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Chronological Thinking: Historical Periodization

History is a vast subject. To make studying it more manageable, historians divide the past into periods. A period is a defined block of time; the years included in a period have something in common, but what that common factor is may vary. Some periods are based on important events (The Revolutionary War); others on cultural trends (The Roaring Twenties), a decade (the 1990s), or a prominent person of the time (Napoleon). Often, periods overlap—one period is ending while another begins.

The scholars who put together the Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, organized the historical information into sections that could be considered periods. Study the description of these sections in the Exhibition Overview.

  • What is the common element in most of the periods—important events, cultural trends, decades, or prominent persons who were influential at the time? Which period stands out as being different from the others?
  • Make a list or chart of the periods, showing the years included in each. Where is there overlap? Why do you think the scholars who planned the presentation separated these overlapping periods rather than combining them into one period?
  • What events were taking place at these times? What impact did these events have on African Americans? What, if any, impact did African Americans have on these events?
  • Creating periods is an arbitrary process, shaped by the interests and values of the scholars doing the periodization. Look at the information presented about the “Booker T. Washington Era.” Why might scholars have named this era for Booker T. Washington? What other name might they have given this same span of years? How would changing the name affect your understanding of the era?
  • The last events covered in the Special Presentation occurred in the early 1970s. If you were to add events that have occurred since the 1970s to this presentation on the history of African Americans, what would you call the new period? Explain your answer