Darlene Clark Hine on Winning the National Humanities Medal

Dr. Darlene Clark Hine

Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, Northwestern University

In July, Darlene Clark Hine, a scholar in the field of African American women’s history, and a Professor of History at Northwestern University, was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama for her work in the field. Realizing the importance of this moment, we took some time to ask Dr. Hine a series of questions about her accomplishment and her views. Instead of giving us simple answers, Dr. Hine responded with the remarkable short essay below, which I hope you will enjoy, and engage with via the comments box below.

“There are five concerns that challenge even our most well-intentioned effort to diversify classroom history education. I, my co-authors William C. Hine and Stanley Harrold, wrote The African American Odyssey textbook, the concise edition, and the high school text because we believed that it was important to create a new synthesis of American history, and to present that history by focusing on the experiences of Black Americans. That new synthesis of American History  was made possible by the massive amount of scholarship that has proliferated since the modern Civil Rights or Freedom Movement; it is important in this Millennial Era we center our focus on the contributions that African American men and women who facilitated the creation of our American civilization. As an historian I ask, ask ourselves, “Would American Democracy exist without the fundamental presence and struggles of those American who arrived in chains at Jamestown, Virginia 400 years ago?” To be sure, American history is neither black nor white – it is the consequence of the exchanges, and encounters, interactions, between these diverse groupings of human beings. American history must not be as a story of black history or white history. It is a history of one people.

Historian W.E.B. DuBois, mused at the turn of the 20th century, “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” Today we must complicate the question and include other identity groups, Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanic Americans, gay and lesbians into the making of America’s history. Still, DuBois wrote so eloquently of the duality of African Americans’ experience and his analysis of racial twoness deserves to be quoted in full:

“One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…The history of the American Negro is the history of the strife-this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.  He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Africanism for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” The Souls of Black Folk (New York: 1903; rpt, 1982), p45.

My question is, what, then, is the African American women’s “message for the world?”

African American History without the careful attention to the broader context of American History is meaningless. By the same token, American History without the specific detailed inclusion of African Americans’ contributions is inaccurate and unlikely to help us find new answers to old questions and speak effectively and persuasively to the world and come to grips with the many problems we all confront as human beings. To be sure, I reiterate that the struggles and aspirations of black peoples for freedom, justice, equality of opportunity, and a sense of dignity are integral to the history of the evolution of American Democracy and continue to provoke lingering tensions between democratic ideals and contemporary social realities.

Our students will confront familiar and new issues that pertain to environmental questions, citizenship rights, immigration, economic development, urbanization, health care, federalism, war and peace, identity politics, cultural expressivity, in addition to substantial questions of how to achieve gender, and racial parity, and economic equity in a mature Democracy. Our students must be prepared to incorporate into their consciousness, and to think critically about an expanding range of human experiences that may perplex us and appear to be beyond our understanding. Still our best effort must be made to provide all of our students with a sense of place, to encourage in them an appreciation of enduring communities, values, and traditions. We must deepen their understanding of change over time, and help them to gain insight into who they are and who their people were, and what must be done to make America and the world a better place.

We may encounter resistance from students. During my three decades of teaching, I have observed and listened to many students who protested and resented the intrusion of others into their American history courses or textbooks. At one point, early on in my teaching career, I noticed that some students actually stopped taking notes whenever I approached the subject of women, or Native Americans, or of African Americans, or talked about slavery, Civil Rights Movement, or labor struggles. Some loathed my efforts to incorporate African Americans, other ethnic groups, and the women into the fundamental fabric of this country’s history. This was unacceptable. It was as if I had suddenly began to talk about interplanetary aliens. These students wanted me to talk exclusively about Great White Men about Political Elections, Technological Innovations and perhaps “the white man’s burden.” On the other hands, some students who continued to take notes often felt betrayed and lied to. They were the ones who railed against the sanitized version of American History, bleached of all of its rich patterns of color, textures, different personalities, and stripped of the complex, exciting panorama of characters and events. All students must be encouraged to learn and to succeed and the way that we instruct them may affect their performance, their perspectives, and their ability to interact with others of diverse backgrounds. How we teach and reflect diversity in our classrooms not only tell us about our perceptions of ourselves, it will shape our futures.

I believe that it is imperative to write and teach histories of African Americans, Native American, Asian American, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, and of European Americans (those from England, Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Russia) as well as of those white Americans who helped to found this great experiment called Democracy.  Because we pay attention to the particulars, the special angles of vision, the unforeseen twists, and incorporate those previously considered marginal and unimportant, we actually create a more accurate, sophisticated, nuanced and empowering portrait of America.

As an historian and humanist, my overarching objective is to encourage self-respect by deepening understanding of religious diversity, and foster an understanding of the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality, race, class, gender. Yes, students still need to know, for example, the history of World War I and II, the impact of the Great Depression, the successes, failures, and unfinished business of the modern Civil Rights Movement, the end of the Cold War, and reasons for the invasion of Iraq.

But they require even more from us and that is the deepest challenge of all educators. In other words, our students need to understand the origins and evolution of the modern world. American History cannot afford the luxury of parochialism and the students in our 21st century classrooms must also understand the rise and consequences of European colonialism, the Russian revolution and the end of the Cold War, American imperialism, along with the rise of non-Western nations as political forces in world affairs. We need to teach about the economic rise of Japan and, now of China.

As an historian and humanist I am committed to helping students to understand the historical forces, locally and global, that shaped and continue to impact American society and culture. Our students need to know that there is only one race and that is the Human Race. Our differences make us truly human and should be valued, or even better, known.  This is why the 2013 National Humanities Medal that I received, signifies that I must be doing something right.”