New Depth for High School Study of African American Experience

AAAS to launch institute to train teachers in new ways of teaching African-American history

In the summer of 2013, Duke's Department of African and African American Studies (AAAS) will launch a new summer institute to help high school teachers use more historical literature and fiction to enrich English and social studies classes focused on African American history.

The goal of the project, led by Wahneema Lubiano, associate professor and associate chair of the department, is to expand the use of historical fiction, social research and literary criticism in teaching history. Participants will be exposed to books, short stories, films, music and documentaries that have not traditionally been standard high school fare. The project will develop original lessons plans that will be publicly available on the institute's website.

Institute fellows will read novels such as Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," Gloria Naylor's "Linden Hills," Black Artemis' "Picture Me Rollin'" and Kyle Baker's graphic novel titled "Nat Turner," as alternatives to commonly used literature. They will also be exposed to social research and literary criticism by luminaries such as Africanist John Henrik Clarke's "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond;" American Studies scholar George Lipsitz's "Midnight at the Barrelhouse;" and "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews of Former Slaves," compiled by the Works Progress Administration, as well as work by literary critics Hortense Spillers and Val Smith.

Music by Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells will be part of the curriculum, as well as film and documentary excerpts from "Drop Squad," "The Doll," "CNN Black in America," and "The Brother From Another Planet."  

Story narrative is a powerful part of the human experience, and both novelists and historians engage in storytelling. Lubiano hopes the readings and film excerpts will help participants explore the often-blurred boundaries between fiction and fact. The institute will cultivate discussion on the origins and perpetuation of inequality and the social phenomenon of colorism -- discrimination within a race that is based on skin lightness -- and the similarities and differences in the vision of African American life across fiction and history.

"History, fiction, and social narratives are products of the way that humans both think and imagine the world," said Lubiano. "All narrative calls on us continually to interpret and reinterpret.  I'm interested in social facts and narrative representations.  I think that close reading all manner of texts opens up students' minds to the complexity of our world."

The AAAS summer institute will use fiction, film, music and other media to tell new stories of African-American history.
The AAAS summer institute will use fiction, film, music and other media to tell new stories of African-American history.

The summer institute, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a $200,000 grant, will support 25 teachers from across the United States. The faculty team will provide the 25 institute fellows with exposure to historical fiction, economic history, ethnography, genetics and quantitative social science. The team offers cross-disciplinary expertise that will aid in guiding institute fellows' interpretation and appreciation of the historical fiction, non-fiction, film and analysis.

Duke faculty include Lubiano, a scholar of contemporary African American fiction, cultural studies and critical race theory; AAAS Chair and economist Sandy Darity, whose recent work emphasizes the relationship between literature and social science research; and AAAS/History Associate Professor Thavolia Glymph, whose work focuses on slavery and Reconstruction.

The institute team also includes Bowdoin College literature scholar Tess Chakkalakal (a former postdoctoral fellow on racial and ethnic inequality at Duke), and University of South Carolina School of Education Professor Daniella Ann Cook, who specializes in the pedagogical use of fiction and ethnography.