From Frederick Douglass to Ferguson

“From Frederick Douglass to Ferguson,” is a yearlong middle school expedition on African American history that resounds with the message: Black Lives Matter; Black History Matters.

I Am Beautiful: Where is your power?
The expedition launches with “I Am Beautiful,” an activity that encourages students to draw self-portraits and write descriptive paragraphs to elaborate on their best selves, both inside and out. This introductory activity builds a positive classroom culture and community, as students offer feedback to help improve each other’s writing. Before exploring past events through the lens of historians, students become sociologists to investigate colorism’s impact on the self-identity of Black, Latino, and Asian youth. Close readings and close viewings of journalistic accounts about the Dolls Test of the 1940s and similar experiments today provide students with insights into how racial stereotypes, profiling, and bias pervade the ways we perceive ourselves and one another. The investigation culminates with the questions: Where is your power here? What can you do to counteract colorism in your life and in your community?

Black Lives Matter: How did we get here?
Students bring their insights about racial bias into an exploration of the recent killings of young Blacks that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. They closely examine the evidence in the Mike Brown case and use grand jury testimony, a private autopsy report, and journalistic accounts to write a formal, evidence-based argument about whether to indict the officer who shot Mike Brown. After putting together puzzle pieces of five other recent victims of racial violence and reading about the circumstances of their lives and deaths, students’ emotions and questions are channeled into a new guiding question: How did we get here?

Black History Matters: What is the thread that connects the past to the present?
The question—How did we get here?—takes students to the past for a brief exploration of African civilizations, the slave trade, and the Middle Passage. Students build descriptive vocabulary as they identify mood and tone words in Patricia McKissack’s Never Forgotten, and understand how enslaved Africans were never forgotten by their loved ones in Africa centuries ago, just as today’s victims of racial violence are never forgotten. A long thread is hung in the classroom with a new guiding question: What is the thread that connects slavery to the murders of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Jordan Davis, and Aiyana Jones? As students embark on a historical journey through slavery, reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, they are guided by this question that literally ties together our past, present, and future. Students conduct fieldwork at the Museum of African American History, using primary source documents to piece together their understanding of history.

Frederick Douglass: How can we honor the legacy of Frederick Douglass and keep his story alive?
After reading Douglass’ account of his life and struggle for freedom, students create their own picture books based on an event described in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In response to a Boston Globe article about the struggle to build a statute of this iconic leader in the Frederick Douglass Peace Garden in Roxbury, students use the power of the pen to write letters to the editor and to the Boston Art Commission, advocating for the statute as an important symbol of courage, perseverance, leadership, and freedom for Boston’s Black community. Their voices are heard, and they are invited to present their position to at a public meeting of the Boston Art Commission. Largely as a result of their advocacy, the Boston Art Commission votes to revive the Frederick Douglass statue project.

Amazing Grace: Music, Art, and Literature: What gives songs, art, and stories their enduring power?
Throughout the expedition, students are guided by the music that defined these historical periods: spirituals, blues, and jazz. Students learn and perform the spiritual Amazing Grace, adding spoken-word verses that echo the words of Frederick Douglass. In ELA, students listen to the voices of poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Eloise Greenfield, and others, and read the novels To Kill a Mockingbird and Bronx Masquerade.  Inspired by the artwork of Jacob Lawrence, students work with local artist Salvador Jiménez-Flores to create eight multi-media panels that tell a visual narrative of Black history, emphasizing the thread that connect our past, present, and future.  They compile their best work during the year into a class book, “Follow the Thread: From Frederick Douglass to Ferguson,” featuring their artwork, poems, stories, and essays.

Grade Level: 7 & 8
Subjects: Social Studies, ELA, Visual Art, Music

Where is my power? What can I do to counteract the impact of colorism in my life and in my community?
What is the thread that connects slavery to racial violence and injustice today?
How can we honor the legacy of Frederick Douglass and keep his story alive?
What gives songs, poems, and stories their enduring power?

Dumas Lafontant talks with students about the Frederick Douglass statue.

The 8th graders show the art they made for their book.

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