How to Teach Black Resistance Beyond Black History Month
High school students can learn about Black Americans’ fight against social and political oppression throughout the school year.
History is a complex bag full of triumphs and tragedies. History teachers are charged with breaking down intricate details in a way in which students understand the pathways to success and to sin. This is all done in an attempt to learn from the past so that society can strategically chart toward the future. This requires students to be open to learning, teachers to be brave in order to confront hard truths, and communities to be willing to trust teachers to teach and students to learn.
Black History Month, as conceived by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, is a time for educators and students to review all the Black history taught and learned from the previous year—because Black history is to be taught and learned throughout the entire school year. Black History Month also provides teachers and students with the opportunity to take a deeper look at the Black experience in the United States.
Understanding Black Resistance
The Antebellum and Jim Crow eras are a part of the Black experience in the United States. Traditionally, these two eras are taught by describing the hardships faced by Black people in addition to the protest movements (e.g., the abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights Movement) that led to changes in the United States. Additionally, the White “allies,” such as policy makers and those who advocated alongside Black people for Black liberation, are frequently mentioned, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
However, often forgotten or ignored when teaching this history is the role that Black resistance played in Black liberation.
Black resistance can be defined as the active work to prevent or subvert ongoing oppression of Black people in a systemically racist society governed by the tenets of White supremacy, racial capitalism, and anti-Blackness. According to Herbert Aptheker, there are eight forms of Black resistance: (1) purchasing freedom, (2) strikes, (3) sabotage, (4) suicide and self-mutilation, (5) flight (running away), (6) enlisting in the armed forces, (7) anti-enslavement agitation in speaking and writing, and (8) revolts or insurrection.
During the Antebellum and the Jim Crow periods, many (if not all of these) forms of resistance were used to secure Black liberation in some way. It’s important for students in the U.S. history classroom to learn how Black resistance was executed in the past and how it’s still active today.
3 Concrete Strategies for Teaching Black Resistance
1. Teach Black resistance as part of U.S. history. There’s no need to stray from the regularly scheduled program of U.S. I or U.S. II history classes. Because Black history should be taught throughout the entire school year, teachers can highlight Black resistance as a theme to cover whenever opportunities to do so come up. For example, in U.S. I, the opportunity is enslavement, and in U.S. II, the opportunities are Jim Crow and Reconstruction.
Whether you’re discussing the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, the roaring twenties, or the Vietnam War, there are countless examples of Black resistance that teachers can highlight according to the eight categories of Black resistance as Herbert Aptheker identified.
2. Teach students how to categorize (and/or codify) the Black resistance they encounter within their study. One of the most effective ways for students to understand a concept is to create a visual for them. To understand (as well as to internalize) Black resistance, a great support is the use of a chart to help students identify moments of Black resistance as well as become intimately familiar with the various forms as expressed by Aptheker. Here is an example of a chart you can use to support students’ study of Black resistance according to the forms previously mentioned (with some examples filled in).
3. Have students utilize their new knowledge to identify moments of Black resistance today. As a result of what your students have learned, they’ll be able to identify Black resistance when they see it. Black resistance continues to happen in various forms, such as from those who speak out against police brutality in speeches and writings.
On social media, Black creatives have gone on strike to receive credit for their work. There are also Black citizens who’ve left the U.S. to settle elsewhere because of racism—and many Black parents have decided to leave public and private school systems to homeschool their children to escape from racist practices.
These are all acts of Black resistance, rooted in the spirit of Black resistance expressed in earlier generations via running away, sabotage, and rebellion—as studied by students (following the prompts given here). Allowing students to make the connections between the past and present will help them internalize the idea that Black resistance isn’t an isolated event but rather a tradition rooted in the Black freedom struggle.
Steady Instruction on Resistance Has a Lasting Impact
Certainly, teaching with the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be a challenge. The same is true for attempting to teach the truth of history at a time when there’s a backlash against confronting systemic racism in the history of the United States. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon history teachers not only to teach truth, but also to teach with tools that can help communicate the impact of what they teach.
A consistent diet of learning about Black resistance in history—enriched with visuals, testimonials from scholars found in books, and also visits to historical societies or museums—helps students internalize the information and make connections to examples of Black resistance today. Not only do young people learn a history often untold, but this knowledge might also empower them to contend for a new world—a world where resistance is less frequent because the same is true for oppression.