A ‘Teachable Moment’
In African American History

by Amos Huron

On Jan. 20, our country watched as a new president was sworn into office. History will judge Barack Obama for the work he does in the White House, but one thing is certain: His presidency is already historic.

Obama’s election and subsequent inauguration have prompted an outpouring of interest and energy among people of all walks of life, including students. Schools across the country reported a surge in student interest during the 2008 election, and many teachers and parents are hoping to tap into that excitement as they continue to talk about politics, history and American culture with their children.

During Black History Month, educators are devising ways to use the Obama presidency to reach young people.

In the Classroom
Educators agree that this event is a teachable moment. Capitalizing on the strong student interest that built during the presidential campaign, teachers are using their students’ familiarity with Barack Obama’s story as a way to start a classroom conversation about the range of African-American experience.

Amy Leigh, a teacher at Independence Charter School in Philadelphia, says her students were highly engaged in the political process in 2008. “You can use Obama’s story to teach history, to talk about geography and current events, and even for more basic lessons like teamwork and the importance of education,” she says.

Leigh and other teachers are using Obama’s inauguration to spark discussion of the long period in our nation’s history when blacks were denied basic rights and the Civil Rights movement. They are citing Obama’s personal story to help students see the link between African-Americans and their ancestors and relatives in Africa.

Discussing the widespread support Obama received focuses students on the commonalities that unite Americans, rather than the differences that divide them.

A New Challenge
One national organization hopes that educators will focus on human relations. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization that for decades has been on the front line in the fight against discrimination and hate crimes.
Teaching Tolerance was created in 1991 as an outreach program to help schools and community groups address issues of prejudice and inter-group relations. Among other things, Teaching Tolerance provides curriculum guides to teachers and educators across the nation (available at www.tolerance.org).

In the wake of Obama’s inauguration, the group finds itself presented with a challenge. The organization’s website describes two “extreme positions — the belief that racism is over, and the belief that Obama’s race is what matters most.”

In an attempt to help educators navigate these seemingly incongruous beliefs, Teaching Tolerance has created classroom activities that draw on the inauguration as a way to address larger issues. One activity, “An Historic Vote,” uses the 2008 presidential election as a jumping off point to explore the voting rights movement in the South

In another, younger students are encouraged to “think about the significance of this moment in history and the challenges faced by the Obama children” as they move into the White House. A third activity presents high school students with newspaper accounts of Obama’s election, as well as accounts of a string of hate crimes that followed, and asks them to discuss the notion that this election symbolized the beginning of a “post-racial” America.

Are We ‘Post-Racial’?
The idea of a “post-racial” nation was discussed during the election in outlets ranging from the Philadelphia Daily News to USA Today to CNN. The premise of the idea is that U.S. race-relations have evolved to the point that a person’s skin color is no longer significant

By electing a bi-racial president, some argue, this country has proven that its ancient racial wounds have healed. Some educators view this idea as premature, perhaps even dangerous.

Molefi Kete Asante, PhD, is a professor of African-American Studies at Temple University and the author of more than 60 books on black culture and history. He believes that “one might be able to talk about a post-racial America at some point, but we are not there yet.”

This sentiment is echoed on the Teaching Tolerance website: “Barack Obama’s ascension to the Presidency surely marks racial progress in the U.S., yet a rash of hate crimes and bias incidents in the wake of his election show clearly that America is far from entering a ‘post-racial’ era, as some commentators have suggested.”

Educators believe it is important to acknowledge that race, and racism, still exist in America, but that these issues do not need to be at the core of what we teach our children. Dr. Asante sees a myriad of life lessons from the 2008 election that parents can pass on to their children, none centering on race.

“Parents could tell their children that persistence pays off,” he says, “that character is the chief virtue, that collectives of people working together can succeed, that education and commitment to excellence are factors in our individual and national success.”

Leigh believes that not acknowledging the role race plays in American society would be doing a disservice to her mostly African-American students. “The world isn’t post-racial. It would be unfair to teach kids that it is,” she says. Still, Leigh sees the ascension of a new president as an opportunity to address issues of character and determination that go beyond racial boundaries.

In our first Black History Month with a black president, parents and educators have an extraordinary opportunity to talk to kids about where we have come from as a nation, and where we can go.

Amos Huron is a MetroKids editorial assistant.