Four Useful Windows for Teaching the Turns in History

Published January 30, 2017

By Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University

Engaging instructional ideas for Black History Month

In many ways, the African American experience has been a powerful fulcrum for new turns in the writing of history.

As Black History Month begins, I am at work on the tenth edition of From Slavery to Freedom, forthcoming in 2018. In the seven decades since John Hope Franklin first published this classic survey in 1947, the tenth edition will emphasize new perspectives for understanding and teaching topics, such as slavery, urban life, and racial justice movements. This emphasis is unique, since it permits us to discover in familiar subjects new historical actors, events, places, and ideas.

The tenth edition of From Slavery to Freedom is particularly attentive to four historical turns:

  • Spatial (the relationship between race and place).
  • Carceral (the role of government in the mass incarceration of black people).
  • Environmental (race and environmental justice as well blacks’ feelings and experiences in regard to the natural landscape).
  • Transnational (political, social, and cultural movements that cross nations and continents).

Although biographical information on interesting and important historical persons appears throughout the book, I want to underscore the benefits of looking at moments, eras, and events when teaching this material. The focus on moments moves readers away from the idea that but for this "one individual," history would have been different. Structuring learning activities around moments provides a unique vantage point from which to interpret groups of people, organizational life, and local community activities.

Art as a Window to Learning

The Banjo Lesson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893

The Banjo Lesson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893

Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Students of all ages, certainly from middle school to the university level, can engage in historical study. The role of art is particularly effective as a medium for developing creative and critical thinking skills. For example, content guidance to young students as they draw their own pictures of the Underground Railroad allows them to begin to think from an environmental perspective in regard to the terrain that fugitive slaves traversed in search of freedom—the wide-open fields as places of danger, swamps & forests as safer spaces for concealment.

For older students, I encourage analyzing the art of an era as I did with Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting "The Banjo Lesson." Such an exercise could be expanded into a "gallery walk" based on numerous images drawn from the book and other sources. Thus posted on a classroom wall would be slave advertisements, images of material culture, and the paintings featured in chapters. Students would be asked to walk from image to image, write down their observations about the images, and then afterward connect those observations to themes presented in a single chapter or cluster of chapters. Such an exercise enhances the ability of visual learners to discern and examine the text’s key themes and supporting evidence.

Experience as a Window to Learning

Frederick Douglass House in Washington D.C.

Frederick Douglass House in Washington D.C.

By Walter Smalling for the Historic American Buildings Survey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teaching from a spatial perspective opens up the ability to engage a variety of digital learning techniques. GIS mapping projects, for example, allow students to think about the relationship between space, race, and change over time by gathering information from primary or secondary sources, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. References to place-based information would then form the basis for plotting points in the creation of a digital map that reveals various migration patterns, cultural transmittals, and urban institutional spaces over the course of the first half of the twentieth century.

When thinking about place, I also like to take my students to historic sites and on heritage trails. Such sites as the Frederick Douglass Home in Washington, DC, or the Freedom Trail in Boston become "living classrooms" for immersing students into the very places where history occurred.

Writing as a Window to Learning

In teaching the carceral turn, students will learn that the rise of mass incarceration in the late twentieth century and the twenty-first century was preceded by the incarceration of large numbers of black men, women, and children more than a century earlier.

One teaching technique is to ask students to re-envision themselves as voices of reform at the turn of the twentieth century by writing an op-ed piece in one of the many black newspapers in the North and South. Prison reform and anti-lynching campaigns figured significantly in the programs of regional and national black organizations and in the protest ideology of diverse black leaders and groups—the National Equal Rights League, the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, black church women’s organizations, and black women’s clubs. In writing an op-ed piece as a "virtual" member of one of those groups, students would be instructed to cite specific cases of racial arrests and incarceration and to know about the different efforts and strategies to end this racial injustice.

Tracing Time as a Window to Learning

From Slavery to Freedom, 9th edition

From Slavery to Freedom, 9th edition

The transnational turn should be easily appreciated by students in today’s world of global networking and communication. One way to explore transnational history is to ask them to trace the trajectory of a concept or movement and identify its many local manifestations, be it a musical form like jazz or hip hop, or social movements and ideologies like abolitionism or anti-colonialism. Exercises using searchable digitized databases such as the Library of Congress’ African American Newspapers series or Alexander Street’s Black Thought and Culture enable students to link original sources and thereby annotate and write short descriptions as to the meaning of the term in the many contexts in which it appeared.

The tenth edition of From Slavery to Freedom takes us to the present. The last chapter of the ninth edition ended with the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The new edition ends with reflections on his historic two-term presidency.

About Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University where she has been a tenured faculty member since 1993. Higginbotham earned her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in American History, her M.A. from Howard University, and her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has thoroughly revised and re-written the classic African American history survey From Slavery to Freedom, which was first published by John Hope Franklin in 1947. Higginbotham is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Most notably in September 2015 she received the 2014 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House for "illuminating the African American journey."