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February 22, 2023
ASCD Blog

How and Why to Teach Black Resistance in U.S. History

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Do your students really know U.S. history? By overlooking stories of Black resistance, educators risk centering “white benevolence.”
EquityInstructional Strategies
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Credit: Sundry Studio / Shutterstock
Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis blocked the College Board from piloting its AP African American Studies (APAAS) course in Florida, using the state’s “Stop WOKE Act.” According to a letter obtained by National Review, Florida’s Department of Education’s Office of Articulation said the curriculum “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” On Monday, February 13, the governor went so far as to threaten cutting ties with the College Board altogether.
After Florida's decision to block the APAAS course, the College Board announced the removal of several topics from the curriculum, including the Black Lives Matter movement, intersectionality, and Black feminist thought. The board has maintained that the changes were part of an internal revision process that had started before the Florida dispute and were not related.
What's clear is that, despite the political noise, equity-oriented educators must take determined steps to emphasize the educational value of Black history, including the activist and resistance movements that are part of it. We’re reminded of this during Black History Month because of what Black History Month means.
Black History Month is a time not only to teach the Black freedom struggle, but to celebrate the yearlong instruction of it. This was the goal of Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. It is in that spirit of the Black freedom struggle that Black history ought to be taught in the context of United States history, whether in an advanced placement course or a standard U.S. History course.  

I define Black resistance as the active work to prevent or subvert ongoing oppression of Black people in a systemically racist society.

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Woodson’s work in establishing Negro History Week is an example of Black resistance. In my book Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids (Bloom Books for Young Readers, 2023), I define Black resistance 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.
Without knowledge of this activism, students won’t understand the ways in which Black people led their liberation struggle—and how their resistance forced the white power structure to act on their behalf. For example, during the Civil War, Black slaves fled plantations in the Confederacy to Union territory, in many cases fighting with the Union Army, forcing Abraham Lincoln to formally emancipate them to enlist their services to secure the North’s victory.
Traditionally, liberation for Black people is taught as something bestowed upon them by white people—as a result of goodwill or otherwise. But the historical record is more complicated, and students need access to this full history to better understand the contributions and agency of African Americans in the nation’s development.
Many teachers, no matter where they teach, may wish to teach Black resistance—as opposed to teaching white benevolence—but are unsure of where to start.
Here are some ideas, born from my own experiences with incorporating Black resistance in lessons, on how to begin teaching and discussing Black resistance in the classroom.  

1. Start by defining and describing the various forms of Black resistance. 

Historian Herbert Aptheker speaks of eight forms of Black resistance throughout the history of the United States: (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. Revolts, said Aptheker, were the result of three factors: economic hardship; unusual excitement about enslavement, that is, some kind of war; and large additions to the enslaved population.
Once teachers have named and defined these forms of Black resistance for students, they can (and do) serve as categories to code instances of Black resistance met over the course of students’ study of U.S. history. While the foundation is set in the classroom, it should be the goal for students to be able to identify these forms through practice outside of the classroom (with homework assignments and group projects). 

2. Teach Black resistance in the form of stories.  

Stories are powerful vehicles for learning because stories stick in our minds. We internalize stories, especially when they connect to or stem from a culture we are a part of or aware of. Consider the story of Robert Smalls: An enslaved crew member of the Planter, a ship commanded by Confederate soldiers, Smalls made a heroic attempt to free his family and co-laborers. After weeks of planning, they stole the ship, eventually sailing to Union waters and to freedom. It’s a story of resistance that, when told in its entirety, sticks with you.
The great thing about stories is that they work with elementary, middle, and high school students. Stories and storytelling are particularly important for Black students because of the cultural and historic influences that have fostered a preference for orality among African Americans. Black students who learn and display learning by way of storytelling perform better academically and learn to read faster

3. Begin with commonly known stories of Black resistance to connect the concept to the prior knowledge of students—follow that up with stories they are unaware of.  

For the most part, students have heard of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks . . . maybe even Crispus Attucks. Utilize Aptheker’s eight forms of resistance to categorize and chart the resistance of these individuals after you tell the stories of how they resisted white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Once students understand what forms of resistance these activists applied to their circumstances, begin teaching them new stories. Stories like those of Ona Judge, who escaped President George Washington, or the enslaved persons who retreated to the swamps of the Carolinas to form their own communities—out of reach of their captors—while raiding nearby plantations for supplies. Utilize these and other stories to teach the principle: where there was oppression of Black people, Black people resisted. 

Utilize these and other stories to teach the principle: where there was oppression of Black people, Black people resisted.

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4. Connect those stories of Black resistance with modern examples of Black resistance to show that the spirit of resistance—for Black liberation—lives on.  

The spirit of Black resistance is not just a matter of long-ago history. It lives on today in the life of Brittany Newsome-Bass, who climbed a flagpole at the South Carolina State Capitol in 2020 and removed the Confederate Flag. It also lives on in the lives of Alabama students who protested changes in their Black History Month program that resulted from an administrator feeling "uncomfortable." Black resistance is a tradition—Black Radical Tradition—that spans generations. The job of educators is to explain how that tradition passes from generation to generation, so that students can understand that Black resistance today is not disconnected from Black resistance of the past—in fact, it is the foundation upon which current resistance is built. 

Black resistance today is not disconnected from Black resistance of the past—in fact, it is the foundation upon which current resistance is built.

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These four strategies can help support teaching Black resistance during Black History Month. But what’s even more impactful about this approach is that it facilitates the teaching of Black history throughout the school year in U.S. History courses. These strategies give teachers the opportunity to interweave Black resistance into the history they teach. This itself is a form of pedagogical depth and resistance—resistance to the lawmakers trying to erase Black history from being taught.  
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