Historical Inaccuracy

[The 8th grader is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. They had a handout about the historical context of the 1930s. I cannot keep my mouth shut.]


Dear 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher,

I apologize upfront for being *that* parent, but there’s a historical inaccuracy in the homework that [child] is working on for tomorrow. The handout “The Great Depression” states that “one result of the misery in America during the Depression was the uprising of the Ku Klux Klan.” Actually, the Klan declined considerably during the Depression. The second Klan was formed in 1915 and peaked between 1924-26 at around 3-4 million members nationwide. By the end of the 1920s membership had dropped to less than 50,000. It was focused as much on Catholics and Jews as on Blacks. If the purpose of the statement in the handout was to try to explain racial violence in the south in the 1930s, there are other explanations (eg it was pretty much routinized and normal despite decades of anti-lynching activism).

In case it’s helpful, here are a few resources:

Here’s a short, fairly reasonable article written by a professional historian about the Klan: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3386

This essay for teachers/students about the long Civil Rights Movement has a pdf of a source from 1929, written by Walter White, the head of the NAACP, about their anti-lynching campaign. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917beyond/essays/crm.htm I think 8th graders could grapple with excerpts from it

Here’s a lesson about lynching from a slightly earlier time period, but still relevant:

Again, apologies for bombarding you!

Best,  Exploding Historian


[Guest Post by Exploding Pater] Especially here in Miami…

[Pity our children…]


          I am concerned because the candidates for Student Council office are handing out candy and cupcakes as one of the main components of their campaigns. This seems to me to be unethical and unfair to children who’s parents cannot afford purchase the necessary treats to attract votes. I’m worried that it does not set a good example for the children.
          Presumably, one of the purposes of Student Council is to give the children first-hand experience of the democratic process. It would make sense to me to promote fair and ethical practices, especially here in Miami, where several recent elections have seen indictments for absentee ballot and other forms of electoral fraud.
          All the sample election procedures and constitutions listed on the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ American Student Council Association website specifically rule out using candy or other incentives since these might be construed as buying votes.Thank you for taking the time to consider these issues.

Dream On

I was picking up the play room this afternoon and I found this insightful analysis of the work-life balance, authored by my 11 year old. He claims that he’s not listening to me most of the time, but this reveals that he might occasionally have one ear turned on. It’s in the format of a mini-comic called Dream On.

Dream On Cover


The sarcasm runs deep, apparently.

page 2

page 2, see below for transcript

Transcript p. 2:

Panel 1: Beep! Bank Depleted. Dream on side: Congrats! You won 100 of the latest fitbit! Wow!! [I have been a tiny bit obsessed with the fitbit in the last week]

Panel 2: Mom! Leo hit me. He started it! Dream on side: Dinner’s cooking! It’s chunky tofu! And your tenure arrived! Yay! We decided we are both the best! [Interesting that tenure arrives in the mail]

Panel 3: Death Violence Kill Obesity War Plague Hunger Dream on side: Kumbaya! Peace Happiness No Hunger [I do not ever sing “Kumbaya”!]

page 3, Dream On

page 3, see below for transcript

Transcript, p. 3:

Panel 1: Reject [I think that’s supposed to be the book manuscript] Dream on side: Your book is so good you get a promotion and tenure and a raise! Great!

Panel 2: Pink is a girl color! Yeah! Dream on side: Stereotypes no longer exist! Everyone eats healthy and grows their own food! World peace has been managed and a cure has been found for cancer! [I’m a little concerned about the charismatic authoritarian leader who has proclaimed these things]

Panel 3: Hi Honey…I crashed the car… Dream on side: [erased but still visible] Greenfield, A Lovely Community

Continue reading

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Emergency Context Provider Hits the Highway

We just got back from a two-week, 3400-mile family road trip from Miami to New Haven and back, with stops in North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York. The South—especially the rural South—never ceases to amaze.

One thing I noticed was an uptick in Revolutionary War nostalgia in the South. I saw many billboards and highway signs for Revolutionary battle sites and attractions, for example. Also the Brunswick Stew interpretive element at an I-95 rest stop:

I’m sure some of it has been there all along, but in the past I’ve tended to notice the starz n barz bikinis and beach towels more so than the colonial Americana. For example, as we drove the state highways from Myrtle Beach back to I-95, we happened upon some murals in Turbeville, South Carolina that are a part of the Swamp Fox Mural Trail [beware of the sound on this website!]. The mural project aims to “bring alive Revolutionary War history” in South Carolina, and attract tourists to at least get out of their cars. It’s quite an impressive public art project and seems to be fairly recent—many of the murals are from within the last three years, though the project is more than a decade old according to this newspaper story. It is not hard to fathom the political symbolism of visually placing the Revolutionary past on the walls of an economically declining rural county in a depressed state whose lifeline is a particular variety of conservative, white tourism (imagine lots of golf pants and plantation resorts). Historian Jill Lepore eloquently explores this recent fascination with the American Revolution in her book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010) and her regular essays in the New Yorker (the only part of the magazine I consistently read). As she writes, “When in doubt, in American politics, left, right, or center, deploy the Founding Fathers.”

In this case, the Founding Fathers serve a particular variant of extreme Right politics, which sees the root of the problem in Turbeville, South Carolina (and elsewhere) as too much regulation and too much liberal government in Washington. It’s a vision that rejects the rights revolution that has recast the nation’s politics since the 1960s (which might explain the notable absence of black people in the murals). This vision is hard for me to reconcile with the facts on the ground. For example, the per capita income in Turbeville is $13,465. According to the 2010 Census, non-farm private employment decreased across the state by nearly 4% between 2000 and 2009. The only obvious employers in town are government. They include the traffic court (one of google’s suggested searches is “turbeville sc speed trap”) and a medium security state correctional institution. Not surprisingly, South Carolina correctional facilities house black men in inverse proportion to their representation in the overall population. And 74% of the state’s inmates read at less than a 12th grade level. Yet there are the murals showing the brave white ancestors!

And many, many churches. Driving through the South we saw a lot (I mean a lot!) of churches, especially in places where there was nothing else (except the occasional prison). We also saw a lot of billboards with bible verses, ads for museums of creationism, and slogans extolling heteronormative social policies. And we saw a lot (I mean a lot!) of Gentlemen’s Clubs. After hearing our description of them (“places men go to get drunk, smoke cigars, and pay women to shake their jiggly bits in their faces”) my older son (almost 10 yo) started to call them “Disgusting-Pigs-who-Call-Themselves-Gentlemen’s Clubs.” I was pleased.

On that note, one of my favorite I-95 traditions is to read the Combahee River Collective Statement out loud as we drive across the Combahee river in South Carolina. Written in 1977 by a Black Feminist political collective, the statement’s analysis of the intersection of race, gender, and class is still poignant and pointed. I appreciate the message that I need to deal with my own internalized racism, rather than waiting for some black women to help me do it. We’ve done this reading ritual twice now. I hope that if my kids ignore it enough times, they will eventually heed the call to critically examine their own privilege. The statement ends with a quote from Robin Morgan, who says “I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.” I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The Combahee River Collective was not founded in South Carolina, where such radicalism might not have been safe even in 1977 (or 2012?), but rather in New York (and Boston). The women chose the name in honor of the only Civil War battle led by a woman, in this case Harriet Tubman at the Combahee River Raid. Since I was driving, I asked my co-pilot/googler to check whether there are any historical markers commemorating the Combahee River Raid and Tubman’s role in it. Apparently there are a few memorials commemorating the Revolutionary war battle fought there, catering to the state’s golf and heritage tourists, I’m sure. I found myself wishing I had the Civil War battle app for the first and definitely the only time. When we switched drivers and I took the googlers seat, I did find that there is a bridge over the Combahee named after Tubman elsewhere in the state. It was dedicated in 2009.

Which brings me to a final point. Why is Tubman so often remembered for her work helping slaves escape, and much less often for her military heroics? A quick search on Amazon.com for “Harriet Tubman” reveals  446 results in the “Children’s Books” category. Of these the great majority are chapter book biographies for elementary and middle school aged children.  My quick check in the first several of these show that the Combahee river battle is generally discussed, but only for a page or two. I only found one book specifically about her role during the Civil War. Most of them focus on the Underground Railroad. They typically focus on bravery and heroism and abolitionism. Another 59 books are classified as appropriate for children age 3-5, and these all focus on Tubman’s role in carrying slaves to freedom.  I suppose black women aren’t supposed to be Civil War military leaders, fighters, radicals, or intellectuals. Pacifist though I am, I find myself wanting more of that part of her story.

Teaching the Past in the Present

As an historian I sometimes find myself on the defensive about what history is and what historians do. Especially when I teach the introductory US history survey to unenthusiastic undergrads, I find a depth of misunderstanding about what history is and is not. We don’t just discover, convey, and memorize facts. To the contrary, most of the historians I know are quite skeptical about “facts.” By contrast, we see the work that history does as twofold: we analyze change over time, and we interpret events by considering multiple perspectives.

First, we analyze processes of change over time. We seek evidence about how things were in the past, and we pay very careful attention to when and how things changed. Our interest in change over time means that we are very interested–sometimes even obsessed–with dates and chronology. How did ideas change? How did behavior change? How did policies change? When things did not change, why not? These questions are some of the key ones asked by historians.

Second, we work from the assumption that there are multiple perspectives from which to understand anything in the past. People see and experience the world in very different ways. While some people have left voluminous records of their thought and action (say, for example, the US Congress), other perspectives are not always so well documented in the historical record (say, for example, the voices of Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad). We analyze evidence to find the common patterns of thought, action, and language. We compare and contrast differing perspectives. We look for evidence that reveals how events might have appeared to people whose experiences were not well documented in existing archives.

History teachers at all levels have a hard time teaching these skills, as opposed to the rote tasks of memorization that students have come to expect from their history classes. What might this process look like in the elementary grades? How might we invite students to understand social and cultural differences in historical context? How might we encourage them to think about history as a process of change over time?

Two books that my family has on our shelves offer instructive examples for what this might look like. Coolies by Yin, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet (Puffin Books, 2001) and My Uncle Martin’s Words for America by Angela Farris Watkins, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Abrams, 2011) are two very different books, with a few features in common.

First, and most importantly, both books begin with the present.

Coolies begins with a young Chinese American boy and his grandmother in the present. They’re celebrating the Ching Ming festival in which they honor their ancestors. The first illustration shows them in their living room. The large television, their contemporary clothing and furniture all mark the scene as contemporary. Yet their ethnic identity is also marked by the Chinese-style statues, decorative flourishes, and ceremonial shrine on the table. The grandmother presents the remainder of the story as a tale of “our ancestors,” so that the boy will not forget. The book ends with the pair completing their ceremony of paying respect to their ancestors. When I read this book out loud, I sometimes ask my kids to point out the things they notice that show us that these scenes take place in the present.

My Uncle Martin’s Words for America also begins with a child, Martin Luther King’s niece, who narrates the story. The first two pages of her narrative anchor the reader in contemporary African American achievements, before moving back in time to describe King’s activism. “Before America elected its first African American president…before African Americans became astronauts, or Hollywood directors, or billionaires, America was a very different place.” I really like this approach, since it does not foreground the violence or disrespect of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

Second, both books name specific past injustices and describe concrete responses. In Coolies, the brothers Shek and Wong join with other workers to protest poor work conditions and pay. Though the protest is unsuccessful, the pair perseveres in their loyalty to each other and their family back in China. My Uncle Martin’s Words for America describes several key protests in which King participated, and presents them in chronological order. The book draws a connection between public protest and a key legislative or judicial change that it informed, and it uses those stories to highlight King’s “Words”: love, nonviolence, justice, freedom, brotherhood, and equality. The information is then summarized in a chart at the end of the book. The book thus argues, in a way that’s appropriate for young people, that a combination of well-articulated ideology, public protest, and elite legal action combined to change Jim Crow law and practice.

Finally, the illustrations in each book position the viewer/reader to see the story from a particular perspective. Velazquez’ illustrations in My Uncle Martin’s Words for America consistently position the viewer in the same plane as the protesters and the police. We are all on equal footing. Yet the viewer does not see the world from the viewpoint of the protestors–we are watching them. The illustrations in Coolies also position the viewer on the same plane as the workers. Coolies has one particularly powerful image that recenters the historical narrative to include Chinese Americans. In 1869 newspaper photographers widely circulated images of the celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah. Notably, despite the arduous labor performed by Chinese workers to complete the railroad, and the fact that many of them who died in the process, most images from the time omit their presence.

Coolies redresses this visual absence. Soentpiet’s beautiful painting reimagines this scene from the perspective of Wong and Shek, who share in the pride in this accomplishment. The image literally reframes and recenters the story of the transcontinental railroad, so that it is about the people whose labor was crucial to the project, and their bonds of family and affection.

As a last note, I appreciate how Coolies quietly addresses the history of the word “coolies.” Cooly or coolie was a commonly used word in the 19th century to refer to low-wage workers from Asia, and it had an insulting, derogatory connotation. The book sidesteps the major legal discrimination leveled at Chinese between the 1860s and the 1940s, though it makes clear that Chinese workers were looked down upon by many in the United States. Yin introduces the term “coolies,” but never uses it as part of the narration. Instead, Shek and Wong are called by their proper names and their peers are collectively called “workers.” Coolie is also never used as a self-identification by Shek or Wong. In fact, it’s only ever used by the white labor bosses when they make demands on the workers. This is an analysis that older elementary students could probably make on their own with appropriate prompting.

The past can indeed seem like a foreign country, especially to young people who have little connection to the topics or groups they are studying. By offering young people only snapshots of the past without an anchor in the present we risk essentializing and stereotyping, particularly when we present histories of people of color. If Yin had tried to tell the story of Chinese workers without framing the story in the present, students might come away thinking that all Chinese are or were “coolies.” But the framing device prompts us to ask how Chinese Americans moved from being reviled workers in the 1860s to being an ethnic middle class in the 1990s. Though there is a lot of history between these two points in time, the book suggests that people like Shek and Wong were active agents in creating the stories that link the past and present. We need to offer young people tools to analyze not only how things were different in the past, but how things changed. When we teach them about inequality and prejudice and difference in the past, it’s worthwhile to take the time to meditate on how, why, and whether things are different now. What changed? How did it change? If people did not like how they were treated in the past what kinds of action were they able to take to make change? What has not changed? Why not? Whose story is being told when we study history? Whose story is not being told? And how can people here and now use the past to imagine more equitable futures for their families and communities?

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Black History Month Resources

Once upon a February, at a school that my kids no longer attend (but located in the diverse metropolitan area in which we now reside), the homework folder came home with a piece of brown construction paper and instructions to decorate it “like your favorite black athlete.” The historian exploded.

I don’t deny that there are many notable black athletes, and indeed that athletics was one “field” that activists persistently worked to desegregate. But there are some deep stereotypes here that are worth challenging. For many years, blacks achieved public recognition and celebrity mainly through sports and musical performance (not necessarily out of choice). These limits reach back to very old stereotypes of racial difference. For many decades blacks were incorrectly assumed to be physically stronger and more adept because of their biological differences from whites. These biological differences are a myth. Blacks were also assumed to be cheerful, and happy-go-lucky, naturally suited to entertainment. No matter what other talents and contributions people might have had, and no matter how rich and varied African American community life was, these stereotypes lived on in white people’s imaginations.

These stereotypes persist. How many black athletes can you name off the top of your head?

OK. Now how many black scientists can you name off the top of your head?

I believe that one of the most important lessons to teach in the elementary grades is that African American history is integral to all of American history. This is one problem with having a Month dedicated to Black History–it should not just be a special event for a special group. What it means to be American depends in fundamental ways on the activism of African Americans. We shouldn’t have to celebrate this as something out of the ordinary. And it doesn’t have to be all about Civil Rights activists, segregation, and slavery. There are black scientists, writers, artists, explorers, educators, mathematicians, poets, politicians, athletes AND just about anything else you can imagine.

So why not pick something that interests you and your students? For example, if indeed a teacher detected a deep interest in sports among his/her pupils, there are great resources about Jackie Robinson and his efforts to “cross the color line” on the baseball diamond. These lesson plans address the stereotypes head on. One great starting place is the Library of Congress lesson plans:

Baseball Across a Divided Society and Baseball and Jackie Robinson

The National Archives offers the following documents about Robinson’s activism:

Jackie Robinson Letters to Presidents

Scientists and Explorers

Or, if the class was integrating science throughout the curriculum, here’s a lesson plan on black scientists. It links to a wonderful list of black scientists and inventors, with brief biographies. There are several books for the middle-grades on the topic, including one called Black Pioneers of Science and Invention by Louis Haber. I’ve recently learned about Matthew Henson, who explored the North Pole with Commander Robert Peary. There are many biographies of him for children. For lower grades, Carole Weatherford and Eric Velasquez’  I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer looks promising. For older grades, Jeri Ferris, Arctic Explorer: The Story of Matthew Henson looks good [I haven’t read either of these, though I just ordered the Weatherford].


The theme for Black History Month 2012 is African American women. A couple of books that my kids and I own and enjoy reading are:

Tonya Bolden, Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl [don’t worry, she’s not an “American Girl”(tm) Girl]

Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick, When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson

Here are a few more that look promising to me but that I haven’t reviewed:

I have just ordered Andrea Davis Pinkney, Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters [middle grades chapter book]

Kathleen Krull, Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman [picture book]

There are so many books now, this is not even the beginning. I welcome comments and suggestions of books people like.

And yet more…

There are many online guides to incorporating black history throughout the year, not just during February. The Library of Congress has good curriculum resources for teachers on their Black History Month site. I really like that they provide guidance on using original historical sources in elementary and middle school classrooms. This can be tricky for educators and students alike. But I am told that seventh grade students in Florida are tested on their ability to read primary source materials, and their ability to distinguish between primary and secondary sources is the number 1 Benchmark in the Historical Inquiry and Analysis Standard.

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Where Should We Start?

When my older son was in first grade, he went to a lovely, small public elementary school that placed a high value on celebrating diversity. Located in a middle class neighborhood in a college town, many of the families were professors and graduate students. An International Day, multiple opportunities to showcase each family’s heritage, and prominent celebration of each of the “History Months” figured among the school’s annual activities. This wasn’t all just for show. Compared to similar schools, it in fact was quite diverse (Recent statistics show that it’s currently 48% white, 24% black, 23% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. The principal is a Latina with an Ph.D.)

Anyway, when my kid was in first grade his teacher had made a good faith effort to do the “Black History Month” routine, no doubt under advice and expectation from the school. And she really did make a good faith, if somewhat misguided, effort. She checked out what looked like every single biography in the school library on any African American. She had these books displayed prominently, and devoted quite a bit of time to guiding the kids through an extended research project on an African American figure of their choosing. My kid still feels some connection to Duke Ellington because of the time he spent on this project–a fine accomplishment, without a doubt.

One day in the middle of this project I was hanging out by the classroom door at pickup time (as was the custom at this school). Because I’d done activities in the classroom over the years, the kids knew me and would sometimes chat with me about whatever was on their minds. On this particular day, a little girl in the class came over to me and, without saying anything, gestured that I should look at the book she was holding. She had it opened to the middle, and was fixated on a fairly detailed illustration of a black man, stripped to the waist, being whipped and beaten. I’ll admit that I’m a wimp when it comes to talking to children about some of the more heinous examples of violence humans have visited on each other–slavery, torture, genocide. And this was no exception. “Why are you looking at that?” I asked her. “I can’t stop looking at it,” she replied.

“I can’t stop looking at it.” I have thought about her words often, wondering what exactly is accomplished by sharing these kinds of stories with young children. What did this child, who saw her self and her own black skin mirrored in the illustration, learn from this project? Did she learn that ordinary African Americans have worked together to assure that all Americans enjoy basic rights and freedoms? Did she learn that people in her community may have differences of appearance and experience, but those differences are valuable? Or did she learn that black bodies are vulnerable to abuse? Did she learn that humans commit atrocious acts against each other?

In other words, why do we have to begin with injured and violated black bodies in order to teach our children valuable lessons about tolerance, advocating for justice, and acting out against what’s unfair? Is there a better place to start?

Here’s another example of how our lessons about justice so often begin with the violence. A colleague recently shared a picture she took at her child’s elementary school. The first graders had made posters showing what they’d learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

First Grade MLK Projects

First Grade MLK Projects on Display (January 2012)

For years my son refused to hear anything about Martin Luther King, Jr. because he dreaded hearing about the assassination, as he had from the children’s books his teachers had read him. All but the most mild mannered kid’s books about MLK mention the murder, some in detail. That Dr. King was murdered because of his race and his protest seems to be one of the main talking points in classrooms across the country every January.

In her book I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World (2000) Marguerite Wright tells a similar story about her son’s experience of MLK Day at school. Her son became fixated on the details of the assassination, and was left confused. Wright argues that young children are still in the process of forming their ideas about what differences in skin color mean, let alone what the complex social phenomenon called “race” means. It can be counterproductive and overwhelming to give young children information and images for which they aren’t developmentally ready.

So where should we start? I’m not sure. But  one thing I’m quite sure about is that starting with the assassination of Dr. King or the violence of slavery is a disservice. There’s plenty of time for those details later as young people develop critical thinking skills and emotional maturity. As I’ve written in reference to teaching about Native American history, it’s often best to begin with the present so that we don’t risk reinforcing old stereotypes by only telling about the past.

I’ll be putting together a few additional resources over the next few weeks. There are many many wonderful children’s books that might serve as excellent starting places for a celebration of Black History Month. But for now here’s what’s on our family’s MLK Day reading list:

  • The best option I’ve found for young children on MLK is Happy Birthday Martin Luther King, by Jean Marzollo, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. It is a very simple story and the moment of King’s death can easily be glossed by an adult reader.
  • When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick has beautiful illustrations and a gentle story about African American opera singer Marian Anderson.
  • Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco tells about an interracial friendship between an elderly Jewish lady and a young black boy who bond over a pet cat.
  • Carole Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins is told from the perspective of a child who is too young to participate in the sit-ins, but helps out anyway.

**Update: My friend Kathy Hersh has published a review of a book which doesn’t focus on the assassination, My Uncle Martin’s Words for America by Angela Farris Watkins. Kathy has also participated in the creation of a wonderful set of curriculum resources for older elementary and middle school children on King’s legacy, Fighting Fair: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for Kids, which can be ordered here.

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