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Kathleen Belew on Teaching Histories of Violence


Kathleen Belew is a postdoctoral fellow in History at Northwestern University. Her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America is under contract with Harvard University Press. She is a founding member of the Histories of Violence Collective.

What classes do you teach and at what level?

I teach an assortment of undergraduate classes, ranging from the U.S. history survey, to an upper-level lecture course on Histories of Violence in the United States, to specialized seminars on the American Vigilante and Aftermath of the Vietnam War.

How is it for your students to learn U.S. history from the perspective of violence?

I find that many students are most comfortable with a progress narrative of twentieth-century U.S. history, one that appears in many mainstream and scholarly forms. This story presents violence, poverty, inequality, and racial strife as problems of the past, with hardship concentrated in the early twentieth century and conditions generally improving over time, either as a result of social movements or as the result of economic change. However, this model doesn’t prepare students for the history of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, a time of continuing racial inequality despite promises of a colorblind and postracial era; increasing militarization of multiple elements of American domestic society; and the emergence of a new category of stateless subjects outside both the protection of nations and the idea of human rights. My teaching goal is to disrupt the progress narrative and challenge the preconceptions of my students by emphasizing long periodizations and intersecting violent experiences.

Do you address current events with your students as it relates to your classes? If so, please share an example.

Current events are constantly shaping classroom discussions whether or not we acknowledge them, so I try to connect them directly to course materials. Consider a long history of lynching: anti-lynching activism, as historians have argued, gave rise to the “long” civil rights movement. One of the central documents of this movement at midcentury, We Charge Genocide, used a new language of human rights to appeal to the United Nations, arguing that the state was complicit in lynching because it failed to protect its citizens from such violence. Anti-lynching activism is a story about the 1890s–1930s; We Charge Genocide appeared in 1951; and activists today are using “We Charge Genocide” as a slogan to oppose militarized policing in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Drawing these long arcs of history—1890 to midcentury to the present—creates meaningful learning experiences for undergraduates because it connects historical material to their daily lives.

Do you utilize images when teaching histories of violence in the classroom? If so, how do you set them up for students? 

I teach with many kinds of visual materials, including what some might consider disturbing or graphic historical images. Including these in the discussion allows students to connect violent events of the past with those of the present. In analyzing these historical images, students also develop the skills needed to critically analyze visual, as well as textual, records of and responses to violence in our current moment. In each case I create a frame for students to encounter these images, positioning them in historical context and asking questions about the responsibility of the viewer. For instance, rather than showing lynching photographs alone, I pair them with the artwork of Ken Gonzales-Day. By removing the victims from many of these well-known and extensively circulated photographs, Gonzales-Day has shifted the focus to perpetrators, technologies, and structures. His altered images, read next to historical photographs that do include images of lynching victims, spark a broader conversation about violence, technology, and spectatorship that moves far beyond shock and voyeurism and into historical inquiry and ethical reflection. While these materials are difficult and upsetting, it is precisely this quality that makes them such invaluable tools for understanding both the violence of the past and the through lines that connect them to the present moment.

Can you please share with us a little about your current book project?

My book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (under contract with Harvard University Press), explores how white power activists wrought a cohesive social movement through a common story about the Vietnam War and its weapons, uniforms, and technologies. By uniting previously disparate Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead, and other groups (here and elsewhere I adopt the terms these activists used in self-description), the movement carried out escalating acts of violence that ricocheted through Latin America, Southern Africa, and the United States, revealing white power as a transnational phenomenon. It emphasizes the ways this paramilitary fringe movement augmented, clashed with, and challenged other militarizations in the same time period, including paramilitary foreign policy and extralegal interventions; militarized policing; and the growth of the carceral state. White power activists often collided with refugees displaced by U.S. warfare, and reinforced state border patrols at home and covert interventions abroad. While some have understood these actors as part of a culture of masculinity, white power paramilitarism was also a cohesive social movement comprising a wide range of activists and supporters, including women and families.

You’ve chosen to go into a research field that seems to have generated a fair amount of push back from the broader public. Do you approach historical questions from the stance of an activist? What challenges do you face as a historian writing for a general audience? How do you see this feeding back into the classroom?

I approach my work as an historian—I don’t enter the archive hoping to prove a political point, but to make sense of historical actors and events. Understanding the white power movement requires a larger analysis of multiple militarizations in recent U.S. history. This can be unsettling, because such militarizations are deeply interwoven into our daily lives, and to speak about them directs our gaze to uncomfortable truths. In this case, the historical archive demands changes to our understanding of warfare, which we usually understand as contained in a specific time and place. Instead, war is a violence that overflows these boundaries. All of us live in a particular historical context. Just as historians have to learn the ways in which the present moment shapes what we write, students have to grapple with the ways in which it shapes what we can and cannot think, what we can and cannot ask. At their best, history courses, just like history books, begin to dismantle these boundaries and give rise to new ideas.

Are there any writings or pedagogical tools for teaching histories of war and/or violence that you would recommend?

Histories of Violence is a field that demands close attention to pedagogy. In fact, I ask my students to engage this very question; rather than writing a final paper, they complete a final project focused on public history. They choose among constructing a museum or memorial, writing a grade-school curriculum, or creating an app that delivers a history or several histories of violence to a general audience. They consider questions of content, funding, ethical framing, and more. They also present these projects to their classmates at the end of the quarter, which creates a community discussion around pedagogical issues. They have created some really interesting, vivid, and intellectually insightful projects, ranging from a “museum of the border” that would travel between Mexico and the United States, to an app showing the sites of gun deaths in Chicago in the context of a long history of residential segregation, and a supplementary unit designed to augment 7th grade local history in Indiana with an examination of that state’s deep involvement with the second-era Ku Klux Klan.

To support this project, students read on critical pedagogy, museum and memorial construction, performance art and history, or the teaching of history, as is relevant to their topic. I assign these readings individually; some examples have included Henry A. Giroux, “Education After Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno’s politics of education,” Cultural Studies, 18 (no. 6, 2004), 779-815; Susana Torre, “Constructing Memorials,” in Experiments in Truth, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Kassel, 2002); James Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, 1993); and Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia, 2001). I would also recommend these materials to people formulating courses in Histories of Violence.

Below, take a look at some of the final projects that Dr. Belew and her students generously shared with us:

Georgia B.

Georgia B.’s smartphone app presents statistics on mass incarceration that illustrate scholarly arguments connecting it to Jim Crow-era segregation; the app would connect interested users to existing activist movements, joining historical content with social action.

Adelina P.

Adelina P.’s “The Forgotten Women’s Museum” brings this history of Korean comfort women and camptown women into public memorialization, highlighting the intersections of warfare, gender violence, and transnational migration.

Adelina P. 2

Adelina’s museum design.

Haley K. 1

Haley K.’s teaching curriculum on racialized mobility and immobility, designed for middle-schoolers within walking distance of a new bus line that will join several heavily segregated Chicago neighborhoods, concludes with the students designing a memorial that will bring this history into view for Chicago commuters.

Haley K. 2

Close-up of Haley’s project.

Alex H.

Alex H.’s “1033” smartphone app would aggregate news stories about militarized policing, create individualized content based on topics of interest and areas of occurrence, and provide historical context for understanding breaking news.