you may also be able to get your school to buy it for you or get it through your public library.
  • You obviously don't have time to read all of Leon Litwack's 640 page book, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow by the time you have to teach about this topic, but happily, you can read an brief excerpt here and a longer essay (but still only 19 pages) that is either from the book or published before the book, I'm not sure. The last two pages have an interesting insight about the Washington vs. DuBois "debate."

Washington and DuBois

There are so many resources on the web about these two, that I am declining to list them. Instead, I'd suggest you just google "washington and dubois" and you will find more than you need. If you don't have time for that--one of the problems for teachers, right? It's finding the time to actually read all those resources!--then you can simply check out the stuff below.

Update 6/1/15: just found this article from NPR on better understanding the legacy of Booker T. Washington.

I adopted this from a colleague who adopted it from this DBQ used on an old AP U.S. History exam. I begin a lesson with some brief biographical info on the two men. Then I had students draw a chart in their notes so we could compare the biographies and views of the two men after reading some of their writings, noting similarities and differences.

You can find the documents here.

And here are some key questions (big questions, discussion questions, essential questions, whatever you'd like to call them) that I like to use in class along with these documents:

  1. Which strategy (Washington's or DuBois's) do you think is most appropriate given the historic circumstances? Do you find one more appealing for today's circumstances? Are they the same? Different?
  2. What do you have to know or consider in order to answer the above question?
  3. In what ways does this difference of opinion compare to the different approaches of the Antislavery movement and the American Colonization Society? How is the question each group/person dealt with similar/different? How have the historic circumstances changed? (You can do this again when you get to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X).
  4. Washington's approach seems to suggest it is better to work with the situation you are in in order to get to where you would like to be, while DuBois seems to suggest it is better to work towards the situation you would like from the start. This is probably a bit simplistic, but what do you think? And which approach do you prefer? Why? Which might be more successful? Is there a difference between the one you prefer and the one you think might be more successful? Why or why not?
  5. When you think about the importance of education, which do you think is more important, a practical education which will specifically prepare you for a job? Or a liberal education (history, arts, sciences, literature, math, humanities) which prepares you in a more general way? How did you make your decision? Is one of the choices more appropriate for some people over others? Why or why not? What does this say about equality, equality of opportunity and socio-economic class in America?

Yes, that last one is a killer, isn't it? But I have had THE most interesting discussions with students about it. Give it a whirl....

Parting thoughts--

Don't forget about the Great Migration and the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. I will do a separate post on this when we get there.

And a reminder, if you're looking for more resources on African American history, check out the website from the New Jersey State Library that I mentioned above.

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