How well do you know history? From how many different perspectives can you discuss the past? These measures of evidence and analysis have transformed the lives of thousands of students around the world over the last twenty years. Too many people believe that it is enough to simply acknowledge a single narrative of human civilization. This laziness energizes a number of myths – progress being one of the most dangerous and deadly over the last century. Only in the last decade has humanity become tentatively confident enough to challenge the simplicity of history, especially in mass media. When the BBC produced an exploration of “The Islamic History of Europe,” it opened a series of doors to show the similarities between the Islamic caliphates and the feudal domains of the Catholic Church. Historian Christopher Ehret advanced these efforts with his research on early Africa. Indeed, the moment to consider an “African History of the World” is fast approaching.
While many scholars have debated the kinds of evidence that brings the African continent into the European historical narrative, few have attempted to rethink this core timeline using any of the interpretations indigenous to these societies. Such an effort lies beyond the scope of a short column, but there is a lesson that applies to small towns and suburbs across the United States. Elementary and secondary educators can break free of the limited histories of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that dominate local curricula. It is time to use African American history to animate teaching and learning new lessons about global citizenship.
One of the first tools in this process is Earl Lewis and Robin Kelley’s book, To Make Our World Anew. The authors effectively reinterpret African American history to emphasize popular movements for political and economic justice instead of relying on existing tropes of war and law to shape the understanding of history. This radical intervention brings ordinary people to the heart of the analysis. It makes history the province of the quotidian. More recently, historical works like The Suburban Reader, Suburban Erasure, and A World More Concrete build on this approach within the specific contexts of regions like Montgomery County. If every student in the region understood the use of the radical to understand their local community, they would be empowered to build new organizations and businesses to create a better world.
Southeastern Pennsylvania needs a sustained oral history project to tell the stories of the second half of the twentieth century to future generations. Consider the role of the Hadrick family in the local NAACP. Study the ways that the Culbreaths reshaped local and county government. Preserve the current moment when activists like Hakim Jones and Greg Scott took their first steps towards public service. An African-American history of Montgomery County (and the United States) has the power to free everyone who reads it.