Teaching with Oh Freedom!

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art


Why Use Art to Teach History?

Teaching with art can make the social studies classroom come alive. You can use artworks as primary sources—using them either independently or with documents—to teach about a particular historical event or era. Artworks can help all students to process and articulate their ideas. You can use artworks to pose questions, identify assumptions and perspectives, promote new insights, and develop arguments through open-ended conversations. As art historian Joshua Taylor said, “to see is to think.” When integrated well, teaching with artworks can help students become more active participants in their own learning by:

  • visualizing and personalizing what they have read about in textbooks,
  • raising questions to foster richer classroom discussion,
  • increasing visual and historical literacy, critical thinking, and higher-order thinking skills,
  • thinking about the ways artworks both shape and reflect history, and
  • examining assumptions and finding meaning to help construct an informed understanding about historic events, people, and ideas.

How Can I Use Oh Freedom! in My Classroom?

Although Oh Freedom! offers interpretations of artworks and related material, we encourage teachers and students to evaluate the sources to find meaning and form their own opinions. Here are just a few suggested strategies for using Oh Freedom! artworks in a civil rights lesson:

Project the high resolution digital image of an artwork by selecting the Download This Artwork button found on each individual artwork page.

Use the STUDENT QUESTIONS found next to each artwork to encourage careful looking and open-ended discussion.

Students can then investigate the artwork using some of the same questions they would use to examine any other primary source: Who made this? When? Why? Out of what material? This helps put the artwork into a broader context. This might require some additional research outside the object itself. They can use one of the Document Analysis Worksheets from the National Archives as a guide.

Use the same artwork to make historical connections. Students may relate the work to what they already know, use additional resources you provide, or conduct additional research to answer questions. Note that each artwork page has a section titled About This Artwork, which details some historical and artistic connections.

After learning more about the work’s historical and art context, ask students to reevaluate their first responses. What assumptions guided their first impression? What perspective did they assume? There will likely be many different answers, so encourage students to discuss their initial ideas. Has their interpretation of the artwork changed? Has it become more nuanced? Is it possible to appreciate the artwork on multiple levels (intellectual, emotional, historical)? Students can find it empowering to learn that artworks provide no “right” answers and that they can develop their own interpretations.

What Do Artists Contribute to Civil Rights History?

American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) reminds us that “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” Artists that grapple with African American experiences not only tell stories about civil rights, they also play a crucial role in rewriting and expanding its narrative. In doing so, they create artworks that serve as visual “texts” with the potential to illuminate society’s ideas about a particular event, place, or idea. Sometimes the featured artworks focus on famous events or people. More often they reveal neglected or forgotten stories about the resilience and triumphs of ordinary African Americans who were essential in the long struggle for civil rights. In both cases, artworks related to the Civil Rights movement can engage, inform, and inspire students in compelling ways that complement traditional approaches to history. They provide another lens through which to master subject matter content and to practice historical thinking and visual literacy skills.

Why Does Oh Freedom! Include Artworks from 1900-2008?

Following current scholarship, Oh Freedom! expands our understanding of the length and breadth of the Civil Rights movement. Instead of the traditional story of civil rights, which focuses primarily on the events of the 1950s and 1960s, Oh Freedom! presents the movement as a longer, more varied, and ongoing African American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality throughout the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Oh Freedom! helps clarify this longer history by breaking it down into three distinct eras:

  • Early Civil Rights—Forgotten Movements (1900–1945) explores the intersections between art, artists, and early civil rights organizations and events in a period that has been called the seedbed of the modern Civil Rights movement. Forgotten Movements makes visible the deep connections between the movements of the 1950s and 1960s and precursor movements, figures, and events, such as the birth of the NAACP, the Harlem Renaissance, anti-lynching campaigns, and the World War II-era mobilization for equal rights.
  • The Modern Civil Rights Movement (1945–1968) explores the ways that artists responded to the breadth and depth of civil rights activities. This section examines artworks that depict and reflect the mass protest–oriented Civil Rights movement that emerged in the United States after World War II. Seminal moments include the Birmingham Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides, and the Voting Rights Act.
  • Beyond 1968—"Post–Civil Rights?" (1968–2008) explores intersections between artistic expression and the continuing quest for political participation and power, personal success, and social justice in American life. This section examines questions about the expansion, legacy, and continuing need for and coherence of civil rights struggles in the period following the legislative successes of the 1960s.