Learning to Teach Race

The birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives me the occasion to reflect on my own education in the importance of race in American history. A few years back, I had the opportunity to teach a class on US history since the end of the Civil War. I designed the course to follow the narrative of the Republican Party, from the party of Lincoln to the party of the New Right. I intended to focus on issues of class; I was particularly interested in talking about the Democrats losing workers and middle-class folks. That was the idea, anyway. But the course quickly shifted focus to race, no matter how hard I (and a few of my students) tried to bring it back to class. There were the usual suspects, of course: Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, etc. But there were unexpected moments when race came to the center: how race shaped the Populist and Progressive movements; how the New Deal simultaneously ignored, challenged, and supported existing racial dynamics; how race and racism helped end the New Deal coalition and Democratic rule; etc..

I’m not all that naive; I had “known” for a long time that race was and is important to understanding US history. But it wasn’t until that course that I understood it in a much deeper way. The evolution of the course forced an intellectual reconsideration: my simplistic Marxism was challenged; I could no longer simply dismiss race and racism as direct manifestations of the class struggle–a misleadingly easy narrative. It was personal and emotional, too, for if I could have gone so long basically ignoring race, what did that say about me? Finally, the course had pedagogical implications; I knew then how irresponsible it would be to teach a course without recognizing race as the core issue in American history.

All of this is nothing, of course, compared to what Dr. King went through and accomplished. But the least I can do is recognize how his life’s work is absolutely fundamental to the work of the American historian, particularly when we teach.

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