Using Material Culture to Interpret African American Life
Facilitator: Gretchen Sullivan Sorin
Documents and artifacts are rich because they enable us to determine what happened in the past, but also because they offer subtle and not so subtle messages about who we are as a people, what we value or dont value, how we see ourselves and how we see others. Our objects and documents are reflections of ourselves. In this workshop we undertake a material culture analysis of objects in the American Memory collections that relate to the history of African Americans from the Civil War to the early years of the Twentieth century. We strive to understand some of the ways that African Americans were portrayed in popular culture, some of the ways that they portrayed themselves, and the ways these portrayals reflect larger historical developments at the turn of the century. Along the way we will explore some of the ways that museums use objects as storytellers--including juxtaposing them for contrast, clustering them thematically, and arranging them chronologically to show change--and we will consider how teachers and students can use these techniques of arrangement in learning from and teaching with artifacts.
After completing this exercise participants will be able to:
1. Practicing Material Culture Analysis on Two Artifacts (30 minutes)
The study of material culture, the artifacts made or modified by human beings, tells us much about who we are. Museums use the things left behind by other generations in the same way that historians use historical documents, as historical evidence to help us understand the needs, wants, attitudes, beliefs and stories of people who lived in the past. Reading an artifact, whether a piece of sheet music or a table, is less familiar to most people than reading a letter or document. Still, because material culture is composed of the necessary things of daily life and work it offers rich insights into the nature of the people from which it came.
We gather as a group to practice material culture analysis, looking at two pieces of sheet music in juxtaposition. Both pieces of music are from Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920.
2. Using Additional Documents to Deepen Awareness of the Historical Context (30 minutes)
In pairs, explore the following objects and construct an image of African American life based on the information in the documents. Use the accompanying Material Culture Analysis Guide to focus your analysis.
Slaves Preparing Cotton from Selected Civil War Photos
$200.00 Reward. Ranaway from the subscriber on the night of Thursday, the 30th of September. Five Negro Slaves from An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
Printers Picture Gallery from An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and other Printed Ephemera
Ku Klux Stories from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1940
A Protest Against the Burning and Lynching of Negroes, by Booker T. Washington from African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907
Unidentified Woman, probably a member of the McGill Family from Americas First Look into the Camera, Daguerreotypes, Portraits and Views, 1839-1862
Morris Brown College, 1890-1900 from Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights
The Photographers Assistant and The Melon-cholic days have come, the gladdest of the year, both from Touring Turn of the Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, 1880-1920
The Lincoln Gates, Tuskeegee Institute, Ala. from Touring Turn of the Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, 1880-1920
3. Sharing Analyses / Constructing a Sense of the Historical Context (30 minutes)
Each group takes 5-10 minutes to share their analyses of the documents, and their speculations and questions about African American life, based on the documents. As a group, we strive to arrange the documents in various ways to suggest larger ideas and developments--changing roles of African Americans, the development of segregated institutions, increasing interest on the part of whites in African American cultural forms, contrasts between the way whites saw blacks and the way African Americans saw themselves, etc. We list the questions that now loom for us about the wider historical context.
4. Searching collections to find / juxtapose objects of your own (45 minutes)
With your partner, search one of the following American Memory collections, and select two or three images that portray African Americans. Include at least one image that you initially view as positive and at least one that initially appears to you as negative. Print these out.
Conduct a material culture analysis on the two objects and be prepared to present them to the group. If possible, put them side-by-side to suggest a contrast, develop a theme, or tell a story about African American life. You may wish to combine your images with the documents we dealt with in Part 3, to extend or modify the themes we discussed.
5. Debriefing the activity (15 minutes)
How is material culture analysis similar to, or different from, teaching approaches you now use? What does it add? What problems do you see with it?
What issues or problems might arise in teaching with and about controversial imagery in your school? Are these documents appropriate? Important? Why? Does the approach modeled help address concerns?
How might you use and/or modify this approach with your own students?