Jessica Millward: Teaching African-American History in the Age of Obama





[Jessica Millward is an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Irvine.]

When I proposed a spring course on major topics in African-American history, drawing a large enrollment was my chief concern. I had previously taught the course under a different title at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a campus with a sizable African-American presence among students and faculty members. I now teach at a college whose African-American student population is about 2 percent and that continues to feel the impact of California's Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in public education more than a decade ago.

Of course, I believe that African-American history is a topic that all students should find intriguing; but without a "built in" audience, I suspected that I would have to rename the course to capture the imagination of a broad spectrum of students. Hoping to draw students caught up in the general excitement of the past year, I changed the title from what had been "Black History, 1619 to the Present" to the (dare I say) "postracial" "Major Topics in African-American History From Slavery to the Presidency." I submitted the course well before November 4, 2008, determined to keep the title regardless of the outcome of the election.

And then something profound happened. Barack Obama was elected president. Although the present milieu provides a special teaching opportunity, I want to be careful not to read the present into the past. How do I explain that within some four decades, African-Americans have gone from being barred from voting in the South to being represented in the highest office of the nation? At the same time, how will I teach that we cannot look at this exceptional moment as proof that race is not important and racism does not exist? I will have to stress continuity and change.

My pre-existing lectures must reconcile major themes of African-American history — which include but are not limited to the horrific violence of slavery, disenfranchisement, segregation, and economic disparity by race — with what is being hailed as a new message of hope.

As a scholar of slavery and African-American women's history, I am immediately struck by how the public portrayal of the black family is being reconstructed before our eyes. From their fist bump, to their dances at the inaugural balls, Barack and Michelle Obama have presented a new image of a black nuclear family (soon complete with puppy). That representation, however, must be balanced with the legacy of family separation during slavery and the persistence of African-American female-headed households. Lectures and discussions will show the unfortunate elements of enslavement, while being tuned to the brighter image we see today....

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