“READER, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true.”
These are the very first words that appear in Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” Harriet Jacobs – a brave woman who escaped slavery, joined the abolitionist movement and dedicated her life to educating the children of former slaves – is one of the many historical figures my students meet through the reading of memoirs, diaries, letters and other first-hand accounts.
Although written more than 150 years ago, Jacobs’ narrative continues to resonate with today’s students who often empathize, and on occasion identify, with her sorrows, cares and joys. Jacobs may not have realized that her autobiography would still be popular in 2017, but her admonition to trust the details of her life story, which she matter-of-factly refers to as “adventures,” is still relevant to today’s readers who are far removed from the “incredible” events of her life.
Teaching history in a world that is focused on the present and often consumed with thoughts of the future is challenging. I have found that one of the best ways to connect students with the past is to introduce them to real people from history whose experiences and emotions are often similar to their own.
Students are regularly surprised to find that people who lived 100 or even 1,000 years ago bore the same fears, expressed the same ambitions and enjoyed the same affections as people today. When asked to read an 18th-century letter written by Johannes Hänner, a German-speaking immigrant to Pennsylvania, my students remark on his optimism, courage and commitment to his family, all of which are characteristics that they also value. Similarly, students report that they are touched by the heart-breaking story of Elizabeth Sprigs, a young Englishwoman who struggled to survive in colonial Virginia as an indentured servant. The pain she expresses from being far from home and separated from family is still tangible today.
First-hand accounts also give students an opportunity to become more familiar with well-known historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Washington’s “Farewell Address,” where he announces that he will not run for re-election in 1796, gives students insights into the first president’s views of his own administration as well as his aspirations for the country’s future.
At the same time, first-hand accounts introduce students to figures who would have been forgotten had it not been for a letter, diary entry or court record that has kept their name alive in the historical record. In my Western Civilization class, we read a petition from an obscure working-class woman named Marguerite Pinaigre who participated in the 1789 attack on the Bastille in Paris, an event credited with the start of the French Revolution. In her petition to the French government, she recounts how she collected broken glass from the streets and carried it in the folds of her apron so that it could be used in the cannons to break down the prison’s main gate. Her short but exciting tale gives students a glimpse into actions of an ordinary and unlikely individual who played an important role in a now famous event.
Once students begin to understand and even identify with historical figures – famous or otherwise – they will be better able to make connections between the past and today. They can begin to see the relevance of events from long ago and realize how these events, and individuals, have shaped the world we live in today. My hope is that they will continue to learn about people from the past and feel a connection to those who lived before them long after they finish my class.
• Amy Powers is an associate professor of history at Waubonsee Community College.