Teaching World History in the Age of Black Lives Matter

I remember listening to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” on the night of 24 November 2014 when the grand jury chose not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Her frustration and outrage at the murder of Medgar Evers resonated with me. It shocked me that Wilson was not indicted, and we needed to express our outrage at the injustice of the grand jury verdict. Yet, the teacher in me also wondered how I could address this issue in the classroom. 
 This past summer I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates’ story resonated with me given that I’m only a year older than him. I recalled many of the same cultural experiences. At the same time, I’m a middle-class, white male, and I didn’t share many of Coates’ emotions and reactions. I completely agreed with his views about race and racism in the United States, but I was unbelievably frustrated with his views about nonviolence as expressed in the book and in an article about the role of nonviolence in the Baltimore protests to the killing of Freddie Gray
 I’m aware that as a white, male American, I’m in a privileged position when it comes to thinking about nonviolence. I don’t regularly suffer violence against me because of my race or gender. I don’t feel that the country is set up to maintain this violence. Yet, I believe strongly in the power of nonviolence and education as a tool for bringing about justice in this world
 In thinking about these two reactions and my belief in the role of history, I wanted to share some relevant articles and ideas about how we can teach world history in an era of Black Lives Matter. According to the movement’s guiding principles:

It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.

If Black Lives Matter is about affirming the contributions and the humanity of black peoples and teaching history should be a tool for justice, how we address and teach black subjects is crucial. I also believe it is important for me to engage my African-American students in my history classes. I don’t want to present a white or Eurocentric view of world history in which the experiences of Blacks are only marginally important. I want to present material and pose questions in a way that engages these students in my classes and encourages them also to see history as tool for justice. 
 As a white man, I have also benefitted from an American society which is rigged in my favor. I need to be an advocate and an ally for all peoples in the way that Teju Cole talked about men being an ally for women. I need to speak out simply because of how much I have benefitted. At the same time I want to avoid presenting myself as part of the “white-savior industrial complex.” I’m here to help all students understand history in a nuanced and complex way that is honest about past injustices, incorporates the stories of all peoples, and helps empower students to see themselves as agents of change in the world.

A Note on Language

Before I go any further, I want to say a few words about the terminology in this post. In using both “Blacks” and “African-Americans,” I’m distinguishing between racial and ethnic categorizations. Blacks refer to a racial category that while socially constructed is very much real for billions of people around the world. It’s the same for Whites, although my racial category has been constructed from a position of dominance. African-Americans refers an ethnic categorization that reflects the African heritage of black Americans. In the context of world history courses, we are frequently teaching and learning about the experiences of black peoples around the world. African-Americans only refers to those black people who live in the United States. I’m also switching between Blacks (with an upper-case B) and black (with a lower-case b) to distinguish between the racial group and the adjective used in association with that group. Much has been written about this issue of capitalization, and I’m open to changing my practice. For now, I’m following the lead of many news publications while also trying to reflect the concerns of the people involved. Another important distinction relates to the topic of slavery. Instead of dehumanizing millions of peoples as “slaves,” I will talk about “enslaved peoples” or “enslaved Africans.” It seems a relatively small difference, but it is important step in restoring people’s identity. We are trying to honor the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter.

Incorporating the Histories of African Peoples

As the map makes clear, Africa is not a small region. Think about how much time we devote in our world history classes to the histories of China, Europe, and the United States compared to the time and treatment of the history of Africa. As teachers we need to be aware of these choices we are making. Boston University’s African Studies Center offers some excellent lessons about our perceptions and projections of Africa. Given the sheer size of Africa, it is important that we don’t talk about the diverse peoples of Africa as a single, homogenous group. We need to talk about Africa’s diversity and its histories. We also want to be mindful of the language we use in the classroom to describe Africa and Africans. Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” is a satirical essay about the tendencies of many writers to exoticize and caricature Africans. 
 One of the easiest ways to incorporate African histories into our world history classes is the history of West Africa. Well before Europeans arrived in Africa, three large and important kingdoms arose in West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Most textbooks cover this topic. These kingdoms were closely involved in the Afro-Eurasian economy before 1450 and were important centers of learning. In addition to the resources found in most textbooks, there is the Michigan State University module exploring these kingdoms and the Crash Course World History episode on them.

The other region of Africa that I always make a point to cover is the East African Swahili Coast. During the period from 600 C.E. to 1450, the cities of the Swahili Coast prospered as important trade centers in the Indian Ocean network of exchange. The Swahili people also were involved in significant cultural exchange with other peoples around the Indian Ocean and with the peoples from the interior of Africa. Dave Eaton, of the On Top of the World: A World History Podcast, recently published some excellent ideas about teaching the Swahili Coast
 By incorporating the multiple histories of African peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century, Africans are not relegated to a secondary role whose importance only seems to matter after Europeans arrived on the scene.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery in the Americas

The transition from thinking about the history of Africans to the history of African-Americans begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery. This topic is one that is usually included in most world history classes, but how we frame and approach the topic is central to honoring the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter. There are a number of ways that we can approach the slave trade, especially given that it lasted nearly 400 years. It’s also important to keep in mind that the slave trade was a global phenomenon. It also occurred within the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 
 The obvious starting point is the trade itself and how we present the nature of the exchange. Instead of presenting the trade from a European perspective, we want to teach about the slave trade as a process of negotiation involving multiple groups of Africans and Europeans. When Europeans first began to trade for African slaves, most Europeans were at a competitive disadvantage. They were far from home, had relatively few items that Africans wanted, and frequently had to adapt to demands of African traders. One of the key sources for looking at the slave trade is the journal kept by Captain Thomas Phillips’ during the voyage of the Hannibal in 1693
 In his journal, Phillips is surprisingly frank about how much he was at a disadvantage. He describes being unable to resist the ruler of Whydaw’s “request” that the English traders attend him that night. He also describes the way in which the ruler was able to insist that his own lot of enslaved Africans had to first be purchased by Phillips at inflated prices. The actual negotiations between Phillips and the African slavers shows again that Africans tended to have the upper hand in these exchanges. African traders attempted to hide enslaved people’s advanced age or physical ailments. And when it came time to pay for the slaves, the African traders could also insist on being paid in cowry shells from the Indian Ocean, their preferred form of currency, rather than European goods. It quickly becomes clear that Africans played more than just active roles in the selling of African slaves; African traders shaped the patterns of exchange. Another important lesson from looking at this source is how it shows a variety of Africans involved in the slave trade. Some Africans are rulers, some are traders, some are enslaved. There is not just a mass of homogenous Africans. 
 The second issue to consider in our teaching of the slave trade is the Middle Passage itself. It goes without saying that we must be honest about the violence and brutality of the voyages and how enslaved Africans were treated. Phillips’ own journal is open about the harsh conditions on the ship, the willingness of slavers to use violence to maintain order, and the numbers of Africans who died en route. We can pair these descriptions with similar ones from the journal of Olaudah Equiano, a former enslaved African, to present an African voice about the Middle Passage. Even with the frank and disturbing language about the violence and horrors of the Middle Passage, we can also show choices of Europeans made the experience even more hellish and dehumanizing for Africans. In a recent post, Antoine Vanner describes the sinking of the slave ship Phoenix in 1762. It’s not a pleasant story, but its honesty makes clear how brutal the slave trade was for enslaved Africans. We need to be open and honest about the ways that Europeans participated in the slave trade and not gloss over the disturbing aspects.

I believe a similar approach should also be followed when teaching about the experience of slavery in the Americas. Although the conditions of slavery varied in different parts of the Americas, we can make some generalizations about the ways in which chattel slavery (the type of slavery practiced in the Americas that differed from many earlier forms of slavery) functioned. Instead of presenting an idealized or partial view of the experiences of enslaved Africans, we should present the full and complete story, as many historical sites related to slavery are beginning to do:

Bringing the history of slavery and oppression alive, though, can be uncomfortable for some visitors, and a challenge for interpreters, he noted. 
 “It’s a very hard subject to present,” he said. Guides must strike an appropriate balance between hospitality, enthusiasm, seriousness and respect. And visitors must be willing to open their minds to entertain not only the horrors of slavery but the institution’s many nuances: the fact that the North was complicit, for example, or that some slaves actually enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy and esteem.

No historical site does a better job of presenting the truth about slavery than the recently opened Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans. While it’s impossible for everyone to visit this site, its rich website provides a wealth of material about the conditions on the plantation and all the peoples involved.

Just as we want to be honest about the experience of slavery, we need to also be open and honest about the ways that many people, especially Europeans, profited from owning and trading enslaved Africans. Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery was one of the first historians to argue about the economic benefits derived from slavery and how it contributed to British industrialization. More recently, Edward Baptist, in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism has expanded on Williams’ work to show the extent to which the present day economic system in the United States has been shaped by slavery. Sven Beckert, in Empire of Cotton: A Global History has also recently looked at the effects of cotton, much of which was grown on slave plantations. All three books help us to understand the ways in which the labor of enslaved Africans has benefitted white Europeans and the American and British economies. Not only do we present a more accurate picture of history, we do so in a way that at least acknowledges the crucial contributions of enslaved Africans to these economies.

The last aspect of the slave trade and slavery that I want to consider is how we present the abolition of these horrific institutions. The story of abolition can sometimes be told in a way that allows Britons and Americans to feel better about their involvement in slavery and the slave trade. In a recent podcast about her work, Katie Donington talks about her research into the records of reparations that the British government paid to the owners of slaves. Some of her key arguments are the surprising extent of how many Britons owned slaves and how much they were compensated to give up those slaves. Even in abolishing the institution of slavery, many Britons benefitted financially. Meanwhile, the formerly enslaved Africans rarely received any compensation. And now fourteen Caribbean states are suing Britain for reparations from slavery. Teaching the story of abolition is a complex one in which we again need to be mindful of who did and didn’t benefit financially. 
 Another important aspect of the story of abolition is including the actions of enslaved Africans themselves. No where is this involvement more obvious than in the Haitian Revolution.

“Where negritude rose to its feet for the first time and said it believed in its own humanity.”

This line from Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land makes clear how important the Haitian Revolution was. It not only showed us the active role that Blacks, both enslaved and free, played in ending slavery on the French colony of Saint-Domingue, but it also compliments the stories we tell about the American Revolution and marks a radical challenge to white Europeans’ ideas about their colonies in the Americas. 
 There are many ways to approach the teaching of the Haitian Revolution, but I believe we must give at least equal coverage of the event as we do for the other Atlantic Revolutions (North American, French, and Spanish American) in our world history courses. Choosing to emphasize the North American or French Revolutions more sends a subtle message but about lesser importance of the event. One way I became aware of this problem in my own classes was after reading about Julia Gaffield’s rediscovery of an original copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence. I realized that while I had students read the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and Simon Bolivar’s “Jamaica Letter,” I didn’t include a foundational document for the Haitian Revolution that allowed the revolutionaries to speak for themselves. The full text of the Haitian Declaration is available online, so there’s no reason not to incorporate into our classes. 
 Another approach to teaching the Haitian Revolution in a more meaningful way is examining the broader significance of the event. Discussions about the significance of the North American Revolution are familiar topics in almost any history class in the United States. Brandon Byrd has written a short post about the significance of the Haitian Revolution for African-Americans in the United States. Byrd shows how both free and enslaved African-Americans in the nineteenth century understood and made sense of the Haitian Revolution. Another way to consider the significance of Haiti is to explore what it meant in other plantation colonies around the Caribbean. In a recent book, Ada Ferrer examines the effect of the Haitian Revolution on nearby Cuba and its transformation into a more intensive plantation colony. Samuel Farber has published a shorter review of Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution that could easily be used in the classroom. 
 Exploring the Haitian Revolution more in our world history classes is one of the key ways that we can honor those guiding principles of Black Lives Matter. We not only show the truly radical nature of the Revolution, but we also humanize the Blacks of Haiti and show their valuable contributions to the Atlantic World at the same time as the North American and French Revolutions.

Imperialism in Africa and the Black Atlantic

Another common topic in world history courses is late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperialism. It’s easy for us as teachers to think about how we frame the topic and what we are doing in our classes to make the topic meaningful to African-American students. 
 I’m guessing that I’m similar to many other teachers in that I begin my coverage of imperialism by having students examine the motives and methods of European and American imperialism before looking at the processes by which Europeans and Americans began to conquer and assert control over peoples around the world. One of the activities that I have frequently encountered is the “Scramble for Africa” simulation. A quick search on Google will reveal hundreds of links to this activity that has students recreate the Congress of Berlin (sometimes called the Berlin Conference) of 1884–1885. Students are divided into groups representing the major European powers at the Congress. (On a side note, most versions of this activity seem to leave out the United States and the Ottoman Empire, both of whom were also participants.) The students then take turns “claiming” parts of Africa and dividing up the continent. Some of the descriptions of this activity then mention the need for debriefing and discussion about the effects of this process on the peoples of Africa. 
 Putting aside the question of the validity of historical simulations themselves, I have always cringed when reading about this activity. In February 2015, I shared some of my thoughts about this activity on a private Facebook group devoted to Advanced Placement World History, and it produced an extensive conversation. Without going over the whole incident again, I want to highlight some of my concerns with this activity. I worry about activities like the “Scramble for Africa” simulation that turn historical events into games. This activity focuses exclusively on the role of Europeans and marginalizes the peoples of Africa. And unless we make sure to have a substantive debriefing process, I worry about the possibility of omitting any discussion of the effects of the partition of Africa. 
 One way to reframe how we teach the partition of Africa is to discuss openly who was involved in the process and what the effects of it were. In this contemporary German illustration of the conference proceedings, we can see who was at the conference.

I ask students to tell me who was at the table and what does the map on the wall suggest. I also ask them to think about who was not at the conference or about the person in the lower left corner. These questions make clear and transparent exactly who was involved in the process of partition and who was not. I follow up this discussion with a close examination of a series of maps depicting Africa’s ethnic groups and the newly established imperial boundaries. Azure Gilman has published a short piece on the Freaknomics blog looking at this same issue and connecting it to violence in Africa. The European established borders of Africa paid little attention to where different ethnic groups in Africa actually lived. 
 Another important way in making this material meaningful to African-American students is thinking about the active role of Africans in the process of imperialism. In a recent podcast about their new book Empires and Colonies in the Modern World, Heather Streets-Salter and Trevor Getz discuss the issue of imperial collaborators and resisters. Getz emphasizes the problem with presenting these groups as binary opposites. Instead of falling into that trap, we can help students see how many peoples in Africa actually worked with Europeans in the process of imperialism. Students hopefully will see Africans not as simple, passive actors who were the victims of European imperial activities, but as peoples who actively shaped the process of imperialism. 
 I like to include a discussion of American imperialism when teaching European imperialism. It helps students to see that while most Americans don’t think of their country as an imperial power, the policies of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century looked remarkably similar to European imperialism. I focus on the United States’ invasion of Haiti in 1915. The United States then maintained an occupation of Haiti until 1934 using the Marines. To mark the 100th anniversary of the invasion, Brandon Byrd published a series of short blog posts of the invasion and occupation that can be used in the classroom. In the two that I find most useful, he discussed the initial invasion and occupation and the reaction of the African-American community in the United States. He also published a useful bibliography of the United States’ occupation of Haiti.

Another aspect of imperialism to consider is the process of decolonization. Instead of focusing too much on the reasons that Europeans chose to let go of their colonies in Africa, we can focus the discussion on how Africans fought for their independence. The two key figures I include in these discussions are Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. Nkrumah’s speeches are a useful source for showing the ways in which Africans worked to gain independence and the idea of pan-Africanism. His “I Speak of Freedom” speech is a good example of these issues. Patrice Lumumba also discussed these issues in his 1958 “Speech at Accra” and his 1959 “African Unity and National Independence” speech
 Part of the reason that I include Lumumba and Nkrumah is to show how even as African leaders had played active roles in fighting for independence, Europeans and Americans ended up also killing or helping to overthrow many of these same leaders. By highlighting the violent ways that Americans and Europeans continued to be involved in the affairs of Africa after most countries had gained their independence, we help students to understand part of the reasons that many African countries continue to suffer from political instability. We can also connect this topic to the Americas as well in looking at the United States’ continued involvement in Haiti after the end of its occupation in 1934. Laurent Dubois’ short article on the Duvalier years in Haiti makes clear that the United States supported the brutal regimes of Jean-Claude and François Duvalier in the belief that they prevented the spread of communism to Haiti. 
 In looking at the broad topic of imperialism, it may seem that I have chosen to simply emphasize the brutal and violent practices of Americans and Europeans, while highlighting the ways in which Blacks fought for independence or resisted Western imperialism. There are obviously many examples I could provide as a counterpoint to this pattern (the Duvaliers in Haiti definitely brutally exploited the Haitian people). In thinking about the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have wanted to focus more on the oppression and the ways people resisted that oppression.

Blacks in the World Wars

Most modern world history courses include some discussion of the First and Second World Wars. Thinking about how we teach these wars presents another opportunity to address the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter in our classes. 
 The first way is to think about which regions are being discussed in teaching about the wars. I know that for myself I used to focus mostly on Europe, with a little attention paid to the involvement of the United States and East Asia. I’ve recently made more of a point to incorporate the role of Africa and how the wars affected Africa in my classes. Jacques Enaudeau and Kathleen Bomani published an article about taking advantage of the centenary of World War I to reconsider how we include Africa in the war. The British Council has put together a series of articles about the role of different regions in World War I. Daniel Steinbach has written about the way in which the First World War was misremembered in East Africa. Kwei Quartey has written about the important role of West Africa in helping the Allies win the Second World War
 In thinking about these wars, we can also focus on the important roles of African-Americans in these wars. By the time we are teaching about twentieth century events, we frequently incorporate more pictures in our discussions. Choosing to use photos of African-American soldiers may seem a minor change, but it’s also another way to address those guiding principles of Black Lives Matter. The New York Public Library has a rich site with a useful essay about and a number of photos of African-Americans and World War I. The National Archives has a rich collection of audiovisual records of African-Americans during World War II
 In looking at the role of Africans and African-Americans in World War II, we can help students see how black peoples around the world were actively involved in shaping these two major wars of the twentieth century. If we are going to continue insisting on calling these wars “world wars,” let make sure that we actually show how the whole world was involved in these wars.

Remaking Black Identity in the Twentieth Century

The last topic I want to consider is one that is less frequently taught, but I think it is most relevant to how we teach world history given the principles of Black Lives Matter. In his The World: A History Felipe Fernández-Armesto discusses the radical social changes, especially those related to related to ethnicity and race, of the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century, European ideas about racial hierarchies based on scientific racism were common around the world. Because of imperialism, Europeans controlled much of the world, and they promoted these racial hierarchies. Over the course of the twentieth century, many racial and ethnic groups challenged these hierarchies and characterizations of their groups as inferior to white Europeans. 
 Black peoples in both Africa and the Americas presented an entirely new and more positive depiction of peoples of African descent. Some of the more well known individuals and groups include Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Negritude, Pan-Africanism, Malcom X and the Nation of Islam, and the Rastafarian movement. By linking these people and groups together, we are able to show how black peoples in the twentieth century not only challenged European ideas about their racial inferiority, but they also presented a new, more positive image of Blacks. Connecting African-Americans from the United States to individuals from the Caribbean and Africa also highlights the interconnected nature of the history of Blacks. The stories and experiences of African-Americans from the United States become interwoven with the experiences of black peoples around the world in the twentieth century. One of the key resources I like to use in teaching this topic is the previous mentioned Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land. In this poem, Césaire himself links the experiences of black peoples throughout history and around the world.


In surveying these six topics, I hope I have provided some guidance and suggestions about how we can rethink some of the standard topics that we already teach in our world history courses. By consciously choosing to incorporate more stories about black peoples, we not only address the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, but we also present a more accurate version of history and begin to address the injustices in this world in a nonviolent manner. And maybe we can begin to construct a society based on the principles of nonviolence that also appeals to Coates.

Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on January 31, 2016.

Eurocentrism and the Myth of East Asian Isolation

The idea that China and Japan from c.1450 to c.1800 were “isolated” is one of the more persistent myths in world history. Each year at the AP World History reading, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I read some variation of this argument. It even has shown up in essays that have almost nothing to do with China and Japan’s foreign relations. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals these two examples. On Japan’s isolation:

In 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate (military dictatorship) ushered in a long period of isolation from foreign influence in order to secure its power. For 250 years this policy enabled Japan to enjoy stability and a flowering of its indigenous culture. (emphasis mine)

On China’s isolation:

After Zheng He’s voyages in the 15th century, the foreign policy of the Ming dynasty in China became increasingly isolationist. The Hongwu Emperor was the first to propose the policy to ban all maritime shipping in 1371. The Qing dynasty that came after the Ming dynasty often continued the Ming dynasty’s isolationist policies. (emphasis mine)


The tendency to label this period of East Asian history as “isolationist” reflects the pervasiveness of Eurocentrism in much world history. Eurocentrism is more than simply spending more time in our classes discussing events in Europe. It is a way of viewing of the world that privileges the experience of Europe and assumes that experience is a universal one. According to Robert Marks, “Eurocentrism is a way of knowing that establishes the criteria for what its practitioners deem to be ‘the facts.’ It is thus a paradigm, a set of assumptions about how the world works.” Instead of viewing historical events and processes (e.g., industrialization, development of representative governments, secularism) in Europe as just one regional pattern of historical development, we assume that the European pattern is somehow a universal standard.

Europeans during the Early Modern period are frequently applauded for their spirit of adventure and travels around the world. We even call this period the “Age of Discovery” or the “Age of Exploration.” Following a eurocentric model, we assume that sailing around the world, searching for wealth, proselytizing for one’s religion, and seeking new trade partnerships was normal because that is what Europeans were doing in this period. In looking at China and Japan in the Early Modern period, what we see are two states that approached foreign relations in ways that differed from Europe, but that does not mean either state was isolationist.


In the case of Japan, the idea of Japanese isolation is usually traced back to the Sakoku or “Closed Country” edicts of the late 1630s. These edicts outlawed most Europeans from trading in Japan and limited Japanese from leaving the country. If we think about Europe in the late 1630s, we find multiple European states establishing colonies and trading posts around the world. It would be easy to think about the advent of the sakoku policy as a turn to isolationism, but it would also be an inaccurate oversimplification.

Between 1640 and 1853 (when United States Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” Japan), Japan actively maintained connections to the outside world, but also tightly managed these connections. Despite ending trade with most Europeans, the Japanese continued to trade with the Dutch, as well as trading with the Chinese, Koreans, and Ainu. In his article “Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion,” Arano Yasunori argues that Japan managed its foreign relations through four portals:

Our understanding of Japan’s interaction with the rest of the world during this period has changed dramatically in the past two or three decades. Today most Japanese historians regard the Edo period as a time when Japan maintained active, if indirect, ties with the larger world through not one but four portals, under a system that allowed the nation to develop and eventually emerge as a modern state.

Yasunori shows how the Tokugawa Shogunate established four “portals” to oversee the country’s interactions with the outside world.

Using these four portals the Tokugawa shoguns were able to regulate trade relations with other states in a way that benefitted the Japanese. This “Japanocentric” system not only established the terms on which the Japanese engaged with the outside world, but it also helped contribute to a period of intense economic growth, urbanization, and social change in Japan.

The tendency to label this period of Japanese history as isolationist seems to be derived from the significantly different approach to foreign relations that the Japanese adopted compared to contemporary Europeans. Whereas the Europeans traveled around the world seeking out any possible trade connection, the Japanese remained mostly within Japan and strictly regulated how they engaged with the rest of the world.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Tokugawa Shogunate abandoned the sakoku policy. Within a few years, the government was overthrown and the Meiji Restoration began. Within a few decades, the Japanese had developed a modern economy and began challenging the industrialized powers of the world. Maybe another part of the tendency to label the Tokugawa as “isolationist” is to highlight the connection between the arrival of the West and Japan’s rapid modernization. In this way, it was only by abandoning its “isolation” from the West that the Japanese were able to modernize. If we stop thinking of the Tokugawa period as one of isolation, we need to begin considering how much Japan’s rapid modernization in the late nineteenth century was also due to the success of policies and trends in the Tokugawa period.


Whereas as the tendency to label the Japanese as isolationist seems to hinge on a single decision, there are a number of moments in the history of China between 1400 and 1800 where historians might be tempted to label China as isolationist. In looking closely at three of these key moments, we again see that the label reflects a eurocentric approach to history.

In the early fifteenth century, the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) sponsored a series of seven voyages under the leadership of Zheng He that are discussed in almost every world history textbook. The last voyage was completed in 1433, and the Chinese government chose not to send out any further voyages. It would be easy to see this decision as isolationist or seeing China as choosing to shut itself off from the world. At this same moment, the Portuguese were beginning to sail down the western coast of Africa, and Columbus would shortly later sail across the Atlantic Ocean. But just because Europeans were pushing themselves to establish new connections doesn’t mean that the Chinese government’s decision to stop sponsoring voyages was isolationist.

Much has been written about the voyages, but I like the short article by Kenneth Pomeranz “Woods, Winds, Shipbuilding, and Shipping: Why China Didn’t Rule the Waves” in The World that Trade Created. He argues that there are a number of factors to consider in making sense of the Chinese decision to end the voyages. Over time the goals of the voyages had been achieved. There had been changes in government, and the influence of the eunuchs at court was no longer as great as they had been. Deforestation in China drove up the cost of the timber and made the cost of the voyages prohibitive. Chinese traders increasingly relied on building ships in Southeast Asian shipyards owned by Chinese emigrants and allowing overseas based Chinese traders to rely more on shorter maritime routes within the existing Indian Ocean system. We quickly see that there was no turn to isolation in deciding to stop sending out the voyages under Zheng He; there was simply a decision not to engage with the outside world through large, state-sponsored voyages.

The second supposedly isolationist event is China’s establishment of the Canton System beginning in 1757. Some historians have viewed the decision to channel all overseas trade through the single port at Guangzhou (Canton) as an isolationist policy designed to limit growing European power and evidence of China’s opposition to free trade. Madeleine Zelin suggests that another way of thinking about the establishment of the Canton System was as a mutual decision:

Canton was the only port that really could provide the kind of facilities that foreign traders needed. Canton had a sufficient number of merchants, sufficient capital to be able to bring goods from the interior in sufficient amounts to make it worthwhile for foreigners to come all the way from England to China. The trip from England to China during this time was indeed very long, and ships only came once a year. The merchants bought everything they could to fill up the ships and soon set sail again.

In his The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700–1845, Paul Van Dyke expands on Zelin’s arguments by looking at the Canton trade from a bottom-up approach. For many years, the Canton System was actually set up in a way that benefitted trade rather than being an isolationist institution.

The third supposed example of Chinese isolationism is the Chinese government’s response to the British Macartney Embassy in 1793. Wanting to renegotiate the arrangement of the Canton System, the British sent Lord George Macartney to the Chinese court. The British asked the Chinese emperor to expand the number of ports at which authorized trade could take place, to gain British control over a small Chinese coastal island, and to establish a permanent British embassy in Beijing. Part of the reason for Macartney’s mission was that the current trade arrangement between the British and the Chinese was more lucrative for the Chinese. Britain’s growing demand for Chinese tea had resulted in a significant trade imbalance, which required the British to transfer large sums of silver to the Chinese.

After receiving Macartney’s embassy, the Emperor Qianlong sent a letter to Britain’s King George III explaining his reasons for rejecting the British requests. Qianlong made clear his opposition to changing trade relations:

Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

It would be easy to read the arrogance in Qianlong’s response as a sign of Chinese isolationism. Another way to consider this issue is following the lead of James L. Hevia in Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793. Instead of assuming that the British requests for “free trade” or mutual embassies are normal, we could also view the incident as a meeting of two different conceptualizations of sovereignty, foreign relations, and trade. It’s not that the Chinese were isolationist because of their refusal to follow the British vision of trade and diplomacy; they simply understood these things in different terms.


In thinking about the ways in which China and Japan have sometimes been labeled isolationist, it’s easy to see why this label was used a generation or two ago. The choices made by the Chinese and Japanese governments reflected concerns and world-views entirely different from those ideas that are now more common in the West. We often talk about the value of “free trade,” or we did until quite recently. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the British definitely talked a lot about free trade, especially when they were asking the Chinese to change long-established patterns. In looking at the current debate among candidates for the United States presidency about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we quickly get the sense that maybe free trade isn’t such a universal ideal anymore. Maybe we can learn from these competing views about free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and apply the same thinking to looking at the past. World history should encourage us to escape the limits of eurocentric thinking and see the world from a global perspective.

Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on January 26, 2016.

The Sound of History

In the spirit of Paperless History, I want to share a few of my favorite podcasts about history. I frequently find myself listening to a variety of podcasts (some about history, many about other topics). Historical podcasts are great for covering new research in history or going over a more traditional topic. Some of them even focus on how we apply these topics to our classroom teaching.

Given my interest in Middle Eastern history, the Ottoman History Podcast is easily my favorite. There are frequent issues with a wide range of scholars who specialize in the Middle East. The topics stretch back to the early Islamic Middle East right up to the present day. 
 Subscribe in iTunes

Another favorite is 15 Minute History from the University of Texas at Austin. The podcasters cover every historical topic you can imagine and interview a wide range of scholars. Each episode is just 15 minutes, but I always feel like I have walked away learning so much. 
 Subscribe in iTunes

The recently launched On Top of the World: A World History Podcast is quickly becoming another favorite. Dave Eaton, a professor of World History at Grand Valley State University and Matt Drwenski, a former AP World History teacher turned graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, have engaging conversations about a wide variety of world historical topics. They cover both the new research side as well as the application of these topics in the classroom. 
 Subscribe in iTunes

Another relatively new addition to the world of history podcasts is Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History. Despite the seemingly American-centric focus of the title, I’m impressed by how widely Covart casts her historical nets. There are a number of episodes that decenter the traditional narrative about early American history. 
 Subscribe in iTunes

My last favorite is Backstory with the American History Guys on NPR. They address some topic in the news right now and consider its historical roots going back to the eighteenth century. I love how they are able to provide rich historical context for the events unfolding around us today. 
 Subscribe in iTunes

Here’s a quick (nonexhaustive) list of some other history podcasts:

The easiest way to listen regularly to these podcasts is to use the Podcasts app built into iOS. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you already have the app. Or you can subscribe via iTunes on your Mac. 
 If you want something a little more powerful, I recommend checking out Overcast. You can download it on the iOS App Store.

Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on January 17, 2016.

Explanations, Conjunctures, and Teaching about the Islamic State

“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken in “The Divine Afflatus” in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917)

Recently it’s been almost impossible to look at a newspaper, watch a cable news show, or look at a news website and not find a story about ISIS (or the Islamic State) and why its adherents are attacking the West. I first noticed this trend right after the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, which is not exactly surprising. At the same time, I’ve been surprised (and a bit frustrated) by how frequently these articles and stories reduce the phenomenon of the Islamic State and the “logic” for its horrifying practices to a single explanation. Monocausal explanations are frequently found in popular media, which are trying to simplify the story for a larger audience. The ever entertaining Karl Remarks on Twitter poked fun at this tendency to simplify the Islamic State to a single sentence explanation.

The problem is that these simple explanations, with the notable exception of Karl Remarks’, are rarely adequate for fully understanding the reasons for why events happened, and they may even be misleading. In the classroom, we want to strive for more complexity and nuance.

Before we can even begin to think about how we might teach about the Islamic State, there’s the basic question of what to call it! Do we opt for the Islamic State or ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant) or Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the group’s full name)? There are reasons for using each name. The names we choose to use are loaded with meaning about how we think about the organization. Regardless of what we choose to call the Islamic State, we need to focus even more on understanding why it developed in the first place.

Instead of relying on the monocausal, or single sentence, explanation, we need to embrace a conjunctural or polycausal explanation of the Islamic State. Historical events, like almost everything in our lives, never occur because of a single reason. There are always multiple reasons for why things happen in the world. Human actions cannot be easily explained like mathematical equations. In trying to present a more comprehensive, conjunctural explanation for the Islamic State, I want to look at some examples of monocausal explanations.

Some of the earliest discussions of the Islamic State focused on the Islam part. In a frequently cited article “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains ISIS almost solely on the basis of its understanding and interpretation of Islam:

It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.

His singular focus on the role of Islam in analyzing the Islamic State and how it chooses to justify its actions almost makes sense given its name. It is the Islamic State, after all. A similar approach was often used in the wake of 9/11 to understand al-Qaeda. In both a journal article and subsequent book called “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” the Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani has discussed the tendency to oversimplify and distort these complex issues with “culture talk.” By focusing exclusively on the Islamic nature of the Islamic State, Wood presents a nice, simple explanation related to the cultural background of the organization. This explanation, while neatly packaged, also obscures the complex political and economic historical context of the actions of the Islamic State. The other significant problem with Wood’s approach is the question of the validity of his arguments. He basically accepts the claims of the Islamic State that its beliefs and practices are actually Islamic. In a response to the Wood article “What Is “Islamic”? A Muslim Response To Isis And The Atlantic”, Daniel Haqiqatjou and Yasir Qadhi argue that Wood mistakenly accepts the Islamic State’s beliefs and practices as truly Islamic. This presentation also contributes to a context in mainstream American society in which blaming all Muslims becomes easier.

Getting beyond the tendency to fall back on cultural talk, we need to explore the economic and political historical context for the development of the Islamic State. The only problem is that it should be the contexts, rather than the context. Multiple factors matter.

One popular explanation is to reduce the development of the Islamic State (and many other problems in the Middle East) to the legacy of Sykes-Picot. For those not familiar with early twentieth century European diplomatic arrangements, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was a 1916 secret agreement between the British and French, with Russian knowledge, made during World War I about how to partition Ottoman territories. After the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was broken up in ways that reflect some aspects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This argument has been picked up by a wide range of commentators. In a post on his own blog, Richard Falk, a former Princeton professor, presents the actions of the Islamic State as a backlash to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Michael Williams, a former British and United Nations diplomat, also blames the Sykes-Picot Agreement for creating the ethnic and sectarian divisions in the region that have given rise to the Islamic State. While there is a certain pleasure in blaming all the problems of the Middle East on a couple of scheming European diplomats a century ago, it’s not a complete explanation. James Gelvin, professor of History at UCLA, points out that despite Glenn Beck, Noam Chomsky, Bashar al-Assad, and the Islamic State all pointing the finger at the Sykes-Picot Agreement, there have simply been too many other factors since 1916. He attributed the widespread popularity of this explanation to the fact that:

it assigns culpability to individuals rather than complicated historical events or faceless apparatchiks meeting behind closed doors. For Middle Easterners, “Sykes-Picot” became code long ago for imperialist arrogance and the illegitimacy of the contemporary state system, whatever the agreement’s actual historical significance.

If we can’t blame scheming European diplomats, it seems that the next most preferred target is Saudi Arabia. Since the late eighteenth century, the Saud family has cooperated with imams that have supported the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd-al- (1703–1792). In exchange for backing the Saud’s family rule over much of the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi government has supported Wahhabi imams and promoted Wahhabi interpretations of Islam around the world. According to Alastair Crooke, the failure to maintain the expansionary and jihadist thrust of Wahhabism, while still globally promoting the message of Wahhabism, opened the door for the Islamic State. The Islamic State sees itself as completing a mission to spread true Islam that had begun in the eighteenth century. Karen Armstrong also blames the Saudis for facilitating the development of the Islamic State. Like Crooke, she argues that the Islamic State sees itself as fulfilling the mission first set out for the Wahhabis, but she also argues that Saudi Arabia also brought about the cultural conditions that have shaped the Islamic State:

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop.

Despite the role of Saudi Arabia, other scholars and journalists have looked elsewhere in the Middle East to identify the historical context for the development of the Islamic State. The authoritarian states which have dominated the Middle East since the end of World War II have also been seen as the source of the Islamic State. After the British and the French relinquished control of their mandates and protectorates (which was simply a nice way of saying colonies) in the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1940s to 1960s, indigenous Arab rulers took control of states across the region. These rulers were frequently secular, military elites who styled themselves as presidents of republics, but were essentially dictators. In an article in al-Monitor, Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, a specialist in Saudi Arabian history, acknowledges the influence of Islam and the policies of Saudi Arabia, but relegates them to a minor role compared to the policies of authoritarian states and their collapse since the beginning of the Arab Uprisings in late 2010:

It is simplistic to consider this recent wave of terrorism merely a reflection of indoctrination that glorifies violence in the name of Islam or a direct endorsement of bigoted preachers of hate, most of whom are affiliated in one way or another to the Wahhabi-Salafi religious discourse dominant in Saudi Arabia. The main reason for the violence is the progressive collapse of the old Arab authoritarian political order, in which dictators ruled with an iron fist. The order began to crumble with the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings. It was naive to think that the moment these dictators were deposed, a new era of democratic transitions would prevail across the region. Those dictators had already suffocated civil society and eliminated any force that might have endorsed democracy. They encouraged a nasty alternative of regulating and controlling people’s social and religious behavior.

Thanassis Cambanis, in an article that originally appeared in the Boston Globe also blames the authoritarian states for the development of the Islamic State:

An entire rotten cast of Middle East governments has spawned a lost era through misrule and repression. Rotten rulers are the root cause not just of the Islamic State but of hundreds of thousands of other deaths. A partial list of villains includes theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and secular nationalist states like Egypt and Syria.

While a number of individuals have pointed to policies and cultural traditions within the Middle East to explain the rise of the Islamic State, there is another group of scholars and journalists who look outside the Middle East, primarily to the policies of the French and American governments. During the nineteenth century France began colonizing Algeria, and expanded its imperial control into other parts of North Africa and the Middle East during the early twentieth century. Even after France withdrew from these colonies after World War II, the French have maintained close relations with their former colonies. Another approach to understanding the Islamic State is to highlight these policies, along with the French view of their nation as a bastion of secularism and republicanism, as the reasons for why the Islamic State attacked Paris in November. Ian Coller, a professor of History at University of California, Irvine, points to both the colonial legacy of France and France’s continued marginalization of Muslims living within France as the key reasons for the Islamic State’s attacks. He claims that while the French ruled over Muslims in multiple colonies for over a century, they never incorporated them into the French nation in the way that other religious groups were:

For 130 years, France carved out an empire in the Muslim world. France’s India, Canada, Australia were Morocco, Syria, Lebanon. Yet Islam was never recognized as a French religion in the way that Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism were.

Even after relinquishing control of their Muslim colonies, the French continued their policies of marginalizing Muslims as they migrated into and settled in France since the 1960s:

In Paris, above all, the bulk of the second and third generations of Muslims remain in a kind of colonial shanty-town on the outskirts of the wealthy, vibrant city where I was lucky enough to rent an apartment. This is the Arab Paris of today, a Paris that most tourists never see. It is a place of vibrant markets, hardworking families and close-knit neighbourhoods. It is also a place that breeds unemployment, crime, despair and radicalization.

Frank Gertis, in a post on Africa is a Country, pursues an argument similar to Coller. While acknowledging the specific colonial actions of the French or continued marginalization of Muslims within France, he focuses more on how the evolving French conception of themselves as a nation has left little room for competing interpretations of identity, especially the Islamic identity encouraged by the Islamic State:

At the same time, however, we should not dismiss the feelings of Frenchmen and Europeans who see the values of democracy and the open society violently attacked by men who feel excluded from those societies. Most observer points out with great subtlety that Daesh perverts the values of Islam as it is being practiced today. At the same time there is little attention for the recent history of French Republicanism and the values that have sustained the European integration process.

Another approach to understanding the Islamic State is to highlight the policies of the United States in the region. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the United States has maintained a regular military presence in the region. With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States overthrew the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein and began remaking the entire Iraqi state. According to Time’s Mark Thompson, it was the American policy of dismantling the existing Iraqi army that benefited the Islamic State. He argues that:

History shows that the U.S., beyond providing ISIS with war machines, also made a fateful decision that gave ISIS some of its best commanders and fighters.

A different way of looking at American policy is advocated by Toby Mathisen, a research fellow at Oxford. He points to decisions made by the American government during the 1980s to work closely with the Saudi government to fight the Soviet Union during the final decade of the Cold War. While acknowledging the influence of Saudi policies, Mathisen also makes clear that it was the involvement of the United States, and specifically its decision to work with the Saudis, that led to the development of the Islamic State:

The spread of extremist Islamist ideology is then as much a result of Western foreign policy as of Saudi machinations.

Mathisen’s argument is a good place to bring this survey of articles about the Islamic State to a close. Instead of focusing on a single issue in explaining the rise of the Islamic State and its decision to attack France in November, he links two governments’ policies: the United States and Saudi Arabia. If we want to understand fully the reasons for the development of the Islamic State, we need to broaden our horizons even further. With the possible exception of Graeme Wood’s argument about Islam and the Islamic State, these arguments all highlight an important cause of the Islamic State. The key is to recognize that we need to encourage students to integrate all these various singular explanations into a broader polycausal or conjunctural explanation. It may not be a pretty or “neat” explanation (according to Mencken), but at least it won’t be wrong. In this way, we not only help students have a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the Islamic State, but we also give them the analytical tools needed to make sense of a complex and integrated world.

Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on January 7, 2016.