Pivotal Presences: African Americans in American History

January/February edition of AC&E Journal

If you have never had the opportunity to imagine yourself as an important part of your nation’s past, how can you ever imagine that you could be valuable to its future?

Following is an article Hasan wrote that was published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of the AC&E Journal. You can find a copy of the entire journal at this link.

Throughout American history, there have been defining moments, patriots and heroes. From the revolution to present, average citizens have sacrificed and served. Yet, the stories students learn today are incomplete, a disservice to the true legacy of America. Since 1997, I have worked to bring history alive for students across the nation.

As a young boy I spent hours and hours trying to imagine myself as the hero, the explorer and the adventurer of America’s greatest stories. I found it very difficult because I was never introduced to examples of African Americans as courageous contributors to the great story of America. In elementary school I received my first social studies book and my teacher explained with great enthusiasm that this book contained the stories of people who made America great. I tore through the book searching chapter after chapter for a story that would finally affirm my place, my presence, in America’s great story. I was disappointed chapter after chapter as I finally reached a heading titled “American slavery.” Below the heading was an image of an African American man sitting slumped forward, seemingly broken, with layer upon layer of scars across his back. The caption simply read: The American Negro, Slave. In that moment, the message to this nine-year-old mind was clear: I was not the hero, these were not my adventures, and my courage did not make America great. I was just the raw resource — blood, sweat and tears extracted like coal to fuel the greatness of America. It might not surprise you that by middle school I stopped standing to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. I began to fight and to disrupt class.

Fortunately, my self-destructive spiral was interrupted by my mother and father who went out of their way to ensure that I was exposed to powerful true stories that debunked the popular myths of homogenous heroes of America. Stories that affirmed that African Americans were a constant heroic presence throughout America’s history. The gift of those counter-narratives allowed me to find myself in America’s story and I forged a commitment to share those stories.

Theater and performance are important components in my life and work. After graduating law school I began researching little-known African Americans who had profoundly impacted American history. While working in education and juvenile justice, I began translating these powerful and empowering stories into living history presentations.

If you have never had the opportunity to imagine yourself as an important part of your nation’s past, how can you ever imagine that you could be valuable to its future?

My goal is to ensure that African American students have the ability to recognize them- selves as full participants in our American story. I also want to ensure that white students have the opportunity to experience stories that affirm African Americans’ persistent and powerful presence at every pivotal moment in America’s great history. While I began this work to ensure that African American young men would see themselves in history, I have come to realize that all young people need to hear these stories. If I could not find myself buried in the story of our nation, what must all of the white children in the class think of me? Did they see me as never contributing but always receiving?

I have developed a series of programs appropriate for middle and high school students. Research tells us that the transition from middle school to high school is difficult for most young people. I know from my own personal experience and from my years as Commissioner of Juvenile Justice in Kentucky that for African American males this transition is often the beginning of their slide out of school and into the prison pipeline.

I designed my programs to be educational and entertaining. They follow the format of Chautauqua which President Teddy Roosevelt called “the most American thing in America.” The presentations begin with first person portrayal blended with Q&A and lectures. For example, my Chautauqua on York of the Lewis and Clark expedition includes a first person historical interpretation where I present a 45 minute monologue as York, sharing the triumphs and tragedies of the mission.

At the conclusion of the first-person historical interpretation, while still in character, I enter into a Q & A session with the students, allowing them to engage with history more personally. Finally, I step out of character and do a second Q & A that allows me to provide additional details on the character and historical context connecting the struggle of the character to the struggles faced by African Americans today. I supplement the living history presentation with lectures to support the learning.

My Chautauqua series currently includes the stories of three African American men:

  • ANGUS AUGUSTUS BURLEIGH: The Long Climb to Freedom from slave to Civil War soldier to scholar
  • YORK: Black explorer with the Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • JOE LEWIS: World heavyweight boxing champ and World War II veteran

These are the stories of America from different points in our great history. I bring them to students to ensure that all voices are heard.

I know that I cannot reach all young people via these programs. So, in 2018, I took the time to write and publish York’s story. I intentionally wrote York’s story as narrative non-fiction for grades 3rd to 6th to reach a younger audience. It is imperative that these stories be foundational to a students’ learning.

I also provide professional development to teachers across the country. It is critical that all teachers work to ensure the success of all students.

I ENCOURAGE TEACHERS TO:

  • Expand their own knowledge of the contributions of diverse individuals and capture their stories;
  • Include stories of diverse individuals throughout the curriculum; and,
  • Create opportunities for the stories of each student and their families to live within the classroom.

Teachers can provide the opportunity for each child to see themselves as an important part of our nation’s history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Calling himself a “dealer in hope for all students,” Hasan Davis has committed himself to improving the lives of children and youth across the nation and around the world. A G.E.D. recipient, Hasan earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College and a law degree from the University of Kentucky College of Law. Hasan’s work has focused on youth violence prevention, juvenile justice reform, and education inclusion. He lives in Berea, Kentucky with his wife and their two sons.

Journey of York featured in The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later Campaign

Hasan Davis on The Brown Bookshelf

I am so happy to have been selected for a spotlight during The Brown Bookshelf’s annual 28 Days Later campaign.

Since 2007, The Brown Bookshelf has been pushing awareness of outstanding Black children’s book creators. They have become a resource for teachers, parents, and librarians looking for suggestions of books for African-American children and teens. Their signature campaign, 28 Days Later, celebrates pioneering and established Black children’s book authors and illustrators as well as new voices who may be flying “under-the-radar” of teachers, librarians, and parents.

Each day of Black History Month, they shine a spotlight on an outstanding author or illustrator, and we are on Day 5 this year! Head on over to The Brown Bookshelf’s website to read my full post: https://thebrownbookshelf.com/28days/day-5-hasan-davis/

How you can share Journey of York

Journey of York Book Cover

The first two months have been great for the Journey of York! Thank you to all of you who have shared and purchased for family, friends, libraries, and classrooms. I have been sending out information on the book and ramping up my York Explorer one-man show to get back on the road.

If you’d like to help spread the word, you can:

  1. Share the book with anyone who reads to kids. This is the perfect gift for parents, grandparents, or teachers. The book is available at all the usual places…especially your local independent booksellers!
  2. If you’d like to see me come to your school and perform/speak to kids and teachers, share this page with your administration, librarian, or family services coordinator: https://hasandavis.com/school-and-youth-programs/.

Thank you for your support as we get the word out!

Journey of York Featured on #19PBbios

19 new picture book bios

We are thrilled to be featured as one of the 19 new diverse picture book biographies released in 2019 on #19PBbios. These diverse PB bios are gorgeous and important and already on the shelves! See our listing and the other 18 amazing books at https://www.19pbbios.com.

People in children’s publishing have called this moment “the golden age of picture book biographies.” These past few years have brought a fresh, new spin on the old view of picture book biographies (PB bios).

No longer dry, birth-to-death, lists of facts, PB bios are now creative, colorful, and innovative in how they present real people’s lives. They draw kids in. They focus on moments, themes, or little-known people or places. They excite librarians, educators and parents. They’re works of art.

–Meg Pincus of #19PBbios, https://www.19pbbios.com/post/whatis19pbbios

Journey of York Reviewed on Macsbooks

Journey of York Book Cover

I am feeling humbled and blessed by the sincere and powerful feedback from readers or THE JOURNEY OF YORK. Thank you Macsbooks for your thoughtful reflections!

I think this is an absolute must-read for all young American readers, for teachers of young students, parents, and perhaps even adults who are clueless regarding the real heroes of the expedition. I love Lewis and Clark but I know, without a doubt, where the credit for their expedition’s success truly lies.

Read the full review here.