Thursday 16 May 2024


As most students will tell you, history is the most boring subject in the curriculum, sometimes more so than algebra. In my experience, a large portion among student who have been raised and conditioned to think of themselves as "black" even find Black History Month boring. Oh, the music and food are fine, but history? I recall a student who told me some years back "Black History Month? I just sleep through that... I've heard it all before."

Of course they have -- same short list of well worn heroes, same familiar photos, same pastel paragraphs. Just as boring as hearing about George Washington and the fictional cherry tree. This year, in several presentations, I have yet to encounter one who has any idea who Carter G. Woodson is, or what he has to do with Black History Month.

I'm not posting photos of the kids -- but a painting of James Forten is a good focus. There are actually many web sites, a number of videos available on line, displays at museums, and a very good biography recently published about him. Nobody knows who he is either. Its hard to get 7th and 8th graders to even guess. The best discussion is at the 3rd and 4th grade levels. They have no background information, but they are curious and ask all kinds of questions, It takes me off topic on all kinds of tangents but its all good. It fills in the picture.

Only occasionally was I asked if James Forten was a slave. His complexion did not often make that the first guess. Some said a king or a president -- based on his clothing and hairstyle. Not bad. But actually he was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Philadelphia. (That drew a few gasps -- which shows they really did need to know about him).

He was also a veteran of the American Revolution... the what? There was a time when the USA did not exist? That was a new one for most -- even 7th and 8th graders. Its hard to put 5000 men of African descent fighting for American independence into context, with students who don't know that a war was fought for eight years to bring the nation into existence.

He made sails for ships... ships used sails? A world without digital electronics and without steam engines or turbines was a new concept also. If we really mean to teach history, we not only need to make it interesting, but we need to fill in a lot of background to even make sense of anything. I have a sense that most of them know something called slavery once existed, and that it was very bad, but almost no idea how it came to be, how it was perpetuated, or how it ended. It just hangs like an ominous cloud in the distance.

This week I'm trying to explain Joshua Glover. I'm not sure how the notion that Waukesha was known as "a hell hole of abolitionism" and Burlington was a major stop on the Underground Railroad is going to play out. But its fun to try. What else can we do?

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