I find myself, day to day, thinking harder about the purpose of teaching during an age of social tumult. Having been fortunate enough to teach two different courses on the American South at the University of South Carolina in the last year—Contemporary South for Southern Studies and now the New South for History—I’ve had to confront these pedagogical issues time and again. In particular, these questions of how to teach history during the era of Black Lives Matter relate to broader questions of the purpose and “utility” of teaching and learning history. At the same time, public discourse about American history and race relations depends a great deal on having a populace that has some basic understanding of the long story of racial formation in the United States.
Several articles have already addressed the issue of teaching history as Black Lives Matter protests continue. These two articles, one from The Atlantic and another from the Nursing Clio website, both speak to the unique challenges—and opportunities—of teaching history to students who are well aware of the protests going on across the country. But what I am concerned about in particular is how to teach Southern history to students who are also watching the news and keeping abreast of the Black Lives Matter marches, and the police shootings that have sparked said marches.
Teaching about the New South means considering the parallels between the Reconstruction/New South era and the Civil Rights/White Backlash eras of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. I try my best not to make direct comparisons between historical eras. I believe that is both a pedagogical mistake—it takes students out of the context of the era we’re discussing—and it risks further complicating already tricky historical subjects. At the same time, when students bring up modern-day parallels with past events, I try to use that as a “teachable moment.” If they’re tying together time periods, to me that means the students, at the very least, care enough to start using their critical thinking skills while in a classroom setting. And that’s something that should not be dismissed.
I remember back in 2014, during the upheaval in Ferguson, a young student of mine asking me (then a teaching assistant for a US history survey course that goes from 1865 until the present) about the 14th amendment’s passage during Reconstruction and the current tumult in the country. I was pleased that my student, who often asked probing questions in discussion section, was thinking about the past in such context. I think about him—a young African American man—often when discussing the New South. I hesitate to make direct comparisons between the rise of the “New South” of the 1880s and 1890s and today. But I do find them swirling around in my head every day.
Both then and after the Civil Rights Movement, the intellectual and political currents leaned away from the roiling debates over slavery and citizenship in the 1860s and 1870s, or race and citizenship in the 1960s and 1970s, and towards an attempt at “reconciliation”—whether that be the reconciliation of the sections after Civil War and Reconstruction, or a national turn towards conservatism and away from social upheaval in the 1980s. That overly long statement is a way of saying: yes, I have to also resist making comparisons in class. But what I find most interesting about the “New South” era of the late 19th century (and as I often joke with my students, we’ve had several New Souths—including the one in my dissertation of the 1970s and the New South of today!) is how rich a cast of historical characters it offers students a chance to learn about. I’ve already talked about Frederick Douglass, Henry Grady, Booker T. Washington, Mark Twain, Ben Tillman, Thomas Watson, Ida B. Wells, George Washington Cable, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Longstreet, and so many others in the last few weeks. Above all, though, I try to get across the complex politics, intellectual discourse, and economic stratification of the South during the era. If my students understand that Southern history is filled with dissenters, intellectuals, and “everyday people” resisting an unjust system, and that there are always different paths for the South (and the nation) to take, then I believe I have done my job.
Using history as a sledgehammer, i.e., “look at this and compare it to something today,” seems to me to be a mistake. Instead, drawing students into history through the use of nuanced analysis, classroom participation, and sparking strenuous but good-natured debate is something I always strive to do. A few weeks ago a student emailed me one night, so late at night I feared his question had plagued him all day and refused to allow him to sleep until he sent it to me. In short, he wanted to know if I would talk about the unrest in Charlotte. I did not do so last week. But this coming Tuesday, with our class primed to discuss “the Negro Problem” of the early twentieth century, I am tempted to do so. I am still not sure if I will do so directly. Instead, I shall do my best job lecturing and fostering discussion about turn of the century Southern history, and leave it to my always capable students to ask the questions that come to them. During much of American history, black lives have either not mattered, or only mattered in regards to how much money they could bring in for someone else. Students understanding that—and knowing that black Americans still lived full lives while resisting dehumanizing conditions—does matter to me, and should matter to all of us. Especially now.