Changing the Faces of History

As a visual learner, I automatically envision historical events as I read about them.  The vision of American history I was taught in k-12 and college classes was one almost exclusively peopled with the faces of white, middle and upper class males.  Now, as a college professor, I try to help my students see the many faces of history that have been largely hidden in many accounts of American history.  Recently, while preparing to teach a course, I compared three different outlines of African American history.  The first timeline was compiled by Scholastic publishing and posted on their website.  It’s titled “Culture and Change: Evolution of Black History” and can be found here: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/timeline/game.htm.  The second timeline, “African American World,” is published by Public Broadcasting System, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/timeline.html.  The final timeline, “Remembered and Reclaimed,” is found on BlackPast.org and was created by Quintard Taylor, an African American professor of American History, http://www.blackpast.org/?q=african-american-history-timeline-home-page.

While many differences exist between the timelines, one that I found particularly troubling is the varying density of events each timeline presents during corresponding historical periods. For example, let’s take the time period from 1619, which marks the arrival of the first African Americans to the colonies, and 1739 when a major slave revolt occurred in Stono, South Carolina.  On Scholastic’s timeline, the slave revolt in 1739 isn’t even included.  As a matter of fact, Scholastic’s timeline includes only two entries between 1619 and 1739.  The first is 1641 when slavery was officially legalized in Massachusetts and the second in 1662 which notes Anthony Johnson, “the first free black man in North America.”  Another entry does not appear on the timeline until 1772.  The PBS timeline is even more shocking.  In this timeline no events are listed between 1619 and 1739.  In stark contrast, BlackPast.org’s timeline, presents 74 entries between the 1619 and 1739 slave revolt!

Let’s stop for a minute and consider how this enormous disparity between the number of events presented by BlackPast.org and the number of events presented in the other timelines matters on a larger scale.  Scholastic is a children’s book publishing house that is often recognized by children from its book order forms and book fairs, and is a source regularly looked to by teachers, students, and parents to provide reading and educational materials.  In fact, on their website, Scholastic declares that part of its mission is to “encourage the intellectual and personal growth of all children.” (Notice they say all children!) Then we have PBS, an organization that on its website proclaims itself to be “American’s largest classroom.”  PBS airs a broad range of popular children’s programs, making it familiar to children.  Like Scholastic, PBS is a source that teachers and parents have relied on for many years to help with the education of our nation’s children.  Yet, both Scholastic and PBS present a version of American history (even in the context of their African American timelines!) which suggests that African American people accomplished little and failed to participate in significant events in American history over a span of more than a century, when there is ample evidence on BlackPast.org’s timeline that quite the opposite is true.  This timeline makes it clear that African Americans were indeed quite active participants in this (and every) era of American history.

This discrepancy matters.  In “Tales from Two Textbooks,” Terrie Epstein evidences how the differences between multiple versions of historical accounts are significant because they “have implications for citizenship education” (n.p.).  Depending on how the historical account is told and whose stories are included in the telling, Epstein reminds us, historical accounts have the ability to empower or disempower specific groups of people, especially those considered “minorities” (n.p.).

Considering whose stories are included in an historical account and, more importantly, how they are included becomes increasingly significant when we consider that most moments of historical note occurred in “contact zones.”  In “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt defines the contact zone as a “term to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (n.p.).  Because contact zones are places of “highly asymmetrical relations of power,” the accounts of what occurred in these places often include only the stories of those who have the most power.  And thus mainstream historical accounts tend to discount the contributions, efforts, and lives of participants with less power—as can be seen in Scholastic and PBS’s timelines.

For me, this means that it is time for all of us to embrace BlackPast.org’s motto—“Reclaim and Remember”—and help to change the “faces” included in our tellings of American history.

 

 

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