The quote below is a thematic anecdote for my curriculum unit. In it a group native to Southeastern region of the United States displays an idealistic form of what I hope this unit seeks to teach: a selfless caring for another. It is in honor of Ned Blackhawk and inspired by his 2015 Yale-New Haven seminar
American Indian History, 1492 to the Present.
“In 1847 an impoverished group of Choctaw Indians in America collected from their meager resources the sum of $170 dollars to send toward the relief of the Irish potato famine. In today’s money that donation would be worth more than $5,000.”
The Long March
by Mary Louis Fitzpatrick
While I hold one of the most invaluable rights bestowed upon a U.S. citizen, I hold my vote this year more tightly than in years past. That is because I am writing this unit in the midst of a gut-wrenching debate over race and policing in the tail end of a presidential election cycle. The visual bombardment of notifications, pictures, hashtags, and videos haunts me, as do clips of a baffled and exasperated president who said after finishing his term he’d “take three, four months where” he would “just sleep.”
In Philadelphia, First Lady Michelle Obama told delegates and the world that “[w]e cannot afford to be tired or frustrated or cynical.”
at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Despite the call to action, I find myself feeling like the President. The November election won’t solve these issues, which stem from over two hundred years of history, but yet we hope it will. We need to have a truthful discussion of the history of inclusion and exclusion in America.
We also need to find a way to talk to our students about these issues. For me, history has provided a useful lens. I have learned that history is less likely to repeat itself if we hold fast to the stories of those who rose up in the face of very personal adversity. When we use their stories as a launching pad for pursuing our own dreams of a better life, the world seems more hopeful. In these times, we may feel powerless and ignored. We may even feel that our leaders are collectively acting in a perplexing and unresponsive way. I’ve dubbed these lessons about inclusion and identity the “Citizenship Complex,” which refers to the process by which groups seek full inclusion in this country.
The Citizenship Complex is a simple idea, rich in teaching moments. We tell ourselves that the story of the United States is a story of inclusion. However, our history is rife with exclusion. Even those who preach about caring for the community often have a narrow view of who is in that community.
As a country, we have preached unification, harmony, and caring for one’s neighbor, but too many support division once they are behind closed doors. Questions like “What does citizenship mean?” and “How does it impact our daily lives?” only scratch the surface of what really needs to be discussed in classrooms today. If these are the only lessons students in the 21
Century learn about citizenship, we run the risk of ignoring historical complexities and the lines of division that have long plagued us. As a teacher reflecting on moments when a student’s race, ethnicity, gender, or “non-visible otherness” becomes a battleground, I strongly feel we should explore notions of citizenship and belonging in multiple levels of our community. That goal has become more pressing as the school plays a central role in fostering community.
As my research unfolded, I found myself fixated on some of the terrible moments that have occurred this summer, all of which spring from a lack of empathy. Naturally, as a history teacher, I desired to find its cause and identify connections to my student’s daily lives. I wanted to examine how institutions and groups have participated in the creation of the divisions that divorce us from the human community and divide us by identity. By creating a unit on how the damage was done (and repaired), I hope that my students will choose not to repeat the past but instead help build a more empathetic and globalized sense of community.
I recognize that any discussion of citizenship and inclusion necessarily implicates a huge range of issues. Time has proven that civilizations need to have established economic and political systems not only to be stable, but to improve society as a whole. These systems tend to make the lives of citizens more comfortable but don’t necessarily ensure a genuinely inclusive community, as the experience of too many immigrants makes clear. Both economic and political systems have been utilized to exert control over the lives citizens, but do our students really know the power of money and politics combined? For example, if you do not teach students about the influence of money in politics or about the power of name recognition in an election, they will have less of a context in which to understand modern elections. This is just one of the overarching issues that I plan to touch upon throughout the unit.
That’s why the notion of citizenship is a particularly useful lens to think about questions of inclusion.
is not a legal currency accepted in all parts of the country, but
By making citizenship a primary identifier of an individual, we make a person’s legal status the first litmus test of an individual’s character and importance to the larger society.
Many people who live in America including my students, wonder whether they will ever enjoy the full recognition and feeling of community captured by the ideas “citizenship.” Issues of citizenship, inclusion, and community date back to our Founding. In our Declaration of Independence the “repeated injuries” inflicted by the king demanded an alteration of governance. So, too, the history of slavery and racial discrimination dates back to our earliest days. From the time the first slaves arrived until slavery’s abolition, the conversation was not about what the African American race had done for America to better it. Instead, it was a discussion about their humanity and whether or not they were good enough to even fight for their own freedom.
It wasn’t until the Civil War, when we put black men into cheap uniforms with second rate weapons and sent them to the front lines with faulty ammunition, that they earned their true distinction as citizens of the United States.
Until that moment, the road to inclusion was totally blocked. But eventually the truth became so overwhelming that the government had to recognize what had been obvious to so many: African Americans were citizens, too. Even after the Reconstruction Amendments, the road to full inclusion was not paved, and African Americans had no streetlights to guide them and no policeman to protect them after the union troops left. Instead, Jim Crow was allowed to wander wherever he pleased to make sure the road was rocky, dark, and anxiety filled. Part of this unit is devoted to what African Americans did as they traveled that long road toward inclusion. Like all Americans, they recognized that their rights would not come without a fight.
rights, equality, and citizenship has been a laborious undertaking not just for African Americans, but for the other groups (women, Asians, gays and lesbians) that are the subject of this unit. The achievements earned and legacies born of inclusion represent the “promised land” about which Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed. But despite his hard work and sacrifice, Americans still neglect those who have not yet reached the “promised land.” I also worry that what it means to be American has been lost in translation because we teach civics lesson too superficially, without challenging our students to think deeply about our country’s failures as well as its successes.
To understand the Citizenship Complex, one must look to the intersection of law, citizenship and the Constitution. The unit aims to provide a more complex history of our nation, to tell a more earnest story of how the American identity became a mosaic of human struggle, and to offer a more robust and enlightening study of these issues so that as students recognize the power of citizenship they will take a more hopeful view of what our nation will look like in the future. By engaging in the sophisticated discussions of the past, identifying why some groups supported each other and scapegoated others, and learning about the importance of supporting efforts at inclusion, our students should become more informed, open-minded, and ready for the globalized world of the 21
The unit will focus on four groups that have experienced the “Citizenship Complex”: African-American slaves, women, Asian immigrants, and the LGBTQIA community. By comparing these groups over time, we will really be able to unearth the cycles behind the Citizenship Complex and understand that American citizenship means at different times in our country’s history.