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TeachNYPL: 'Two Wars,' African Americans, Emancipation, and the American Revolution (Gr. 6-8)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”—Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
The American Revolution symbolizes a critical moment in the history of the United States, and the Declaration of Independence is the key symbol of that moment. With its rhetoric of freedom and equality, the Declaration of Independence inspired the colonists to courageously fight for their rights. While the colonists celebrated their victory from Great Britain’s rule, the African Americans who helped achieve that victory were still enslaved. As Alan Gilbert contends in his seminal work,Black Patriots and Loyalists, there were “two wars being waged at once: a political revolution for independence from Britain and a social revolution for emancipation and equality.”
The narrative of the African American experience during the American Revolution is missing from many secondary classrooms in the United States. Fortunately, an interest in the subject has been ignited by the work of Young Adult authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s novels Chains: Seeds of America (2008) andForge: Seeds of America (2010) have become popular among adolescents and secondary school teachers alike. Both novels vividly portray the heroism of African Americans during the American Revolution, and are a good way to introduce the topic in the secondary classroom.
In order to fully understand the role of African Americans during the American Revolution, it is important to read and critically analyze the primary and secondary sources about that era. The texts selected for this Gr. 6-8 instructional unit lend themselves to the type of critical analysis required by the Common Core State Standards. The texts include a slave petition, poetry, and images that offer students a deeper understanding of the African American fight for emancipation and equality during the American Revolution.
Three of the focus questions for this instructional unit are:
- What issues did the Declaration of Independence fail to resolve?
- What are some of the ways in which African Americans participated in America’s fight for independence?
- How did African Americans advocate for their freedom during the American Revolution?
The following texts and tasks can be used for Gr. 6-8 in both English Language Arts and Social Studies (Scope & Sequence, Grade 7, Unit 2: Colonial America and the American Revolution).
Teachers can use the following texts to introduce the topic of African American participation in the American Revolution.
- African Americans in the Thirteen Coloniesby Michael Burgan, published by Scholastic
- Black Faces of War: A Legacy of Honor from the American Revolution to Today by Robert W. Morris
Both texts are especially useful because they discuss the reasonswhy many African Americans became Loyalists and fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War.
- Chains: Seeds of America Chains is one of the best novels to teach in a Common Core classroom because each chapter begins with an epigraph from a historical document from the American Revolution. Students can analyze the author’s use of the epigraph after reading every chapter. Anderson did original research for this novel using primary source materials from several archives, including the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division at the NYPL Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture.
- The Prison-ship Adventure of James Forten, Revolutionary War Captive by Marty Rhodes Figley (Graphic Novel)
- War Comes to Willy Freeman by James Lincoln Collier
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson
Resources for the Instructional Unit:
- The Declaration of Independence (1776). Questions to consider: Why are the words “human,” “one people,” “the Powers of the Earth” used in the first paragraph of the Preamble instead of “colonies” or “Great Britain”? What message does the author want to convey about freedom and equality through this particular language?
- Massachusetts Slaves’ Petition (1777). Questions to consider: Explain the author’s purpose in the text (to inform, persuade, or entertain). Use at least two details from the passage to support your answer. How does the quote “. . . A life of slavery . . . is far worse than nonexistence.” support the central idea of the text?
- “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773) by Phillis Wheatley (poetry). Question to consider: How does Wheatley use religion in the final lines of her poem to challenge the way whites viewed African Americans during this era?
Additional Primary Sources:
- “America” by James M. Whitfield (1853). Questions to Consider: Compare the poem “America” to the Massachusetts’ Slave Petition. How is the message and purpose in each text similar? Use details from each text to support your answer. What is the tone of the poem? Identify four words used in the text to support your answer.
- The shooting of major Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the colored soldier Salem (image). Question to Consider: Do you think the artist had a message beyond simply documenting the moment? If so, what do you think the message might be about African American soldiers during the Revolutionary War?
- Brave Colored Artillerist (image). Question to Consider: Compare this image with “The shooting of Major Pictarin.” How does your analysis and comparison of the two images add to your understanding of the role of African Americans during the Revolutionary War?
All of the above texts are compiled inTexts and Tasks Unit for Lesson Planning-Gr. 6-8—African Americans and the American Revolution—English Language Arts/Social Studies. The unit includes more text-dependent questions, culminating tasks, and specific information regarding text complexity.
Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.5 Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.9 Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
Want to use these texts in the Classroom?
All the above ten documents and texts are compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Tasks Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: African Americans and the American Revolution Gr. 6-8 (PDF). This Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. This Texts and Task Unit includes information on text complexity, text dependent questions, and a recommended performance tasks for this unit aligned to Common Core State Standards for both Literature and History/Social Studies.
Additional Resources for Further Reading & Research:
- Expanded Text List for Lesson Planning—with additional primary and secondary sources + classroom reading selections
- Browse for more American Revolution images in the NYPL Digital Collections, including the widely differing depictions of the death of African AmericanCrispus Attucks—the first person killed in the Boston Massacre.
- PBS Africans in America Narrative: The Revolutionary War
- Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People - from Digital Archives Canada; has primary source documents including autographical and biographical depictions of the lives of Black Loyalists written from multiple viewpoints, plus letters and correspondance, documents and proclamations.
- Booktalking Chains: Seeds of America in your classroom or library—a synopsis and additional information on Anderson's research process for this novel from the NYPL's Miranda McDermott
Feel free to add additional reading suggestions and educational resources in the comments below.
Lakisha Odlum is a native New Yorker, and received her education from St. John’s University and Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught Literature and Composition for nine years on the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels. She currently teaches middle school English Language Arts in Queens, NY, and is passionate about creating learning opportunities that are rigorous, engaging, and most importantly, fun!