I recently watched Shukree Tilghman’s documentary film More than a Month about his plan to see black history month abolished (you can watch the entire film at this address until March 1: http://video.pbs.org/video/2197967045/). Through the course of the film he learns that it’s an ill-conceived project, at least in part, because he did not give enough consideration to the political significance of such a project and the constituencies he might be colluding with in light of such an agenda. An interesting turning point in the film occurs when Tilghman, who self-identifies as African American, spends time with a group in Virginia that has been advocating for a Confederate history month. This experience aids Tilghman’s understanding of the importance of having a platform upon which to offer counter-narratives of historical master scripts. Thus, he begins to understand the relationship between history and power. As a viewer, the moment becomes important because I began noticing that the unrecognized model for narrating history was the textbook.

Tilghman and many of the film’s featured speakers referred to “what was written in history books” as they negotiated the importance of preserving Black history month and it was clear they meant textbooks. These books were never given titles and no one ever cited authors. The irony here is that when Tilghman begins to explore Carter G. Woodson’s founding ideas in creating black history week, a major impetus for creating the occasion was the desire to build legitimacy through scholarly documentation around stories existing as folk memory about African American contributions to American history. What is clear to me in light of the focus of More than a Month and its accompanying shadow narrative of the textbook is that textbooks undermine a recognition of multiple sources, the importance of documentation, as well as  competing historical narratives.

The textbook represents one source for learning history but there are others. In honor of these additional sources, I am going to use today, the celebration of Washington’s Birthday, as an occasion and a case for making suggestions for how one might engage history beyond a textbook approach.

With an Eye towards History

My son watches the new The Electric Company series on PBS. One of the featured artists is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony award winning composer and lyricist. Miranda’s new work The Hamilton Mixtape reflects his deep investment in American history. In a New York Times interview about this project, Miranda tells how his interest in Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (1789-95), grew from a high school writing assignment. In later years, Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton and it fueled his interest in a rap concept album about the dynamics of Hamilton’s life that reflect story lines in hip hop culture. Miranda earns a standing ovation from President Obama for his thoughtful, rhythmic, and engaging lyrical depiction of Hamilton in a 2009 performance at the White House: 

Miranda’s performance and Chernow’s book are just two sources that could be used in contemplating representations of Alexander Hamilton in textbooks. Hamilton Grange National Memorial serves as an additional source for considering Hamilton’s life and legacy. School trips might be one way to integrate the experience of a home tour or of a memorial site but these venues are available even without a school organizing the trip. Sites maintained by the National Park Service are often free and when they are not routinely without cost, there are free entrance days posted for participating locations. Thus far, every house tour that I have been on that was a part of the National Park Service was free. Other house tours that I have experienced, like the tour of Joel Chandler Harris’s house (the Wren’s Nest) and the Mary Todd Lincoln House, were less than $10. Thus, the cost of these historical experiences rival the expense of a movie ticket. There are more ways to have fun and find enjoyment than going to see a Hollywood movie. Moving beyond the textbook as our only source for learning history can also expand the way we imagine worthwhile ways of using our resources.

More than a Textbook

Shukree Tilghman must have appreciated the issue that I am raising regarding textbooks because the website for the film also shows an advertisement for a free app designed to be used to highlight African American history on the landscape. The film certainly engages the many ways one might approach teaching and learning history as Tilghman visits museums, sites for historical re-enactments, and archives. The pre-eminance accorded the history textbook, however, remains under-examined. Indeed, there is a sequence in the film where someone acknowledges that the textbook has authority but it remains unquestioned in many ways. The goal of telling American history becomes the goal of re-writing a history textbook. I kept wondering why schoolchildren couldn’t read multiple sources. Of course, I was also reminded of the Texas textbook controversy involving the claim by Conservatives of a Liberal bias in the teaching of history in the state, so I don’t want to dismiss the importance of having a discussion about the role of the textbook. Tilghman’s film, however, doesn’t present the role of the textbook as its central issue but it clearly could be one of them. There is more than one way to teach and learn history. The textbook approach may be easy but it may not be the best model.