Considering Counter-Narratives

It is impossible to teach the entirety of human history to students in one year. But it is possible to go beyond state-mandated standards and textbook curriculum to include social studies instruction that addresses real-life issues and concepts, including those that are not often discussed. “Meaningful intellectual accomplishments have utilitarian, aesthetic, or personal value,” M. Bruce King, Fred D. Newmann, and Dana L. Carmichael say in their article “Authentic Intellectual Work: Common Standards for Social Studies” (45). By incorporating lessons that relate to students’ lives, social studies instruction can become more engaging and meaningful. For example, a lesson on developing identity would give students the opportunity to think deeply about how they view themselves. Admittedly, exploring “identity” is a complex task; it involves considering one’s nationality, religion, gender, race and other factors. However, teaching students how to develop their personal identity is important work. Through this type of instruction students can learn more about their strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and values. In addition, self-reflection and identification can help students engage in other forms of authentic intellectual work by relating their experiences of identity exploration to historical searches for identity. This type of study can teach students more about how identity has shaped narratives and help them recognize which identities are left out.

When brainstorming historical topics that would connect to a study of identity, one of the first examples that came to mind was the American Revolution. During the years leading up to the Revolution, the colonists struggled with their identities; they were still subjects of the British crown, but many of them had been born in the colonies. In my high school U.S. History course, we discussed how the founding fathers struggled to reconcile their American identity with British rule. The webpage “American Identity and Unity” furthers this idea, saying “this atmosphere of new ideas and new political rights fostered a growing sense of a unique American identity…colonists had embraced a new identity — completely different from their English roots.” Colonists also saw their evolving language as another source of identity. The webpage “U.S. History Themes: American Identity” notes that “American national identity in the mid-1700s focuses on language. The language spoken in the colonies ceased to be pure British English and instead became a mixture of English with French, Dutch, German, and Native American.” This unique combination of languages furthered the patriots’ feelings of a uniquely American identity. Colonists were also seen as “second-class citizens,” as the video below explains. The British did not regard them as full citizens, and with the passage of time, the colonists felt less and less “British.” Their emerging national identity led to the development of a new form of government based on freedom, equality, and justice. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” the founding fathers wrote in The Declaration of Independence. As these sources demonstrate, the colonists went to war as a new nation with an American identity uniting them.

In my History courses that included a unit on the American Revolution, we discussed the dominant narrative surrounding American identity and the Revolution: the new American identity was based on freedom and equality, and these ideals drove colonists to separate from Britain and form a new country that promoted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all. I myself have even told it to students during tutoring sessions. However, I often found myself thinking that the discussion of our heroic founding fathers and their quest for a nation built on these ideals does not give a complete, authentic view. Using A Critical Historian’s Essential Questions to question this dominant narrative, I noticed that it idealizes the founding fathers’ quest for independence and fairness. I could also see that a large portion of the colonial population is left out: the enslaved. Slaves played an important part in the war, as the video below discusses. Further, the webpage “Slavery, the American Revolution, and the Constitution,” says “[Slaves] fought at Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Bunker Hill. A slave helped row Washington across the Delaware. Altogether, some 5,000 free blacks and slaves served in the Continental army during the Revolution.” Slaves played an important role in the revolution, but this is, unfortunately, often left out our discussions. We talk about the colonists’ new American identity, but we never discuss the identity crises that slaves could have also been experiencing. When thinking about the dominant narrative of the Revolutionary War, I am reminded of James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers.” In his piece, he writes, “What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.” We have idealized our white founding fathers and their commitment to freedom and equality, and have largely ignored the hypocrisy in them owning slaves and the importance of slaves during the war.

The role of American slaves and the hypocrisy of the founding fathers is a complicated, controversial topic; counter-narratives often are. But this is not reason enough to exclude these narratives from the curriculum. Mary Cowhey, teacher and author of Black Ants and Buddhists, discusses how she engages her first- and second-graders in a study of the mistreatment of slaves and Native Americans. “I introduce characters we don’t normally see, explore perspectives we don’t normally consider, listen to voices we don’t normally hear” (139). As Cowhey demonstrates in her book, even young students can begin to challenge a widely-accepted narrative and do authentic historical work. When questioning the dominant narrative of the American Revolution, a look at primary sources can be a way to introduce students to the counter-narrative. To get students to think critically, A Critical Historian’s Essential Questions could be used, just as I used them in my study of the dominant narrative. These questions are designed to get students thinking critically about sources by determining perspectives, possible biases, and overall trustworthiness. Using these questions as a framework for an analysis of primary sources would help guide students as they begin to think like a historian. For example, students could start by looking at sources that support the dominant narrative of the Revolutionary War. Paintings from the National Archive’s collection of Revolutionary-era paintings, most of which depict heroic white men in battle or the founding fathers creating a new nation, can show the dominant narrative “in action.” Questions for consideration would include: What/who are these images showing? and: What can these images tell us about the Revolutionary War? Students could also look at the Declaration of Independence and read first-hand what the country’s goals were. Using the essential questions to analyze and interpret these sources, students would be able to determine which perspectives are being left out and the ways in which the dominant narrative is incomplete and maybe even flawed.

John Trumbull’s “Battle of Bunker Hill” that depicts only white men fighting

After looking at these sources, students then could look at others that support the counter-narrative and show lesser-known perspectives. For example, students could look at primary sources that demonstrate the ways in which Africans were not being granted the rights professed in the Declaration. This runaway slave ad from 1775 shows that Africans were still being treated as property, even though the patriots were rallying around ideas of freedom and equality. This list of George Washington’s slaves from 1799 can also be used as evidence of how the founding fathers denied thousands of people the rights that they claimed they were fighting for. Using primary sources like these are a good way for students to start doing authentic historical work and critique the dominant narrative. However, textual primary sources often include outdated language and spelling, so it is important to scaffold students’ learning by providing “translations” and by discussing meaning. Other sources with more “child-friendly” language could be used in combination with primary sources, such as the 2008 historical fiction novel Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. The book details the life of a young slave girl who struggles with whether she should identify herself as a patriot or a loyalist during the Revolutionary War. After the students developed their own sense of personal identity, the main character’s struggle would seem more relatable and, therefore, deepen students’ historical understanding. The novel presents a perspective that is very rarely discussed in the media, so by including this book, students can continue to look at the perspectives that are often left out of the dominant narrative.

Runaway slave advertisement from 1775

Admittedly, looking at counter-narratives is challenging and often sheds light on unpleasant aspects of our history. However, just because it may make us feel uncomfortable does not mean we should ignore it. While these narratives may be difficult to explore, it is important that we teach our students how to critically analyze dominant narratives. Many students feel left out of the dominant narrative and underrepresented in their history textbooks. But by including the counter-narratives, by looking at the stories and people that are often ignored, we can show students that, when taught correctly, history can be complex, diverse, and inclusive. When discussing how he would teach a marginalized student, Baldwin writes, I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger — and that it belongs to him.” When we question the dominant narrative and make the curriculum relevant to the students’ struggles and identities, history learning and teaching no longer revolves around far-off, idealized men; it becomes about the students themselves: their pasts, their presents, and their futures.

Like what you read? Give Kelsie Lamb a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.