Black History within the American History Survey

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At the midpoint of February, “Black History Month,” it makes sense to consider how we as history professors can ensure that black history is a central component of American history and not a subject relegated to the year’s shortest month. Here are some of the things that I have done to incorporate black history into my United States history survey courses year round:

Explore black history textbooks: Compare the table of contents from a black history textbook to that of the general US history textbook you currently use. Look for topics that could broaden content and enliven discussion. While students are often familiar with World War II-era images of “Rosie the Riveter,” for example, they know very little about the “Double V” campaign of the same period. Incorporating such a topic into a US survey’s coverage of World War II creates space for students to examine gender and race comparatively. When students begin to consider the experiences of African-American “Rosies” the conversation broadens to explore the economic challenges faced by women of color.

Research and share: One of the many fabulous things about “Black History Month” (and “Women’s History Month,” etc) is that we are introduced to unfamiliar stories that forge pathways to larger discussion. Consider having students research a topic of interest and then share it (briefly) at the beginning or end of each class meeting. This task can be assigned for any topic in any course. If your class is studying the Great Depression, for example, ask students to Google-search what happened on a given date in the 1930s related to race or gender or the economy. A low-stakes assignment like this one can be graded pass/fail and included in a student’s class participation grade. It’s a great way to get the students talking at the beginning of a class meeting while broadening the content of the course.

Ask students to reflect: The right assignment can act as a conduit for students to recognize and accept black history (or women’s history or LGBTQ history, etc) as American history. An interesting way to do this is to ask them to develop a museum exhibit: Imagine you are curating a three-room exhibit on 19th-century life. Identify three topics that, together, best illustrate a collective view of American society/ politics/economics. I’ve used this prompt in various forms many times as a mid-semester exam question. I give the students the question ahead of time and allow them to group-brainstorm possible topics. Generally students do an excellent job of incorporating race (and gender) into their fictional museums.

In 2018 it is a rare college campus that does not celebrate Black History Month. We as history professors can widen the reach and increase the value of such programming by incorporating black history seamlessly into our US history survey courses every month.


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.