Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Using the Margin to Teach the Center: Teaching American History through Black Women's Autobiographies

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Using the Margin to Teach the Center: Teaching American History through Black Women's Autobiographies

Article excerpt


Despite marginalization that emerges from living at the intersection of various oppressions--race, class, gender, and heterosexism among others--Black women's lives are rich with narratives that are central to the American experience. (1) Black women are uniquely positioned to represent fundamental themes of the American experience such as the quest for inclusion, equality, diversity, and liberation via political protest and struggle. Persons who have traditionally held positions of power offer a much different interpretation of historical facts, and what is often presented as the American story requires interrogation from multiple perspectives and identities. For this reason, I decided to teach a section of our History Department's American Experience course focusing upon the voices and lived experiences of Black women in the United States of America. (2) The American Experience is a 100-level course designed to serve as an "introduction to American history through the study of a special topic" and has covered such topics as the American West, Slavery, and Reform Movements.

Black feminist scholars argue that Black women's invisibility in mainstream society has resulted in the need to incorporate alternative forms of knowledge production to ensure adequate and accurate representations of Black women's experiences. For example, feminist scholar Gloria Joseph relates that "Afro-American women have a well-developed alternative way of producing and validating knowledge about their experienced reality. The validations of their experienced realities differ from explanations offered by the dominant Eurocentric masculine [or feminine] viewpoint." (3) Black women's autobiographies are one such alternative. These texts are much more than accounts of individual lives; they also represent a collective Black (female) experience and are a manifestation of a social and political struggle for equality. Thus, as American society has evolved, so have the voices, roles, and lived experiences of Black women.

The Course

I structured this class chronologically to journey with my students from the antebellum period to the mid-twentieth century, exhibiting that this course was as much about the traditional American historical narrative as it was about how Black women have shaped and been shaped by this narrative. Specifically, I designed this course to explore the ways in which Black women are embedded within their social, political, and cultural contexts; how they constructed their lives within and against these contexts; and how they subsequently represented their lives in writing. The class focused on the concept of "intersectionality," particularly the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexual orientation impacted Black women's lives and how Black women have used autobiographies to (re)define and empower themselves. We examined these narratives for aspects of social and political protests to gain a better understanding of how Black women have attempted to achieve liberation, individually and collectively.

I structured the class as a seminar, relying primarily on class discussion, and taught it three times over the course of two academic years, with the third as a first-year seminar. The first course had an enrollment of fourteen students, five of whom were in their first-year in college. I was extremely pleased with the effort put forth by the students (one of the best of whom had enrolled in the course with a pass/fail requirement) and the level of analysis with which they approached the texts. In the second course, over half of the seventeen students were in their first-year, which resulted in a lesser degree of success in respect to student outcomes. As a result of my experience with a class that had a majority of first-year students, I adjusted some of the readings and assignments to provide a structure that was more amendable to their learning level. (4)

Having a class of only first-year students for the third course required that I begin some classes with lectures to provide students with better contextualization for the time period during which each author lived. …

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