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The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
Text 5. Racial Identity
Text 6. History
» Reading Guide
•  Link

Text 7. Culture
Text 8. Africa
RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
6.  History
- Edward Johnson, A School History of the Negro Race in America, 1890/1911, excerpts
- Meta Warrick, "Negro Tableaux" created for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, 1907

In Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington mourns the freed slaves' lack of ancestry—a shared sense of family, tradition, and identity with which to envision a future. "The influence of ancestry," he says, "is important in helping forward any individual or race." Not just for identity—but for moral example, communal strength, and promised resilience. "The fact that the individual has behind and surrounding him proud family history," Washington emphasizes, ". . . serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success."

Thus one finds, among the first African American publications after the Civil War, stirring histories of the black American experience. Emphasizing justifiable pride in race, and encouraging readers to emulate their forebears' achievements, these histories provided a jump-start, so to speak, in the quest for identity. Here we read from a history written for schoolchildren by Edward Johnson, a black teacher in North Carolina. In his preface he challenges his fellow educators to "see to it that the word Negro is written with a capital N," and that their students will "magnify the race it stands for." The second "history" is a unique set of dioramas depicting African American history, created by the black sculptress Meta Warrick for the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. A teacher's introduction to the "tableaux," written by historian and National Humanities Center Fellow W. Fitzhugh Brundage, is included for background and to stimulate analysis of the dioramas as art and as history. 12 pages, plus online viewing of the dioramas and background photos (of which you may choose to print a selection).

Discussion questions
  1. On what aspects of African American history, character, and potential does Johnson promote racial pride? In what ways is he also addressing a white audience?
  2. Consider Warrick's selections for her dioramas. How does she balance the slavery and post-emancipation periods of black American history? How does she counter white stereotypes of blacks?
  3. Compare Warrick's dioramas, created for an American exposition, with Du Bois's photograph albums of African Americans, assembled for a European audience. For the purpose of discussion, consider how each might have adjusted his/her display for the other's audience.
  4. How do Johnson and Warrick promote racial pride while acknowledging white standards of art and "civilization" that demeaned black creativity?
  5. How would their work be judged by Du Bois, Washington, Chesnutt, and James Weldon Johnson?
  6. What aspects of these works surprised or challenged you, as a 21st-century viewer? How does one view works meant to teach or inspire an audience of an earlier time?

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

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