Coffee Talk: Teaching American History

Coffee Talk {living outside the stacks}

I’d like to welcome you to Coffee Talk. In case you’re new here, this is where I share some of the great and not~so~great stuff that I find on the web. Topics range from news stories that leave me scratchin’ my head to DIYs that I think are absolutely clever. And, who knows, there may even be a recipe thrown in here or there just for fun.

So grab a cup of coffee {or tea or whatever floats your boat} and let’s talk…

I read an interesting post on a blog called Teaching United States History about the use of racial slurs in the college classroom. Not calling someone a racial slur, but teaching American history and using The Words as part of the lecture. In the post, Patrick Iber argues against using the slur {in his classroom} because:

  1. He’s a white instructor and doesn’t want to offend any of his students
  2. He doesn’t want to give students the impression that it’s OK {he assumes students know the difference between using the word(s) in a lecture vs. using it as a slur but you never know}
  3. He believes not using the word {in this case, the “n-word”} has more of an impact

As an American history instructor, I’m also faced with this dilemma when teaching the more painful aspects of American history. Do I use the word(s)? Or do I just gloss over them? When talking about lynching or other aspects of America’s racist past, do I show the pictures or just use my words? What about my white students? Do I skip over the subject for fear of making them uncomfortable?

My approach has been very different from that of Mr. Iber. I’ve chosen to use the words. I’ve chosen to show the pictures. I’ve chosen to put it all out there and let us all share in the discomfort. Here’s why:

The first American history class that I taught was nothing but white students. White students who had, in some cases, never talked to a black person before. I know this because they told me so. They also told me that they’d never really learned “that part” of American history. It had been hinted at but never fully discussed. They didn’t know that some families {both black and white} are still dealing with the legacy of race hatred. They didn’t know that parties were centered around the burning of bodies. They didn’t know that there is more to the Civil Rights Movement than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his famous speech. My use of the words and the pictures opened up a dialogue for my students in a safe environment. I allowed them to ask me questions that I think would’ve gotten them a whole lot of side eye and maybe a “gentle nudge” had they asked someone else.

It’s been a little over 7 years since that first class and I still find myself in the same place with my students. Many of them {black and white} just don’t know and if I don’t tell them, who will? I tell my white students so they’ll understand why it’s painful for them to use the word “nigga” whether in jest or because their black friends use it. I tell my black students so they’ll understand why they should come up with a better nickname for their buddies.

But I also use it because I recognize the impact of the word. I’ve never once heard a racist yell out “Hey, N-word!” I have heard him/her yell “Hey, Nigger!” The meaning changes. The feeling changes. The reaction is more visceral. And that’s what I want.

You see, most of the students I teach are only in my class to fulfill a requirement. I know that and they know that. So I have to make history relevant to them. I want them to, maybe not love history, but understand why it’s important.

I want them to see how things from the past still affect us today. And the only way that I know to do that is to make them feel.

Side note: I do recognize impartiality in the classroom, but when dealing with certain subjects our natural inclination is to feel. We are human. For my students {and for me}, this makes history a little more real and creates the opportunity for discussion that I don’t think would happen otherwise. History is about more than just the when, it’s about the why and the how. 

Edited to add: I also recognize that I benefit from black privilege. And, perhaps, gender deference {for lack of a better expression}. I’m sure that if I were a white male, my opinion about teaching certain topics would be very similar to Mr. Iber’s. That being said, there is also a part of me that wonders/worries if my white students think I’m trying to heap on the guilt… 

What do you think?

Daenel T {Living Outside the Stacks}

 

 

 

 

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