Learning, Online - Reflections on teaching history


January 2, 2017

Assessing Colonialism: Part II, Using Images

My interest in assessing colonialism involves the content as much as the process.  In the photograph assessment, which I am currently grading, I want students to address the racism inherent in both colonialism itself and how it is presented in textbooks.  The assignment, however, raises as many issues as it closes.  I am finding it much more successful as an assessment of historical thinking than as a tool for reflecting on the presentation of colonialism.

Teenagers being who they are, several opted for macabre images, that they struggled to put into context. In this they were not different than many textbooks which fail to contextualize or analyze dehumanizing and racist images.  For instance, a few students included photographs of famine victims in late 19th century British India.  A typical image is a group portrait of barely clothed and severely emaciated Indian men.  The AP World History textbook that I use, Bentley and Ziegler’s Traditions and Encounters, similarly presents Indian famine victims with no explanation.

On one level these images function as a type of pornography: dehumanized and decontextualized bodies attract the gaze.  Traditions and Encounters uses the spectacle of physical suffering to entice young adults to look at their book.  The text does not even hint at British culpability for the famine.  Students who included famine images, or similarly horrific photographs depicting the execution of Indian mutineers or Congolese victims of Belgian brutality, in their projects did better than the textbook, however, by drawing a connections to imperialist powers.  Their understanding of events was the limiting factor in contextualizing the images.

I want my students to see that imperialism was much more than changing colors on a map or the racist imaginations that produced the degrading political cartoons that often also grace textbook pages.  These actions and ideas had consequences, often horrific, for millions of people around the world.  But, history teachers have a responsibility to recognize that these images will not affect all of our students equally.  While working through this unit and these issues last year, I made a point of telling an African-American student that I was sorry for the racism of some of the images.  His response of “that’s just world history” said a lot about what he had come to expect from history class.  This student has developed coping techniques for the casual way in which school often uses the brutalization of black people as an emotional hook for teaching.  I have been guilty of this and am reorienting my coverage of this topic with equity in mind.

Doing so will involve more historical thinking.  Specifically, history teachers have an obligation to contextualize difficult images, to humanize the subjects, if possible, and to interrogate the motives of the creators of such images.  We need to resist what many textbooks can’t: using images that brutalize their subjects as attention getters.

Context also includes the response to brutality.  I have been introducing anti-colonial movements earlier, instead of waiting until after World War II.  This is a part of emphasizing the agency and choices, including, but not limited to resistance, of colonial people.   I recommend the SHEG lesson on the Battle of Adwa as a way to give an act of resistance complex treatment; and, after so many students chose images from the Great Rebellion, I may try the SHEG lesson on that subject, too.  In fact, if I was writing standards or choosing power standards I would focus on responses to colonialism.   This will be the focus of a final post on assessing colonialism.

Finally, here is the image that I used to focus the recent unit on Imperialism and World War I.  It connects to the two main parts of the unit by showing Senegalese men serving in the French Army during the Great War.  This also provides a departure point for discussing African nationalisms and decolonization.

Black and white photograph of black soldiers in French uniforms.

Tirailleurs Senegalais



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