History is Emotional

“There isn’t a right or wrong answer,” I look around the class, “I want to know what you think.” The class sits in silence, like they’re not sure if they believe me. Finally, one of the quieter students speaks up, “Honestly, I thought President Obama was going to get assassinated. I was in the sixth grade.  I mean, maaaaan, I was the only black kid, no, there was a black girl in my class, and we were, like, just sitting there, and I started bawling because I thought I was gonna watch him get shot on TV.”

Sometimes I walk into class with the intention of talking about one thing but we end up talking about another. In this particular class we were talking about the life and death of Emmett Till and how his mother demanded an open casket funeral so the world could see what had happened to her son. As the photos from Till’s death and funeral flashed across the screen, my students shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The emotions in the class ranged from anger to fear to sadness. I can’t lie, a bit of hate may have been circling just below the surface as well.

I admitted to my students that I find the images disturbing. And, as a mother, I’m absolutely heartbroken. I don’t know that I would’ve had the strength to do what Mrs. Till did. This led to a discussion about sacrifice and where people get the strength to do what they do. I know, what does this have to do with history?

On the surface? Probably nothing at all. That being said, I’ve found that sometimes history can be so heavy – so emotional – that students need the opportunity to process what they’ve learned or what they’ve seen. And this means talking it out with people who’ve just shared a similar experience.

These discussions also allow for connections to be drawn between different events in history. For example, the students were able to look at the murder of Emmett Till and understand how/why he became symbolic of the death of Trayvon Martin. We talked about (in)justice and how it can be influenced by the media, political correctness, and fear. We talked about how mores have changed and how they’ve stayed the same. It was probably one of the most intense discussions we’ve had.

For me (and the students who enroll in my class), history isn’t just about dates. It’s about the people involved. I know historians are expected to step back and just look at the information, but sometimes, I find it best to let the class flow and then bring it back to how we study history and how we have to be able to remove ourselves and our biases from the event and/or the documents and read the situation for what it was.

How do you handle emotional topics in your class? Do you allow your students to vent about historical injustices or do you keep the discussions scholarly?

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