“I question America…. is this America?” Learning to view the civil rights movement through an intersectional lens


Source: Curriculum Inquiry, 49:3, 260-283

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The specific research questions that guided this study were:
1. How do preservice elementary teachers define intersectionality?
2. In what ways do preservice teachers use intersectionality as a framework to challenge traditional historical narratives about Black women in the civil rights movement?

Research Context
This qualitative case study was conducted by the researchers at a large state university, located in the southwestern United States. Data for this study was collected over seven weeks in two elementary social studies methods courses that Vickery taught in the spring of 2017.

This particular course is centered on the practice of critical historical inquiry (Salinas & Blevins, 2013), Black feminism (Collins, 2009), Black critical patriotism (Busey & Walker, 2017; Tillet, 2012), and utilising multiple perspectives in the teaching of history (Takaki, 2008). The authors do this by presenting primary sources as counternarratives to majoritarian tales that continue to comprise the traditional social studies curriculum.

The authors carefully crafted curricular resources that allowed them to challenge the negative perception and representations of Black women. They did this by highlighting Black women’s contributions as critical citizens throughout history through the use of primary documents and children’s literature.

Students in Vickery’s classes created a digitised journey box and were tasked with writing a counternarrative featuring a woman that examined her life and actions through an intersectional lens. After selecting their topic, students carefully crafted a particular narrative of the woman they chose through the selection of six primary sources. Students then wrote a variety of document-based questions for each source that would help elementary students examine and analyse each primary source.
Students then used their primary sources to write a one-page narrative that presented an overview of their topic along with a discussion of its significance and why it should be included in elementary social studies. The final step of this project was to take all of the components of their journey box (narrative, primary sources, and Document Based Questions) and create a digitised final product using online tools.

Participants - Two students were purposely selected to participate in this study because they were preservice elementary teachers, selected women for their journey box projects, and volunteered to participate in this study.

Data Collection and Analysis - There were a number of primary sources of data that were collected and analysed by the authors over the course of the semester as part of this study: classroom artifacts such as journey boxes, course syllabus, PowerPoints, and reflection notes.
The authors also conducted semi-structured interviews with each participant that took place at the end of the semester.
After the interviews, they manually coded the interview transcripts and analysed them by noting patterns and themes, arriving at comparisons and points of contrast, and determining conceptual explanations of the study that allowed themes to emerge.

Themes - From the analysis of the data, two themes emerged that helped the authors understand how the preservice teachers used intersectionality as a framework to challenge traditional historical narratives about Black women in the Civil Rights Movement.
First, the participants used their journey boxes to question the silencing of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement through an intersectional lens.
Second, the preservice teachers rejected individualistic narratives typically privileged in textbooks and instead embraced “a spirit of collectivism” (Ransby, 2003, p. 54), placing each woman within the context of a collective movement for civil and human rights.

Findings and Discussion
The first finding is that, while the participants demonstrated an understanding of intersectionality, their projects failed to explore how Black women are situated in multiple subordinate groups that oftentimes pursue conflicting political agendas.
The second finding is that there may be limitations to a Black critical patriotic framework when considering Black women as citizens and civic agents.
The authors’ first finding showed that the participants were unable to fully transfer their theoretical knowledge of political intersectionality into creating a journey box that crafted a counternarrative showing the impact of multiple systems of oppression on Black women in their work as critical citizens.
While both participants were familiar with the concept of intersectionality in terms of understanding that women have multiple identities that impact how they experience the world, both failed to explicitly discuss how this results in being impacted by multiple systems of oppression (i.e. racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc.) simultaneously or at different times.
The authors’ second finding demonstrates the importance of unpacking notions of Black critical patriotism to include the experiences of Black women.
The authors note that while the participants highlighted the many ways in which Black women asserted themselves as critical citizens, they still presented narratives of systemic oppression in separate distinct categories.
The authors conclude that it is critical that educators and teacher educators reflect on how and why they teach history and whether they are teaching students to view and understand the complexity of experiences and identities as well as the structures that oppress individuals and communities.
They argue that, as teacher educators, we must rethink how we teach citizenship and narratives of civic activism because oftentimes we inadvertently reinforce harmful stereotypes, which reinscribes the notion that whiteness and masculinity are preconditions for citizenship.

Busey, C. L., & Walker, I. (2017). A dream and a bus: Black critical patriotism in elementary social studies standards. Theory & Research in Social Education, 45(4), 1–33
Collins, P. H. (2009). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge
Ransby, B. (2003). Ella Baker and the Black freedom movement: A radical democratic vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. doi:10.1086/ahr/109.4.1254
Salinas, C., & Blevins, B. (2013). Enacting critical historical thinking: Decision making among preservice social studies teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, 40(1), 7–24
Takaki, R. (2008). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. New York: Back Bay Books.
Tillet, S. (2012). Sites of slavery: Citizenship and racial democracy in the post-civil rights imagination. Durham: Duke University Press 

Updated: Dec. 02, 2019