Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrate African American History Month

This month, in honor of African American History, we offer several new and classic suggestions for teachers looking to incorporate the best open-source—i.e., free—digital humanities resources on history and literature into their classrooms. These resources, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, bridge the gap between the expanding academic scholarship of the black experience and the need for this history to be more widely taught at the K–12 level.

From the beginnings of slavery in colonial America to the chronicle plays of August Wilson, these resources will help you integrate African-American literature and history across the curriculum and throughout the year.

The 19th century: from David Walker’s Appeal to Slavery by Another Name

  • Introduce students to David Walker and John Day, two free black Americans who took opposite positions in the great debate as to whether to stay and fight for freedom and equality or immigrate and build a new society elsewhere;
  • Relive the amazing story of Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery by concealing himself in a shipping crate “three feet one inch wide, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide” and who was “conveyed like dry goods” from Richmond to Philadelphia and freedom;
  • Invite Frederick Douglass and the other abolitionists into class, with short videos from the dramatic documentary available to stream on the NEH Created Equal site;
  • Follow up with either our unit on Douglass’s 1845 autobiography or our interactive version of his greatest speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
  • Ask students to listen to Francis Watkins Harper’s poem “Learning to Read” in order to understand the value of literacy to the newly freed men and women after the Civil War.
  • Have students carefully observe and analyze Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monumental Shaw Memorial as a prelude to discussing the impact that African-American soldiers, particularly of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, had on the Civil War;
  • Finally, show how the peonage system established during Reconstruction allowed for the imprisonment of African-American men, in effect, reestablishing Slavery by Another Name.

The 20th century: NAACP, Freedom Riders, and August Wilson

  • Have students explore segregation from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the modern civil rights movement with a lesson on the controversial film Birth of a Nation and the protests organized against it by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;
  • Focus on the NAACP’s lobbying efforts on behalf of anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s and 1930s;
  • Make your class reading of To Kill a Mockingbird even more vivid by studying the two historic trials on which it was based;
  • Watch college students in the early 1960s, via the award-winning documentary directed by Stanley Nelson, make history as Freedom Riders, who traveled interstate on public buses in the segregated South;
  • Finally, introduce students to the documentary August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, the definitive story of the prolific playwright whose play cycle offers a timeline of African-American life in the 20th century;

And don’t forget: EDSITEment’s Guide to Black History Month Teaching Resources, a comprehensive collection of NEH-supported and vetted websites and EDSITEment-developed lessons arranged roughly by historical period. These resources bridge the gap between the expanding academic scholarship of the black experience and the need for this history to be more widely taught at the K–12 level.

Help build your students’ historical knowledge of the African-American quest for full and equal citizenship by giving them regular practice with these complex primary and secondary sources.