The study of Black history (and ethnic studies more broadly) is rooted in a critical consciousness. Cultivating a “critical consciousness” in teachers and students is important in the development and delivering of ethnic-studies-based course material and lessons. Critical consciousness can be defined as “the ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems.”
According to Paulo Freire (author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed), developing such consciousness is “what allows people to act—or in this instance, teach—for the humanization of society.” The Black historical consciousness principles help both students and teachers develop a critical consciousness applied to Black history, past and present.
Background of the Black Historical Consciousness Principles
Dr. LaGarrett King’s framework is presented in his article “Black History Is Not American History,” which focuses on teaching Black history from a Black historical consciousness approach. He does this by identifying six principles or themes that educators should consider when building an African American studies–based curriculum:
- Power and oppression — Black histories as narratives that highlight the lack of justice, freedom, equality, and equity that Black people have experienced throughout history
- Black agency, resistance, and perseverance — looking at the ongoing but strong fight for social change led by Black people
- Africa and the African diaspora — thinking about the Black experience before 1619, which is often a student’s introduction into Black history (an example here is to explore successful African kingdoms and Black experiences around the globe
- Black joy (and love) — Black cultural expression and rich legacies (the Black arts movement would be a prime example)
- Black identities — exploring the multiple identities of Black people instead of being presented with the narrative that paints Black people as a one-dimensional group
- Black historical contention — exploring the complexities of black histories (an example here would be exploring the quite contentious issue of reparations)
The focus of this blog is on the theme of power and oppression, and how that can be applied in the classroom setting. Central to the Black narratives of power and oppression is how Black people have been victims to racism, white supremacy, and anti-Black societal structures as well as individual actions.
In teaching African American studies—specifically, content centered around the concept of Power and Oppression—Dr. King argues that one must take a Black historical consciousness approach as “power, oppression, and racism are important concepts for understanding how systems and institutions have victimized Black people throughout history.”
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / Historical marker for Bloody Monday, Danville, Virginia
Connecting Power and Oppression to the Classroom
Let's explore Dr. LaGarrett King’s theme of Power and Oppression a little deeper and how it can be applied in developing a curriculum. To begin, review the following questions directly relating to the theme of Power and Oppression with your students:
- How did enslavement undermine democratic principles?
- How did racism divide the country?
- How did slave owners use the government to their advantage?
- Why did the United States abandon Reconstruction?
- How did the "nadir of race relations" rival the horrors of enslavement?
- How do the Los Angeles riots of 1992 compare to to Ferguson in 2014?
What are these questions asking students to think about? What historical concepts and structures (i.e., social/political/economic) are they asking students to consider? The questions ask students to consider the role and influence of racism and other oppressive structures and/or constructs on the history of the United States.
How do these questions encourage students to think critically about power and oppression? These questions are examples of ways that you can ask students to think about power and oppression in topics throughout United States history. Notice that they are not simply asking students to recall information; they are encouraging students to examine power dynamics in history and the impact of that power imbalance on Black people.
There are multiple time periods that you could use to facilitate discussions of power and oppression in the classroom. These include examinations of slavery in the Americas; the development, sustainability, and racialization of chattel slavery; the emergence of Jim Crow laws; the nadir of race relations; redlining; and periods of policy changes, such as Reaganomics, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. Of course, there are many, many other examples of points in history where you can ask students to question power dynamics or unpack means of oppression. You should consider what other examples you could include in this list.
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / Segregated Water Fountain
You are now encouraged to dive deeper into some of the resources in Active Classroom that were created utilizing the Black historical consciousness principles. (Although a subscription is needed to access these lessons, you can request a free trial below!) You should evaluate these resources and see how they might serve as examples of lessons that can help students examine power and oppression in Black history. As you review the lessons, you should think about not only how they exemplify the theme of power and oppression but also what other themes from the Black historical consciousness principles they might include. When teaching through the lens of the Black historical consciousness principles, it is important to show students how the themes intersect with one another in order to build out a fuller picture of Black history.
- Crime and Punishment in Modern America
- Crime and Punishment: Jim Crow laws, Lynching, and Convict Leasing
- Convict Leasing: Slavery by Another Name?
Hopefully by now you are beginning to think about how you might apply the Black historical consciousness principles to your own classroom. You should consider what new topic you will address or what topic that you have previously taught that you might reconsider with the Black historical consciousness principles approach in mind. How will you help students build their understanding of power dynamics at that particular time in history? What primary and secondary sources will you use to ensure that diverse Black perspectives are provided? What questions will you ask students to foster the development of their own critical consciousness? By beginning to approach history through the lens of the Black historical consciousness principles, teachers can provide culturally relevant classroom experiences for their students as well as encourage the development of a critical consciousness that can be transformative for students inside and outside the classroom.
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LaChardra has been in education for the past 13 years and is currently a curriculum specialist in Houston. Responsibilities in her current role include authoring district social studies curriculum in Grade 6 World Cultural Studies, Grade 9 World Geography Studies, and African American Studies, developing and facilitating district-level professional development, as well as continuing instructional coaching duties. She has taught World Cultural Studies, Texas History, and United States History and has partnered with Active Classroom in various capacities for the past three years.
Samantha has been in education for the past 14 years and is currently an instructional coach and curriculum writer in Houston. She, alongside LaChardra, specializes in building their district’s ethnic studies curriculum and professional development for teachers. She taught United States History and AP* U.S. History in Houston for ten years. She also works with undergraduate pre-service social studies teachers teaching Social Studies Instructional Methods.