Students can start by looking at U.S. history using standard textbooks which tend to emphasize dominator relations while at the same time failing to present the full horror of the dehumanization of blacks, Native Americans, and later also Chinese and other Asian immigrants. They can then be given other resources that emphasize partnership elements and/or provide the missing perspective of groups that have been dominated.

The suffering and hardships of African-American life only a century ago are sometimes hard for students, and adults, to imagine. Many of us are also unaware of how legal constraints worked to deprive blacks of the most basic rights and skills. An example is that laws in the American South made it a crime to teach black slaves to read. It is a testimony to their ingenuity and courage that, despite this, many slaves somehow managed to become literate. A haunting instance is the little-known story of how the boy who later became the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass devised a plan to teach himself to read by tricking some white boys to read aloud letters he had carved on pieces of wood — until he was finally able to solve the mystery of the alphabet.

The history of Africans in America is a story of violence and domination. It begins with the slave trade by Arabs and Europeans as well as by some of the African tribal chiefs. It includes the unspeakable horrors of the slave ships (where more than half the captured women, children, and men died of hunger, thirst, and disease), the plantation slave system (where humans were considered mere chattel or possessions), and culminates with the black struggle for emancipation and civil, political, and economic rights.

This struggle for access to equal education, of course, continues in our time, as evidenced by the struggle during the 1960's for school integration. This is dramatically depicted in movies such as Ruby Bridges, the story of a six year old black student who for one year had to be escorted by federal marshals past an angry mob into her first grade class in a formerly segregated New Orleans elementary school (shown on ABC in 1998) and the PBS television series I'll Fly Away about the struggle for integration in the South during the 1950's. Both are good resources for elementary and secondary grades.

Students can also be invited to create stories of their own, perhaps writing monologues adopting the persona of someone who was an abolitionist or civil rights worker, and present these in oral or written form.

  • In Quest of Black History in Joe’s 8th grade class, he took on the role of a journalist and wrote an editorial on why we should celebrate the contributions of African-Americans.
  • In her 12th grade class, Mary Beth examined the real conditions of slave life for women, from initial capture to, in some cases, escape through the Underground Railroad by reading excerpts from actual diaries of slaves.

Students also often find the works of bell hooks, such as Sisters of the Yam, of great interest for their insights into the lives of African-American women today.

  • There are children's books on the Underground Railroad, as well as on the later struggle of freed African-Americans against subsequent Jim Crow laws and lynchings that took place in the American South until the 1960's.
  • There are also inspiring biographies, such as the autobiography of Frederick Douglass who was wrenched from his mother (as many slave children were) and spent most of his adult life fighting for a partnership world.
  • Also inspiring is the life story of Sojourner Truth, a remarkable black woman who was also forcefully separated from her mother when she was very small. On one occasion, this courageous former slave, who spoke up for both black's and women's rights, risked her life by singlehandedly stopping a pack of white ruffians from terrorizing a black revival meeting by calmly talking to them instead of fleeing.

There are, in addition, inspiring real-life stories about white people, young and old, who have worked together with blacks in their struggle for civil rights. Sometimes they have risked, even lost, their lives. An example are the two young Jewish college students, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed along with a young black man by the name of James Cheney when they went to Mississippi during the early 1960's as Freedom Riders.

In this time of polarized race relations, it is also important to emphasize that major civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, were initially developed by white and black American men and women working together — and that the whites were often Jews. This information is particularly important since black anti-semitism is today being fermented by some demagogic black leaders. Even though there has been some progress, the injustices faced by people of color continue.

A particularly striking illustration of continuing injustices is the fact that our prisons are disproportionately populated by African Americans. There are many reasons behind this. Not only is discrimination in sentencing a major factor, but the economic conditions for a huge percentage of the African American community have not improved substantially. Neither has the schooling offered to African American children in the inner cities. In this respect, a particularly important aspect of partneship education is starting early with high quality pre-school education. It is also essential to engage and support parents to transcend their own barriers to education and employment and thereby help their children arrive in school better prepared.

It is important for students to know that they can be part of efforts for fundamental change. Partnership education helps students understand that the movement toward partnership is not linear. It waxes and wanes as it is countered by resistance and periodic regressions.

  • For example, after the emancipation of black slaves came the backlash of the Jim Crow laws and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. 
  • After the enactment of antitrust laws and social programs such as Social Security that provide basic support for everyone has come the reconcentration of economic power in the hands of huge, often global, corporations designed to accumulate wealth for a few, leading to attempts to rescind the social contract that the New Deal and the War on Poverty tried to create.
  • Similarly, countering the civil rights and women's movement has come a backlash, including successful efforts in some parts of the country to repeal affirmative action. 

This, however, does not mean that there have been no gains in the struggle to shift from a dominator to a partnership form of social and economic organization.

If students are to better understand what is happening in our time, it is essential that history classes again and again return to the dynamic of the forward partnership movement and the backward dominator resistance and backlash. Understanding this dynamic will make it possible for young people to get past the old categories of capitalism versus communism, right versus left, and religious versus secular, which have caused so much polarization and ill will (as in the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s and the politics of the so-called Christian Right of the 1990s). These old categories are not useful in equipping young people for the future, as they divert us from the underlying question of what kind of relations does a society support or inhibit: relations based on partnership or on domination. Worse still, the old ways of thinking engender divisiveness and scapegoating, as we see today in the blaming of the “idle poor” and “welfare mothers” for problems that are actually the result of the dominator aspects of our social organization.

Historically it has taken a small minority with progressive, and generally highly unpopular, ideas to make major changes. The social movements that brought lasting improvements in our lives did so because, as a few people's consciousness changed, they then organized to change more people's consciousness. This means that every one of us can make a difference — if we do not get discouraged in the face of dominator backlash and work together to attain partnership goals.

Additional Resources

  • W. E. B. Du Bois' early classic The World and Africa
  • David Loye's The Healing of a Nation (dedicated to DuBois)
  • Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
  • The African American Experience by Sharon Harley, Stephen Middleton, and Charlotte Stokes,
  • The Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans by Molefi Asant and Mark Mattson. 
  • There is also both the book and the famous televisions series Roots, as well as the more recentAmistad
  • An especially moving account of black women and slavery is More Than Chattel, edited by David Barry Gasper and Darlene Clark Hine, which contains many little known stories about the tragic and often courageous lives of black women who were slaves.