Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Wrenching Pain of History

By Jeff Burns

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.  - Maya Angelou
Throughout the year in my US History classes, I tell lots of stories and include lots of unpleasantness as it arises.  My students often tell me that I ruin their day or dispel their childhood truths.  However, in January or early February, I usually get to the day in class that is the most depressing and silent day of the year, because I normally set aside a day to talk about lynchings and racial violence of the Jim Crow era.
Why?  I was never exposed to any of this information in school, but I think it is a necessary part of the study of history to study the bad and the good, the depressing and the uplifting, and good history and good citizenship both demand the full story, warts and all.
(Caveat:  I do teach mostly Advanced Placement and Honors students, juniors.  A teacher has to be aware of the maturity level and responsibility of their students.  My students are mature enough to take college level courses, hold jobs, and operate vehicles capable of mayhem and death.  They should be able to handle a major, if disturbing,  fact of  our country’s history.)
It starts as any other day, with no foreshadowing of the day’s subject.  I usually start by projecting seemingly benign images that I have lifted from lynching photos, like these:

Fort Lauderdale, FL, 1935, Rubin Stacy

Marion IN, 1930, Smith and Shipp
I ask questions like: What do you see?  When and where do you think this was?  Why?  Describe the crowd.  What kind of mood do you think they’re in?  Where do you think they are and what are they looking at?  Answers usually include concert, fair, speech, fireworks, etc.  Then I reveal the whole picture.  (You can google them for yourself.)  The result is always dumbfounded silence.  Then I read a couple of excerpts about specific cases and show a few more pictures before continuing the discussion of Jim Crow and racial violence.  Of course, the lesson’s not complete without showing the video ( or playing the song) of Billie Holiday performing  “Strange Fruit,” and examining the lyrics.  It always makes for a powerful discussion, and it is a powerful frame for the modern civil rights movement.  However, I have to stress again that it can be a very painful experience, and it has to be managed well.  It’s not for every student or every teacher.

Checkout the Histocrats' Bookshelf  for books on this topic.


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  2. Great info! I didn't think about beginning with the images of the spectators. I wonder if you've considered capping off studying this part of US history by discussing agency and resistance? I find looking at the ways people banded together to resist and overcome racial violence helps me end such classes on a higher note.

  3. Good work. I do almost the same thing, for the exact same reason. I love your idea of starting with part of the image and finishing with the song. I also finish with a small tirade on why "jokes" involving a noose are so offensive. They don't get it before this...they do after.