In the 200+ pieces I have written during my time at Facing History, I have written only one other essay in the first person. I am writing just one more to announce that I will be leaving my role at the organization at the end of July and that this will be my last essay as a primary author of content on this platform. As I have approached this transition, I have been sitting with the many lessons I have learned during my 3.5 years at the organization, both through my engagement with Facing History’s curricular offerings and with our global network of staff and collaborators. Chief among these lessons revolves around the perennial question of what it means to live deliberately. Prior to my arrival at Facing History, the organization highlighted the influence that one of my favorite historical figures—transcendentalist philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau—had on the civil rights movement. His life and words have pervaded my thoughts recently as I’ve reflected upon the work of Facing History and my professional journey within and beyond the organization.
On Thursday, June 23rd, a number of Facing History staff based in New England had the rich opportunity to attend Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge’s riveting new play Common Ground Revisited at the Boston Center for the Arts. The play is a creative response to J. Anthony Lukas’ seminal book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families which delivers what is often regarded as the definitive account of the contentious period in the 1970s in which busing was used as a strategy to drive school desegregation in Boston. Bensussen and Greenidge’s play thickens the plot considerably, however, as they deconstruct the book’s contents in real time—playing, replaying, and remixing scenes from the book.
At this time each year, people often read or re-read Frederick Douglass’ landmark 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it, he famously questioned the way that people of his time understood the nation’s origins, the meaning of this national holiday, and the profound absence of interracial democracy in his era. His words and oratorical skills were so powerful that his speech remains an important cultural touchstone, and has inspired the formation of annual reading groups including the Reading Frederick Douglass Together program offered across Massachusetts by Mass Humanities. But what about the larger body of work and life story that this historic speech fits into?
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than
anything anyone has ever said about it.” —James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (1963)
Over the last year, we have seen an explosion of debate within the public sphere about how to teach young people about the past. From antebellum slavery to contemporary manifestations of racism and other forms of injustice, communities remain divided on the question of whether and how to introduce these dimensions of history and contemporary life into the classroom. One way to deliver meaningful instruction in the midst of these debates is to teach about the Reconstruction Era—the period that immediately followed the Civil War in which formerly enslaved people pursued meaningful freedom and equal citizenship. This period was transformative, in part, because these newly-freed people and their allies across the U.S. South helped to make profound changes to democratic institutions. During this period, African Americans achieved significant, hard-won gains that students are seldom taught about, only to be undercut by a countervailing host of regressive measures implemented by those invested in maintaining the racial and economic status quo. This period of unprecedented possibility and hope would become a time of immense injustice and violence, and the roles that actors large and small played in those events are instructive for our times.
Early this year, an unprecedented announcement issued from the White House: a Black woman may become the next appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. What’s more, attorney and jurist Ketanji Brown Jackson was named in February as the front runner for this role. This potential appointment of the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice would be historic not just because she is the first but also because this event has emerged from a historical and contemporary context in which Black people, women of all races, and Black women in particular remain marginalized under the law. To watch a Black woman potentially enter a role in which she will have such a considerable impact on American law for many generations to come is immensely powerful when viewed in the context of this history. Further, the confirmation process surrounding another recent Supreme Court appointment brought issues of sexism and gendered violence to the fore, revealing—in the minds of some—the urgency of ensuring that the U.S. Supreme Court welcomes justices who have exhibited a commitment to challenging various manifestations of sexism and injustice. Whether we regard it as a symbolic marker of social progress or an opportunity for tangible policy change, Jackson’s nomination is a historic event that is poised to permanently alter the face of the Supreme Court.
At Facing History, we believe that educators have both an opportunity and a duty to help students grasp the historical and contemporary significance of civic participation. But civic participation has always taken a wide array of forms. From voting and running for public office to civil disobedience and more violent forms of direct action, all of these visions of civic participation line our history and introducing them to students as they surfaced in different contexts can help students reflect upon their own values as civic actors in the present. One approach to this educational task is to consider the competing visions of civic participation that have been articulated and acted upon within the global Black community—a community whose circumstances have inspired, if not necessitated, the use of a wide array of political strategies to combat oppression. The approaches that Black leaders have embraced across space and time are numerous and have encompassed assimilationist and integrationist conceptions of social change, alongside contrasting approaches rooted in Black self-determination and nationalism.
In January, the nation stood still as we learned that renowned actor Sidney Poitier passed away at 94 years old. But his passing is not only significant to cinephiles but to anyone interested in grasping the arc of social change in the United States over the last 75 years. A pioneering Black actor, Poitier’s acting career broke significant barriers in entertainment through a series of singular performances, but his social impact reflects more than just his acting chops. Poitier was both an actor and an activist—and despite a mixed array of perspectives over the years on the ways that he represented Black people in film—he undoubtedly played a leading role in African Americans’ fight for civil rights and more positive media representations from the silver screen to the streets.
Here at Facing History, we see heritage and awareness months as opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and attention to the histories and contemporary experiences of historically marginalized communities. However, the focus on celebrating these communities over one particular month can further marginalize the very experiences we are hoping to elevate. With this in mind, what follows is an invitation to engage with important themes raised by Black History Month this February and throughout all of the months of the year.
Some members of the Facing History staff are exploring these five new books published within the last year, and we invite you to explore them alongside us and share your reactions with us. These 5 titles cover essential topics from Black history with young audiences and address contemporary experiences of young Black people.
Below is excerpted promotional text from each book’s publisher and a link to a related Facing History resource to empower educators to bring parallel themes into the classroom:
Defiant: Growing Up in the Jim Crow South
by Wade Hudson
“Born in 1946 in Mansfield, Louisiana, Wade Hudson came of age against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. From their home on Mary Street, his close-knit family watched as the country grappled with desegregation, as the Klan targeted the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and as systemic racism struck across the nation and in their hometown. Amidst it all, Wade was growing up. Getting into scuffles, playing baseball, immersing himself in his church community, and starting to write. Most important, Wade learned how to find his voice and use it. From his family, his community, and his college classmates, Wade learned the importance of fighting for change by confronting the laws and customs that marginalized and demeaned people. This powerful memoir reveals the struggles, joys, love, and ongoing resilience that it took to grow up Black in segregated America, and the lessons that carry over to our fight for a better future.” –Crown Books for Young Readers
Now during the Olympics, and throughout each academic year, we have the opportunity to explore a number of themes that connect the lives and contributions of Black athletes past and present. Beyond the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team immortalized in the film Cool Runnings, Black athletes have played more central roles at the Winter Olympics than many people might realize. As we cheer on the 2022 Black Olympians, Black History Month is a great time to look back on the impact that Black Olympians and other Black athletes have beyond the world of sports.
Here at Facing History, we see heritage and awareness months as opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and attention to the histories and contemporary experiences of historically marginalized communities. However, the focus on celebrating these communities over one particular month can further marginalize the very experiences we are hoping to elevate. With this in mind, what follows is an invitation to engage with important themes raised by Black History Month this February and
throughout all of the months of the year.