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African American Lives 2 -- Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In Search of Our Roots -- Buy the companion book now from ShopPBS

"Rationalizing Race in US History"
by Ashlinn Quinn

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Learning Activity 1:

  1. Prepare to show the first few seconds of Clip 1 to the class. Explain that in this video clip, the students will see a woman named Bliss Broyard, looking at some of her family photographs. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking students to determine the race of the family in the photograph.

    Insert thumbnail of Clip 1 here.

  2. PLAY the beginning of Clip 1, "More Than Meets the Eye," for the class, and PAUSE it approximately 10 seconds in, when the photograph of the blond woman and two children is onscreen and Bliss Broyard has just said "this was my dad's favorite photo of my mom, my brother, and me."

  3. Review the focus question. To what race does this family belong? (The family in the picture is fair-skinned and blond. Most students will probably say "white.")

  4. Tell the students that you will now play a bit more of the clip. Provide the students with a new FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to determine what Bliss Broyard learned about her father that she didn't know before?

  5. RESUME the clip. PAUSE the clip when the title "White Like Me" is onscreen, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has just said "this is the first time Bliss and I have seen each other since she read that article in 1996."

  6. Review the focus question. What did Bliss Broyard learn about her father? (That he was black). Ask the students how they think it is possible that Bliss did not know of her father's black ancestry? (Accept all answers, but ensure that students understand that Anatole Broyard had some white ancestors and some black ancestors. With his light skin and facial features, Broyard could live and work in white society without raising any suspicions of his black heritage - a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "passing." He chose not to tell his children of their black ancestors, so they grew up believing they were "white.")

  7. Before resuming the clip, provide the students with a new FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to determine what the choices were for "color" on the Social Security Card application Anatole Broyard filled out. RESUME the clip and PLAY to the end.

  8. Review the focus question: What were the choices for "color" on the Social Security Card application? (White, Negro, and Other). How did Anatole Broyard answer the "color" question on the form? (He checked "White," checked "Negro" and crossed it out, and put a "C" next to the line for "Other"). Do the students think it may have been difficult for Anatole Broyard to respond to this question on the form? Why? (Accept all answers, but encourage the students to think about the fact that for a person of mixed-race descent like Anatole Broyard, the choice of which box to check among the three choices of "White," "Negro," and "Other" may not have been obvious. He may have struggled with aligning himself with any of the groups, feeling like he didn't really fit in.)

  9. Ask the students if they have ever had to indicate their race on a form. What kinds of forms collect information on race? (Answers may include school applications, standardized tests, surveys, as optional information on job applications and other forms). If the students have not mentioned it already, tell them that one type of survey that collects information on race, among many other types of information, is the US Census. Explain that the US Census is a survey of the population in the United States that has been conducted every ten years since 1790. The census has consistently collected data on race or "color," but the categories for race - and the way this information is reported - have changed over time.

  10. Tell the students that they will compare several versions of the US Census to determine how categories for race have changed over time in this country. Divide the students into working groups and distribute the "US Census Student Organizer" and one copy of each of the five sample US Census forms (1850, 1880, 1950, 1970, and 2000) to each student group.

  11. Allow the students about 15-20 minutes to complete their student organizers. Review the results as a class. What were the different categories for "color" or "race" in the different censuses? (Refer to Teacher Answer Key for responses). Why might the categories have changed over time? (There are many factors that contributed to the change, but waves of immigration on the one hand, and civil rights struggles on the other, both played a role). Besides the different categories, what other differences did the students notice between the censuses? (Accept all answers, but point out that prior to 1960, census-takers employed by the government filled out the census forms, and were responsible for assigning a person's race based on their subjective assessment. Starting in 1970, individual residents began filling out the forms themselves and self-identified their race. Also, the 2000 census was the first that allowed respondents to mark multiple boxes in response to the "race" question.)

  12. In the next activity, students will explore historical examples demonstrating some of the ways categorization of people into racial groups has been used over the course of US history.

Learning Activity 2:

  1. Explain that throughout US history, the categorization of people by race has unfortunately been used numerous times to discriminate against particular groups of people and to deny them rights. In this activity, students will explore three examples of racial discrimination that have occurred at various points in our history: in our founding documents; in the late 1800s, and during World War II.

  2. Divide the students into working groups and assign each group one of the three case studies: the Constitution, Plessy v. Ferguson, or Japanese Relocation. Distribute the "Case Study Student Organizer" to the students and direct them to the appropriate Web site to conduct their case study research (the pages can be printed out if internet access is a problem).

  3. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to research their assigned case study using the provided Web sites, and to be prepared to report the following key information to the class: the time period of the case study; the group discriminated against; the rights that were denied this group; and the date when that particular episode of discrimination was overturned. Give the students approximately 15 minutes to explore their case study, then ask representatives from each group to report their findings to the class (See Teacher Answer Key for responses).

Learning Activity 3:

  1. Prepare to show Clip 2: "A Fine Mocha" to the class. Explain that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has been researching the heritage of a number of prominent African Americans. Write the names Linda Johnson-Rice, Chris Rock, Tom Joyner, Don Cheadle, Peter Gomes, Tina Turner, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the board. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking students to predict how many of these seven African Americans can trace 100% of their ancestry back to Africa (rather than to Europe, Asia, or to Native American populations?) Tell students to write down their predictions. In this clip, they will test their predictions and see if they are right. PLAY Clip 2: "A Fine Mocha" for the class.

    Insert thumbnail of Clip 2 here.

  2. Review the focus question: How many of the profiled African Americans could trace 100% of their heritage to Africa? (None, DNA tests revealed that all of the guests' heritage contained significant European ancestry - from 19 to 50% - in addition to their African ancestry).

  3. Next prepare to show Clip 3: "Mixed-Race Ancestry" to the class. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to listen for Chris Rock's definition of a black person. PLAY about 15 seconds of the clip, and PAUSE it just after Chris Rock finishes saying "You're in the Matrix now. You took the pill. You're just in, man."

    Insert thumbnail of Clip 3 here.

  4. Review the focus question. What is Chris Rock's definition of a black person? (Anyone who has the slightest bit of black heritage is black.) Explain that this explanation is a commonly held definition of blackness in the United States (but not necessarily shared elsewhere in the world). Point out that this manner of deciding who is in the "black" or "African American" group is very inclusive - according to this principle, as long as someone has a little bit of African heritage, he or she can be considered "black." Explain that this definition of blackness is sometimes called the "one drop rule." Remind students of the Plessy v. Ferguson case that they studied earlier in the lesson, and explain that the "one drop rule" was the basis for the Louisiana law that classified Homer Adolph Plessy, who was 7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 black, as "black" and hence ineligible to ride in the white railway car.

  5. Ask the students if they remember Bliss Broyard, who discovered as an adult that her father had been hiding his black heritage. According to the "one drop rule," would Bliss Broyard be considered black? (Yes). Explain that the "one drop rule" is not a legal rule in the United States, and emphasize that in current-day America, there are no rules or official benchmarks defining the boundaries of any racial groups. As students may remember from their study of the most recent census forms, official racial groups in this country are created through self-identification. In census forms and other formal documents, each person in this country can self-identify a race according to whatever terms we like.

  6. Prepare to show the rest of the clip to the class. Explain that the students will see three people discussing their racial identity: Bliss Broyard, Linda Johnson-Rice, and Don Cheadle. Each of them has some European (white) ancestry, and some African (black) ancestry. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION. Ask 1/3 of the class to particularly pay attention to Bliss Broyard; 1/3 of the class to pay attention to Linda Johnson-Rice, and 1/3 of the class to pay attention to Don Cheadle. For their assigned person, ask the students to tell the class whether their assigned subject considers him- or her-self to be black, and to discuss the reasons given for this choice.

  7. RESUME Clip 3, "Mixed-Race Ancestry" from the previous stopping point and play to the end. After the clip is over, review the focus question. Does each person consider him- or her-self to be black? Why or why not? (Bliss Broyard does not consider herself to be black - she identifies as a person with mixed-race ancestry. Linda Johnson-Rice identifies as a black person and thinks both culture and genetics are important in determining racial identity. Don Cheadle identifies as black because no matter his mixed genetic heritage, he has the struggles and challenges that black people in America have.)

  8. Finally, prepare students to view Clip 4: "Black, White, or Other." Explain to the class that in the course of researching his own family line, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has not only discovered that he is 50% white, but also has been able to trace back his paternal line to one particular country - the country of Ireland. In this clip, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. travels to Ireland to research his roots, and discovers that his paternal line can be traced back to a man called "Niall of the Nine Hostages," an Irish warlord who lived about 450 A.D. As a result of his own discovery that he is 50% white and that many of his African American guests have mixed-race ancestry as well, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wonders how relevant the terms "black" and "white" are for today's population. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to determine why Tom Joyner prefers terms like "black" and "African American" to various other terms used to describe Americans with African heritage? PLAY Clip 4: "Black, White, or Other?" for the class.

    Insert thumbnail of Clip 4 here.

  9. After playing the clip, review the focus: Why does Tom Joyner prefer terms like "black" and "African American?" (DNA testing shows that African Americans have extremely tangled roots, and most African Americans have mixed-race heritage. Nonetheless, Tom Joyner and others who share his opinion see value in the group identity that inclusive terms like "black" and "African American" provide. This group identity gives a voice to African Americans and speaks to a common experience. It can provide the basis for mobilization around causes such as fighting discrimination, injustice, and racism.)

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