Jean E. Sutherland
Throughout the past four decades, as a teacher, I have seen New Haven's elementary grade students gradually become more aware of the African Americans who have played a major role in the history of the United States. By fifth or sixth grade, most students have at least a basic knowledge of the lives of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and Langston Hughes. To a lesser extent, they may have some knowledge of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Jacob Lawrence, Maya Angelou, Colin Powell, a variety of male and female sports figures, and others whom individual studies or media attention has brought to their attention.
At the same time, elementary students' understanding of the movement from the period of enslavement toward the quest for basic civil rights also has increased considerably. Though often the presence of such topics in the curriculum is relegated to the month of February, African American studies now present a considerably more comprehensive, continuous picture of African American history as an ongoing, integral part of United States history. In previous units that I have written, I have sometimes complained that African American history, as it is presented in the elementary grades, consisted of a sporadic introduction of personalities, without much attention given to the overall historical picture. To some extent, this is being remedied, but many of these individuals are still presented in an isolated, superficial manner. The individuals sometimes seem stiff and unreal. In this unit, I hope to help students develop a deeper, more realistic understanding and awareness of some individuals, specifically women, who played important roles in African American history.
Specifically, I will focus on two groups of African American women, one group living during and immediately after the period of enslavement, and the other group representing women who did influence or could have influenced the Civil Rights movement. Some lived in the years leading up to the movement and one was an actual participant. In each time period, some women we will meet are creations of fiction. Others are authentic figures in United States history; they actually lived. While at least one of these actual women, Harriet Tubman, is recognized by most students as a part of African American history, it is possible that most students are not familiar with the second, Faith Ringgold, though it is highly likely that most are familiar with at least one of her fictional creations.
With each group of women, we will examine the various identities assumed by each individual, learn of the conflicting and/or supporting pressures that these identities had upon each other, and speculate regarding how we would have reacted to some of these influences.
Women whom I have chosen to represent the period of enslavement include Addy's mother, a fictional character, taken from the American Girl Series book,
Meet Addy an American Girl: Escape from Slavery,
and Harriet Tubman, a leader in The Underground Railroad, along with actual African Americans who speak to us through the words of slave narratives. As we read representative stories, we will meet a few other fictional characters who found themselves living in similar circumstances.
In examining the years related to The Civil Rights Movement, we will focus on women prominent in the fictional works of Mildred Taylor, in particular, Cassie's mother and grandmother, from the novel,
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
, along with the mother presented in the short story,
The Gold Cadillac
. As a living woman, we will take a look at Faith Ringgold: artist, author, and feminist.
There are many instances where the lives of these African American women, real or fictional, living during slavery or during the twentieth century, intertwine with the lives of one another and touch on the lives of other women, past and present. This fact should serve to amplify and enrich the goals of this unit.