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Winter 2021

The Reckoning Is Here

Northwestern faculty call on educators to teach the full context of American history. By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Perhaps you read about a junior high school’s overnight nature camp in Wisconsin that included an Underground Railroad simulation where, according to one student, the Black students had to pretend they were runaway slaves while the white students acted as slave catchers or helpful abolitionists.

Or maybe you read about the Chicago elementary school that celebrated Black History Month with an assignment for kindergartners to draw and write about African animals.

And then there is the geography textbook used in Texas high schools until 2015 that described enslaved Africans as “immigrants” to the United States.

Examples like these are just part of the problem. Educators agree that most schools are ill-prepared to teach difficult aspects of American history. Studies by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reveal that the nation’s teachers are largely uncomfortable teaching Black history and find their textbooks inadequate. As a result, only 8% of high school seniors surveyed by the SPLC could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

As America grapples with a history of injustice and in light of the recent attention given to the Black Lives Matter movement, a historical and educational reckoning is occurring that has been decades in the making. Northwestern alumni and faculty are part of a growing chorus of teachers, students and lawmakers reminding us that Black history — and the histories of other marginalized communities — are as American as apple pie and should be accurately and contextually taught to all.

“It’s important for children, from the very earliest ages in the school system, to be taught real American history — not a fantasized or sanitized version,” says Aldon Morris, Northwestern’s Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies and the recently elected president of the American Sociological Association.

“The price of ignoring the totality of American history is very high because such erasures promote profound and crippling ignorance.” — Aldon Morris

Corey Winchester

Corey Winchester ’10, ’20 MA teaches U.S. history at Evanston Township High School. And though he’s not required to incorporate every aspect of America’s diverse and sometimes difficult history into his lesson plans, he does it anyway. 

This gives some students pride, he says, while prompting others to state their discomfort. In fact, a few years back, a white student called Winchester a communist. Another student sent a humbled mea culpa for his behavior in Winchester’s class. “I got a letter saying, ‘I want to apologize for my 2013 self. All those times you took me to the side to explain why you talk about race so much — it hit. It finally hit.’”

As an undergraduate at Northwestern, Winchester says his eyes were opened to the full breadth and depth of Black history when he took classes taught by, among others, the late Richard Iton (Race, Ethnicity and the American Constitution), Lane Fenrich ’92 PhD (U.S. History) and D’Weston Haywood ’08 MA, ’13 PhD (Black Manhood in the 20th Century). Those classes added historical context and sparked a shift in Winchester’s perspective.

“Racism,” he explains, “is like states of matter, in that it has lots of forms — solid, liquid and gas — and I had understood racism as one thing prior to college. It was the ice. I could see it. I knew it was there.

“The deeper investigation I had in college made me realize that racism is not just solid. It morphs into gas — something you can’t see — and is a part of the things you literally need for existence, like the air you breathe. I didn’t understand that until I was presented with these texts and had professors articulate it for me in ways I hadn’t processed.”

And then Winchester asked himself, “Why didn’t I get this context before?” That learning experience would later inform his teaching style.

In elementary, middle and high school, Winchester says, disciplines are often taught absent of context. That applies to history but also science, art and music too.

He offers an example: “I can situate history within a sociocultural context that often goes beyond the presidential politics in which we are typically taught U.S. history,” says Winchester, who received last year’s Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. “So, when I teach about Manifest Destiny as this concept rooted in white supremacy, one based on the Doctrine of Discovery, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, I can also position gentrification as a present-day concept to explore within this context.

“Students are learning about both past and present phenomena and in many respects are able to see these manifestations of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, settler colonialism and gentrification on micro and macro levels, within and aside from their own lived experiences. From there, students develop various levels of consciousness regarding their understanding of self, as an individual and within the context of their peers, as well as an understanding of larger sociopolitical histories and how to engage with them, especially as we move toward a more just and humanizing reality.”

Teachers, he says, have to “start interrogating themselves and their own identities” in order to overcome their shortcomings and fears of teaching a more sophisticated view of history 

“We have a responsibility to really interrogate histories and situate all of our work in a historical context so we can realize that history isn’t this thing of the past, but it’s something that we experience now, and the implications of our actions now are what’s going to impact the future,” Winchester told the Evanston Patch after being named the top history teacher in Illinois for 2020 by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “Everything is connected, and I just wish that folks understood the magnitude of that.”

teaching black history interior v2
Illustration by Taylor Callery

In remarks at the National Archives Museum last September, President Donald Trump called for the creation of the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education.” According to the New York Times, “Trump vowed to counter what he called an emerging classroom narrative that ‘America is a wicked and racist nation.’”

It’s not the first time that a person in power has sought to influence or remove difficult race histories from K-12 curricula. Northwestern professor Leslie M. Harris points to Lynne Cheney’s crusade to remove Black and Native American history from consideration for curriculum standardization as one example.

In the 1990s UCLA historian Gary Nash worked to create a national history standard, partnering with teachers to weave various multiracial histories into one American narrative. When these national standards for U.S. and world history came up for a Senate vote, Cheney and others went on an all-out assault.

In “The End of History,” a 1994 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Cheney — former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities — wrote that the proposed standards were too “politically correct.” They mentioned the Ku Klux Klan 17 times, she said, but didn’t mention Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Leslie Harris

“The idea is that by including these histories we’re doing damage to the nation,” says Harris, a history professor whose research focuses on U.S. slavery and pre–Civil War African American labor. “Academic historians really did an incredible job in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in diversifying our understanding of history, but it’s been difficult to impossible to get those histories into our K-12 curricula.”

But now, says Harris, “the reckoning is here.”

“U.S. history was held hostage by the idea that the nation was created by white intellect, white energy, white labor. Yet slavery was key to economic survival. We should study that.”

Aldon Morris asks, “Who benefits when you only teach that America is exceptional in its greatness and its virtue? Why shouldn’t students learn, for example, that during World War II Japanese Americans were rounded up and caged in concentration camps? This shameful treatment of a segment of Americans is, in fact, part of American history.

“I’m not saying providing a comprehensive history is going to be easy. What I am saying is that the price of ignoring the totality of American history is very high because such erasures promote profound and crippling ignorance.”

“We're trying to add more history. Who could object to that, right?” — Kate Masur


Kate Masur

In late September, Kate Masur and history doctoral students Hope McCaffrey and Heather Menefee ’15 spent part of a Saturday afternoon at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. Holding signs that read, “This is a monument to white supremacy,” and bore the hashtag #wewantmorehistory, they sought to provide a more complete story of Confederate Mound, a monument to the thousands of Confederate prisoners of war who died at the Union’s Camp Douglas on Chicago’s South Side. 

The Confederate Mound protest was part of “Civil War History: A Call to Action,” an event organized by the Journal of the Civil War Era, which Masur co-edits.

Scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the group demonstration took place for two hours at about a dozen sites across the country, including Gettysburg National Military Park, with historians and community members holding signs and chatting with visitors to offer additional history not represented in markers and monuments.

“We had two goals,” says Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern. “One was disrupting what’s called the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative, the idea that the Confederacy was this great, noble cause and that they weren’t really fighting for slavery but rather for states’ rights. We wanted to poke holes in that and tell a fuller story. We also emphasized aspects of African American history that are invisible on the landscape.

“We want to be a resource for people in trying to move this conversation forward and set the record straight. We’re trying to add more history. Who could object to that, right?”

Masur says that to understand racial injustice, people have to know U.S. history, but this history has not adequately been taught on the K-12 level. In part, that’s due to a decadelong focus on science, technology, engineering and math — a worthy focus that has diverted some resources from history and social studies.

“There’s been a systemic de-emphasis on the teaching of history and humanities in this country for a very long time,” says Masur. “And now? We’re reaping what we sow.”

kihana miraya ross

Unfortunately, it’s often not until students get to college that they get the full context of historical lessons. And “it’s not just Black students who benefit from this history,” says kihana miraya ross, assistant professor of African American studies. “Everybody benefits. Everybody needs to understand that Black folks were the only race to be ‘freed’ with zero capital — nothing, no housing, no job — nothing except being racialized in a way that made the act of existing a challenge.

“If people better understood that history, they would be better able to historicize our experiences and connect the past to the present in a way that would meaningfully address some of the obvious racial injustices we continue to see.”

Aldon Morris

Students need to know more than political folktales, says Aldon Morris. Even elementary school students can learn age-appropriate lessons that also discuss the painful narratives of history.

If students don’t get this crucial education early on, Morris cautions, they “will grow up with a very limited view about how America works and how the world works.”

Winchester, who is pursuing a doctorate in learning sciences at Northwestern and taught the social studies practicum at the School of Education and Social Policy this past fall, suggests replacing the march-through-time approach to teaching history with a focus on understanding the implications of historical events. He also suggests that K-12 teachers move beyond textbooks and focus instead on supplemental texts that provide the context routinely taught to college students.

“What can you do at your school level?” ross asks of teachers. “How can you engage in subversive practices that will benefit all students, who need to know the truth so they grow up to be better people and have a better understanding of the world they live in?” 

But teachers can’t do it alone. Parents have to push their individual schools and school boards or councils for historical accountability.

Winchester says myths — Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy — are part of American culture. But when it comes to teaching history, it’s time to come clean. 

“We’ve been lying to our kids for a long time,” says Winchester. “In the U.S., this idea that we’re going to censor things until we think kids are ready — that’s a part of the problem, because eventually you have to unlearn all the things that were partial truths or full-out lies.”

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs ’99 is the editor of Momentum, a publication that documents the dismantling of anti-Black racism, and the features editor of ZORA, a magazine for women of color. She lives in Chicago.

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Reader Responses

  • Even preschoolers can learn. To demonstrate, in my classes around MLK Day, I would have a group session where I would choose a characteristic like red clothes and say that only children with those clothes could play with certain toys. Then I would ask all the children how they felt about that. Since preschoolers are very aware of fairness issues, they would say that this was unfair. I would then talk about Dr. Martin Luther King and the people who helped our country change unfair practices. Just one example.

    Paula Massey ’68 Erie, Pa.

  • It's also about time high school and college English/American literature classes desegregated reading lists. I remember one of my African-American students saying that a benefit of the segregated school system was that its students knew the names of African-American leaders and writers. It's time that all students knew these men and women and their contributions to history, literature, science and the arts.

    Patricia Endress ’60 MS,

  • Thank you for the article about the important topic of African American history at Northwestern. I would like to also bring attention to Northwestern’s long history of teaching and research on Africa, as Northwestern instituted one of the first programs of African studies in 1948. A deeper knowledge of Africa can only improve one’s understanding of Black history in our country and the world.

    Kathleen Sheldon ’74 Santa Monica, Calif., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Timely, relevant, readable, legible layout, great visuals — the mag held my interest from cover to the other cover. As an immigrant, I was especially grabbed by the Adrienne Samuels Gibbs article on teaching the full context of American history. As I was sorting out the events of the attempted putsch, I kept going back to the unpleasant parts of U.S. history, self-taught in my case, because they had been omitted or skimmed over when I was a student.

    George A. Baum ’55 Naples, Fla., via Northwestern Magazine

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