British Association for American Studies


Review: Teaching Black HERStories, 24th-25th July, University of Missouri (Online)

“Teaching Black HERStories”: a review of transatlantic conferential learning 

Teaching Black HERStories was the University of Missouri’s Carter Centre’s 3rd Annual ‘Teaching Black History’ conference. Delivered online due to COVID-19, HERStories focused on “K-12” Black History education. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, K-12 terms US education delivered to children ranging from school starters through to school leavers i.e. 4-18 years old. 

Bringing educators from across the United States together, with virtual attendees from outside of North America, HERstories facilitated discourse around nuance and personal experience with the delivery of Black History education, in various formats. Comprising of a showing of the stirring soliloquy ”Walking with my ancestors” and Q&A opportunity with Professor Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum; sessions and workshops aimed to enrich the planning of and impartation of learning to students; tales of important characters throughout Black History; discourse of trials and errors when refining Black History pedagogies, and apt resources; recantations of obstacles and methods to circumvent them; and a rich tapestry of opinions, explored through digital Q&A sessions with each presenter.

The two-day conference emphasized on the significant contribution throughout (Black) history of Black women; serving as pioneers, activists, supporters, educators, matriarchs, humanitarians, community pillars, feminists and much more; and how archetypically literature and education suppresses the ceaseless efforts of Black Women, in favour of portraying a reductive selection of preferred male counterparts. Credence was paid to the identity of Black women, and how it has had to be continually negotiated and compromised in order to have a chance in so many employment, education and societal arenas.

Of the many excellent sessions delivered throughout, there were stand-out moments. Professor Oforiwaa Aduonum’s potent performance throughout “Walking with my ancestors’” combined impassioned delivery of emotive monologue, interspersed with symbolic gesticulations, acknowledgment to the formative role of rhythm and music throughout Black History, even at the darkest moments providing a source of hope, strength, community, and connection. The follow up session whereby Professor Oforiwaa Aduonum explained the meanings within the play, her inspirations and influences, answered questions and outlined her unorthodox, hugely powerful research in order to give the play the true commitment she felt it required, which proved not only moving, but authentic, following her self-imposition of replica versions of her ancestors experiences to shape the performance. A consummate professional in approach and delivery, Professor Oforiwaa Aduonum used the space to pay homage to the lineage of African America and to highlight the much-needed celebration of Black people.

“Teaching Black History and Culture to our students”, delivered by Mercedes Liriano, commenced the session by recanting a recent personal experience she encountered while working at a school with a 95% BAME student population; the case, recently featured in the Washington post, detailed a catalogue of alleged (the case has not yet been resolved) racial transgressions, culminating in an attempt to veto the delivery of Black History education to students of colour, by a Black teacher, during Black History month; incredulously leading to lawsuits for racial discrimination by teachers of colour for challenging the school disavowing Black History education. The case drew the attention of noted activists, including the esteemed Rev. Al Sharpton, and initiated a localized “Black Minds Matter” campaign.

Liriano deftly transitioned into discourse centered on her pedagogy. Her view is intriguing; she propagates a student-directed approach combined with pre-defined parameters. Showcase examples of students’ work suggest pupils’ engagement and competence; opting for segments of Black History relevant and relatable to the pupils, such as the Harlem Renaissance, creating a resonance among her Bronx, NY based pupils. The “culturally-responsive” approach has yielded dividends, with inclusive extra-curricular activities supported subsequently, and considerations given to the necessity of integration of diversity into education leadership. 

Another highlight was the “Civil Rights Movement lesson plan development highlighting the work of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer (1940 – 1980)” workshop. The workshop presented a package of learning materials to support educators to measure the learning of their pupils, while developing themselves professionally. Beginning with the 4 primary civil rights organizations – the NAACP, CORE, SNCC and SCLC – and their methods of operation, the presentation offers a construct designed to academically educate in preparation for end-of-year tests; and impart long lasting knowledge and understanding about the longevity and tenacity of the Civil Rights Movements.

In keeping with the feminist theme of HERStories, discourse paid homage to seminal civil rights activists Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, their respective contributions analogous to any of the more widely acclaimed and commonly taught male counterparts of the same era, with the latter enduring life changing injuries as part of her work, leading to the right to vote being bestowed upon African Americans, and initiating early, key federal trials against the police for misconduct / police brutality. Residual themes of working in unison, network expansion, direct yet non-violent measures and maintaining front-facing awareness are suggested almost as a requisite for profound, long-lasting changes to law, during this commanding, emotive and progressive presentation.  

“A Black Women’s History of the United States” confronts the impact of violence upon the activism of the Black female; and the responsive strategizing, organizing and mobilization to achieve equality. The infusion of performance, music and creativity within these initiatives as a fundamental aspect of maintaining momentum and optimism, simultaneously conveying passion, is celebrated as a unique cultural nuance; and the stark juxtaposition of the celebration of black women’s unflinching campaign towards equality being hamstrung by the overt and often non-consensual sexualization and objectification of Black women. 

The seldom spoken plight born of the intersection of queerness and blackness experienced by women of colour was a cornerstone of this workshop, examining cases of infamy, alongside everyday struggles experienced by LGBT Black females. The tales, though often sorrowful, also purport integrity and a semblance of hope for the future, holding a lens to the contention and inexorable persecution experienced by people who have fallen into multiple categories outside of a white heteronormative patriarchal society.

The topical “We can’t breathe: Teaching Black history in an anti-Black state with important curricular and pedagogical approaches”, curated by Professor Wanda Watson et al, discussed the catharsis of learning from and understanding Black history. Acknowledging the potency of the subject and need to handle it sensitively to avoid causing trauma to children learning some of the more abhorrent episodes of history, discourse explored tactics on how to strike the appropriate balance, and reflected on the impact experienced by children learning these histories. The panel recanted experiential learning and refined mechanisms to support their pupils, share suggested resources and personal digressions from their experiences as educators. 

HERStories proved a well composed, multi-faceted conference, that benefitted immensely from the wealth of presenter-educators, each with unique perspectives. A relatively new conference reactively delivered entirely online for the first-time in light of COVID-19, HERStories offered a pleasantly surprising level of varied, well planned and delivered sessions. Whether an experienced or aspiring educator, participants will feel that they have taken something away with them that will allow them to refine their pedagogies. Joining even as a non-educator, the wealth of information, perspectives and lesser told stories will inspire, inform and impassion; HERStories is recommendable for anyone seeking to bolster their understanding and critical thinking around Black History and how to teach it.  

About the Author

Kelly Parker is a second-year doctoral student and visiting lecturer at Falmouth University's School of Communication. Her research, begun during her MA dissertation, investigates the lived impact of stereotyping and misrepresentation of BAME communities in advertising in the UK. The study ultimately seeks to establish guidance for the advertising industry around the portrayal of Black characters.