The African American History Survey as an Intellectual Product                                                     

The 43rd Annual African-American Day Parade, Sunday, September 16, 2012, 111th Street & Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., to 136th Street, Harlem, NY (James Nova/ Flickr)

Countless Alabama school children take part in an annual fourth-grade field trip that includes tours of the Alabama State Capitol Building, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, as well as the First White House of the Confederacy. As recently as 2017, the Associated Press reported that the museum’s interpretation heralded Confederate President Jefferson Davis for being a leader of “heroic resistance” and a person who was “held by his Negroes in genuine affection as well as highest esteem.” This field trip program has been a part of public school systems in the state for decades. Most school tours, in the 1970s through the early 1990s, did not include Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—Dr. Martin Luther Jr.’s church during his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott—even though it sits just a block from the state capitol.

More recently, some proactive educators and school district administrators have chosen to add or substitute the White House of the Confederacy tour with sites that highlight African American history, like the Equal Justice Museum. Additionally, in the summer of 2020, the Alabama Department of Archives and History acknowledged the harm it has caused and offered to Black audiences, especially school-age children, the following recommitment statement, “For well over a half-century, the agency committed extensive resources to the acquisition of Confederate records and artifacts while declining to acquire and preserve materials documenting the lives and contributions of African Americans in Alabama.” But meanwhile, the Alabama State Department of Education takes a laissez-faire approach to the matter of establishing more inclusive standards.

In fact, at the end of December 2021, an story explains (in response to parents and other state residents asking for more balance in the history curriculum) state officials decided to delay “revisions to the state’s social studies course of study, for another five to six years.” If parents who critique the inclusion of a more nuanced historical understanding of race and racism in public schools in Alabama—a curriculum many falsely call “Critical Race Theory”— get what they want, then it is very possible that there will be little change in the stories told to public school children in certain classrooms as well as in places like the First White House of the Confederacy.

There is, of course, a wealth of literature that counters the white supremacist historical narratives that the previously mentioned school field trips normalize. In service of the moment, this article highlights how some Black scholars elevate Black scholarship to combat racist historical curriculums. Black scholars demonstrate every day how Black history is a malleable intellectual product. So much of the current discourse about “CRT” in K-12 schools feels like a distraction. It places brilliant proponents of inclusive curricula in debates about the legitimacy and usefulness of such scholarship. Perhaps it is time to move away from that space and take a new direction.

For many Black scholars, the work of introducing people to African American History is not only an intellectual process but also a personal one. The themes they choose to privilege, and the sources and methodological approaches elevated can say much about one’s relationship to the field at large as well as the places where they are from and the communities where one teaches.

Scholars of Black history in the academy teach people to think about these questions, sometimes more directly than others: What have Black scholars written about the process of creating scholarship? What have they shared about the work of moving through the academy as a Black scholar? What is the current state of the field, and where is it headed? Black scholars have not only asked these questions but also answered them. In so doing, they create a vast archive of the work that came before them as well as the work of their contemporaries in the field.

African American scholars’ work transcends the classroom and includes civilians (people who are not students on a campus) in a kind of borderless African American History Survey course. For example, in her article, “Black History is American History: Teaching African American History in the Twenty-first Century,” historian Allison Dorsey, writes about a discussion between herself and a group of African American women who attended the HBO film screening “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives.” Dorsey overheard the women express surprise that “‘slaves’ could articulate their life experiences so clearly.” One of the Black women even said she wanted to visit the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) to read the original WPA Slave Narrative records and then opined about how Black history during her upbringing was “hidden.” Dorsey not only held a mini “teach-in” outside of the screening, but she used that interaction to frame her article about the value of the African American History survey on her campus at Swarthmore College.

This document is not only a form of protest to people that believe Black history is still “hidden,” but Dorsey’s decision to seek publication in the Journal of American History also suggests it is a call-to-action to historians throughout the US—to ensure that students do not leave their classroom still believing such things are true. Furthermore, the article also is a reflection tool. For example, do you think African American History is hidden? Why/why not? Lastly, Dorsey gives us a great entry point to think about Black primary sources and Black archives, especially the Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives.

Black scholars’ open discussion of the credentialing process and the labor of working in the academy are important tools in combatting curriculums that center whiteness. The field of African American history has changed over time, from generation to generation. Earlier generations asked different questions. Their archives and methods were different. When the recently minted Ph.D.  Carter G. Woodson, organized the Association for the Study for Negro Life and History, the American Historical Association existed and had a small number of African American members, but he saw the need to create an organization for scholars with Black history as the central focus.

Perhaps one of the most obscure parts of the credentialing process for Black scholars is graduate school. It is a process many have expressed to be most difficult to explain to friends and loved ones. But there is great value in these Black narratives. The stories Black scholars share about their quest for a Ph.D. also are important tools to resist racist history curriculums. For example, Deborah Gray White, in an online lecture entitled “Matter Out of Place”: Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Black Female Scholars and the Academy,” shares her frustrations navigating the academy in the 1970s, and the meticulous process of getting her dissertation published in the 1980s. White explains her frustrations back then:

“…I was being told that by relying so heavily on the WPA narratives—The Black Sources—I was taking the easy way out. That I was shirking the hard work presented by the traditional white sources. The fact is that I had spent over a year with planter records and other traditional sources, and it was like getting blood from a stone.”

Nonetheless, White successfully defended her dissertation and published it after a period of great angst. When White’s book, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, arrived at the Library of Congress, the work was so innovative that a subject cataloguer proposed a new heading (carving a whole physical space) for books about “women slaves.”

White’s  Ar’n’t I a Woman?: , is groundbreaking. Breaking through the ground is not easy. Some people leave the academy before completing the work they started and before seeing innovative ideas recognized. Those narratives are also a part of the credentialing process because they shape the experiences of other Black scholars on the quest for a Ph.D.

The story of Deborah Gray White’s journey through graduate school includes an interesting irony. The very archive that Allison Dorsey and the women at the HBO screening talk about in the early 2000s is the same one that Deborah Gray White’s dissertation committee challenged when she was a graduate student in the 1970s. Good research takes time, but it can open pathways to remarkable innovation. More recently, African American history has benefited greatly from scholars in gender and sexuality studies, capitalism studies, transnationalism, and scholars who consider broader chronologies for freedom movements. But teachers who incorporate newer scholarships in some schools are punished by parents rather than rewarded.  Nonetheless, the research of scholars of African American history—those from the past as well as those doing the work today—remains valuable for its rigor and resilience. The question is whether state school boards of education expect innovations to lay fallow or to harness them for the greater good of the body politic.

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Sylvea Hollis

Sylvea Hollis is a social historian of African American life in the 19th and 20th centuries. She currently is an Assistant Professor of African and African American History at Montgomery College. Hollis earned a Ph.D. in US History with a concentration in African American History and a Graduate Certificate in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Iowa. Before coming to Montgomery College in the fall of 2020, Dr. Hollis was a National Park Service-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender and Sexuality and taught courses in gender and sexuality in the American Studies Department at The George Washington University. She earned a MA in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY-Oneonta) and has extensive experience in the museum field. Her hobbies include hiking, running, and cooking.

Comments on “The African American History Survey as an Intellectual Product                                                     

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    The best read for me this week. This article was very informative. Dr. Hollis you did a great job unraveling the African American History, as well as remembering the forerunners.

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    I really enjoyed this essay. I am working to publish an edited volume of historians plying their trade as historians of the Black experience in response to the controversy that has been contrived in response to the publication of the 1619 Project.

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