Engage with Discomfort: Encourage Students to Enter "Black History/Black Stories"

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When I was 22 I made it through only half of the movie “Pulp Fiction” in a theater before leaving. I couldn’t see past the violence on the screen to the creative story being crafted underneath. I was simply too uncomfortable to see anything artistic through the blood and gore. Nearly three decades later my son, an aspiring filmmaker, convinced me to give the movie another try -- reminding me of a lesson that I have forced on him many, many times: discomfort can be a tool for learning.


I’ve been thinking a lot about my (admittedly simplistic!) example of a personal life lesson lately as public debate abounds about the teaching of critical race theory and the level of discomfort by which many white people approach discussions of race. I’m heartened by the fact that since the death of George Floyd more white students at my college are taking Black History and courses that examine race and ethnicity through the lenses of sociology and literature. The students’ willingness to confront discomfort makes me hopeful in spite of news stories that highlight the hatred and ignorance that still festers in so many predominantly white communities and institutions in the United States. 


This week’s coverage of the resignation of NFL coach John Gruden’s over racist, homophobic, and misogynistic ema... is a reminder of how far our society still needs to go to move the needle on hate and discrimination. Gruden’s flimsy explanation that he “never meant for [the emails] to sound that bad” reminds us that many white Americans in positions of power -- Gruden had a contract that paid him $100 million over ten years -- are incredibly ignorant of history and the context through which racism, sexism, and homophobia have negatively impacted countless people. As history teachers, we need to continue to work to ensure that the next generation of leaders in business and industries, like the NFL and so many others, do not enable the acceptance of hate speech.


In spite of all the negativity present in our current world, as an educator I have to remain hopeful for the future. I welcome fellow history teachers to share such hope with their students and academic communities. This month I’m encouraging my students to identify stories of hope and inspiration from black history by entering this year’s “Black History, Black Stories” video/writing competition sponsored by Macmillan Learning. Visit the Macmillan Learning web site for details and consider assigning the video/essay prompt as an extra credit assignment. Learning more about who/what inspires our students can be a great help for curriculum design and can give us deeper insight into the lives of the young people in our classrooms, which can only lead to greater compassion and understanding. 

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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.