We all know that uneasy feeling you get when you have to teach a difficult topic or time in U.S. history. How do you stand in front of a classroom of students and talk about slavery, the Indian wars, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, the Red Scare, lynching, the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusion Act, resistance to women’s suffrage, the Know-Nothings, and more low points in our history without a) embarrassing students, b) making students whose ancestors may have been the victims of these actions feel singled out or victimized themselves, or c) leaving students with the feeling that the U.S. is a pretty terrible place?
The good news is that teaching negative history has very positive results when it’s done well. It’s only by thoroughly understanding why negatives happened that we reassert our national commitment to ending them and preventing them from happening in the first place. Every injustice committed in our history produced a backlash from Americans who would not accept that injustice. The knowledge that our founding principles demanded something better—liberty and justice for all—drove Americans to fight every injustice you can list in American history.
There’s a good basic approach to teaching negative history:
- Provide context: Too often historical events are depicted as coming out of the blue—“in 1892 Congress passed an act to ban all Chinese immigration.” But every action is a reaction to long-term trends, debates, tensions, and changes in society. An objective, non-cynical yet unapologetic explanation of the historical context of even the most horrible events gives students a way to understand how it could have happened that isn’t just “people are just racist/sexist/xenophobic”, etc.
Example: Essential Lens, “1968, Year of the Barricades,” uses historical context to explain the political protests that rocked America and Europe at a time when the young people protesting seemed like they had nothing to be upset about—they were living in some of the richest nations in the world.
- Let the actors speak for themselves: Why should you have to parrot the beliefs of proslaveryites to explain them to your class? Let students hear their awful beliefs from their own mouths by giving them primary resources to read. And, on the flip side, why should you paraphrase the arguments of Americans who resisted slavery? Let them speak for themselves, too, through their own documentary record.
Example: “Slavery and Freedom,” unit 7 in American Passages, provides a list of antislavery and abolitionist activists; click a name to get a background essay, then click the Activities box on the right to go to artifacts about and writing by that person.
- Acknowledge subjectivity: The historical record is not perfect. Often it has more records from one side of a debate than the other (for instance, we have a lot more documents from 17th-century white colonial settlers than American Indians). Sometimes both sides of a debate are equally represented, but they say such wildly contradictory things that it’s hard to tell which side was right or if both sides were confused or just plain lying. For instance, there were Cherokee groups who left the southeast willingly and maintained that the agreement they signed with the U.S. to give up the Cherokee nation was fair—but that’s not what the Cherokees who were physically removed from their homes, kept in cages, then put on a forced march west said. And sometimes the historical record changes: for instance, in the 19th century the Puritans were depicted as heroes. By the 21st century, they are most often depicted as harsh and destructive people who started the Indian wars. Which is the truth? Acknowledging that the historical record does not have all the answers actually inspires students to read both sides and empowers them to construct their own interpretation of history.
Example: “History and Memory,” unit 2 from Bridging World History, offers a roadmap for teaching students about interpreting history, and helping them to see the historical record as not carved in stone, but a living, breathing, evolving organism.
- Put students in someone else’s shoes: It’s easy to sit back and judge our ancestors in hindsight. But they weren’t making decisions based on careful research and study—they were reacting to events as they happened. This means they often did not have all the information they needed to make the right decision. Interactive websites that allow students to make choices based on limited data help them to understand that they are just like the Americans who came before them: doing the best they can with the information they have, likely to make mistakes, and then likely to try to fix them.
Example: “World War II,” program 22 of A Biography of America, has a “You Decide: Japanese American Internment?” feature that starts with one sentence of information and asks students “Was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans appropriate?” Students click to get started, and are offered a choice of clicking Yes or No. Clicking either one takes them to a new page that gives more information that could make them rethink their decision. This helps battle the judgments that hindsight makes very easy and shows students how people can make the wrong decision with the best of intentions.
Please share ways you teach the negative side of history in your classrooms in the comments.