A major tenet of my work for almost four decades is that the life experiences, values— as well as the historical and cultural context —influence the questions, findings, and interpretations of social scientists and educators. My research and scholarship is a case study of the influence of life story, socialization, and context on research and scholarship. I was born the year that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States officially entered World War II. A mantra of the United States during the war was that it was fighting to save democracy abroad. Yet the racial and social-class apartheid into which I was socialized and into which I came on age in the 1950s and 1960s was a stark contradiction of the nation’s mantra about fighting for democracy.
I grew up in the Arkansas delta in a community that was tightly racially segregated. Racial segregation was a salient part of every aspect of the community, including water fountains, public schools, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and of course, churches. Martin Luther King described Sunday morning as the most segregated part of the week in the United States. Blacks could not use the public library; its use was restricted to Whites. The community in which I grew up in Arkansas was not only tightly racially segregated; the resources given to Black and White institutions, such as schools and colleges, were blatantly unequal. Neither Blacks nor Whites questioned this inequality in public spaces. Blacks were harshly critical of segregation in their private spaces but were silent about racial inequality in their public sites and around Whites. The grip of institutionalized segregation was so tight and historic that it was conveyed as the natural order of things in public spaces and sites.
As a child in elementary school I wondered, often silently, what caused the inequalities that were salient within my school, town, and the other institutions within the community. I wondered, for example, why I had to walk more than five miles to and from school each day while the White students took a bus to school— which often passed us while we were walking to school each morning and splashed mud on us. The mud splashed by buses carrying Whites kids to school is one of my most poignant and enduring childhood memories.
One of my most powerful memories of school is the images of the happy and loyal slaves in my social studies textbooks. I also remember that there were three other Blacks in my textbooks: Booker T. Washington, the educator; George Washington Carver, the scientist; and Marian Anderson, the contralto. I had several persistent questions throughout my school days: Why were the slaves pictured as happy? Were there other Blacks in history beside the two Washingtons and Anderson? Who created this image of slaves? Why? The image of the happy slaves was inconsistent with everything I knew about the African American descendants of enslaved people in my segregated community. We resisted the segregation laws in powerful but subtle ways each day.
An Epistemological Journey
Throughout my schooling, these questions remained cogent as I tried to reconcile the representations of African Americans in textbooks with the people I knew in my family and community. I wanted to know why these images were highly divergent. My epistemological quest to find out why racial inequality exists in the United States and why the slaves were represented as happy became a lifelong journey that continues, and the closer I think I am to the answer, the more difficult and complex both my questions and the answers become.
I have lived with these questions all of my professional life. I now believe that the biographical journeys of researchers greatly influence their values, their research questions, and the knowledge they construct. The knowledge they construct mirrors their life experiences and their values. The happy slaves in my school textbooks were invented by the Southern historian Ulrich B. Phillips. The images of enslaved people he constructed reflected his belief in the inherent inferiority of African Americans and his growing up in Georgia in the late 1800s.
Black Studies and the Teaching of History
My interest in Black history and Black studies emerged from my African American teachers in elementary school, from growing up Black in the segregated South, and from my socialization in a Black community, including my participation in the Black church from an early age. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which reinforced my emerging interest in Black history and social justice.
I began my career teaching elementary school in Joliet, Illinois and in Chicago. My successful experience teaching about famous African Americans led me to believe that history related to the experiences of students could help motivate them to learn. Consequently, my first book was a Black history textbook for junior high school students, March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans (1970). My second book— Teaching the Black Experience (1970) — was designed to help teachers teach Black history effectively.
The initial focus of my work was teaching Black history and teaching history more generally. My work has continually expanded over the years —from teaching Black history, to ethnic studies, to multiethnic education, to multicultural education, and finally to the global dimensions of diversity and citizenship education. However, Black studies and the education of African American students remain an important anchor of my work as it expands and becomes more inclusive.
Teaching Ethnic Studies
In 1971, I served on a California Textbook Task Force on which I met and interacted with scholars from other racial and ethnic groups who were deeply committed to racial equality and social justice. They influenced me greatly and became life-long friends. After meeting them, I began to see the fates of all marginalized racial and ethnic groups as tightly interconnected. After the California Textbook Task Force experience, I broadened my conceptualization of teaching the social studies and of curriculum reform to include a range of ethnic groups. In 1973, I edited a book that includes chapters on different U.S. ethnic groups, Teaching Ethnic Studies: Concepts and Strategies, which was the 43rd Yearbook of National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). It was a landmark and influential publication.
In 1975, I authored a college textbook, Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies. It was the first textbook published in the U. S. that included a theory for teaching ethnic studies, historical and sociological summaries of the major ethnic groups, and strategies for teaching key concepts with content from the various ethnic groups. This book has been a best seller since it was published and has sold more than 100,000 copies during its 36-year history in eight editions.
The Global Dimensions of Diversity and Multicultural Education
While my work expanded over the years from Black studies, to ethnic studies, to multiethnic education, and to multicultural education, I had a nascent interest in international and global issues related to diversity in the early days of my career. During my first sabbatical in 1976, I studied multicultural education in Hawaii, Mexico, Puerto Rico, France, and the United Kingdom. I published this work in Social Education (March 1978, pp. 177-185), the leading journal in the U.S. for social studies teachers and scholars. I accepted an invitation from the British Academy in 1983 to give a series of lectures at British universities on multicultural education. In 1986, I co-edited Multicultural Education in Western Societies with James Lynch, the dean and a professor of education at Sunderland Polytechnic (now the University of Sunderland) in the United Kingdom.
My most recent work focuses on citizenship education and diversity within a global context. Its goal is to reform citizenship education so that it will advance democracy as well as be responsive to the needs of cultural, ethnic, and immigrant groups within multicultural nation-states. An important publication from my global diversity and citizenship education work is a book that consists of chapters that were originally presented as papers at the conference, “Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship Education in Multicultural Nation-States,” held at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, June 17-21, 2002. Participants were from 12 nations: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Israel, Palestine, Japan, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The conference concluded that effective citizenship education programs balance unity and diversity by promoting national unity as well as incorporating cultural components of diverse groups into the national civic culture. Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives (2004), which I edited, contains the theories, insights, and findings from the Bellagio Conference. A follow-up publication, Democracy and Diversity: Principles and Concepts for Educating Citizens in a Global Age provides guidelines for practicing educators.
My first book published by Routledge, Race, Culture, and Education: The Selected Works of James A. Banks, is a career-long collection of my most significant articles, book chapters, and papers. It describes the evolution of my research and scholarship over nearly four decades as well as the evolution of the field of multicultural education. This collection shows how the growth of the field has mirrored my development as a scholar, teacher, and researcher. It also documents my leading role in founding the field of multicultural education and how my work expanded over the years from Black studies to citizenship education and diversity in an international context.
The Routledge International Companion to Multicultural Education
I conceptualized and edited The Routledge International Companion to Multicultural Education to continue my work on diversity and citizenship education within an international context that was developed at the 2002 Bellagio conference. The Companion is designed to provide researchers, students, and educational practitioners with a one-volume reference that describes the research, concepts, theories, and practices in multicultural education in nations around the world. This volume also illustrates how multicultural education is a contested concept both within and across nations and how it reflects— in complex and nuanced ways— the national, social, and political context in which it is embedded. Another goal of this Companion is to advance theory, research, and practice in multicultural education by providing a volume that researchers and educational practitioners can use to enrich their work with insights and findings from scholars and practitioners in other nations.
The Companion includes 40 chapters written by authors from nations around the world. It is organized around concepts and uses case studies from different parts of the world to exemplify and illustrate the concepts. Case studies are drawn from many nations, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Bulgaria, Russia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico. The goal of the Companion, like all of my work, is to advance theory, research, and practice in multicultural education and contribute to the attainment of social justice and equality for students around the world. You can learn more about my work at my university webpage.