Anthropology and Black History Lesson Plan

  • This material should take no more than 8 hours to complete; students can dedicate an average of 15 minutes per day throughout February to manage the workload.
  • You’re strongly encouraged to import the corresponding Canvas Shell into your course
  • Audio lessons can be streamed on Soundcloud
  • Explain the ways in which legacies of colonialism impact our field and our modern world
  • Define the four fields of anthropology using specific examples from the work of modern anthropologists
  • Apply the intersectionality when examining cultural beliefs and practices
  • Apply the principle of cultural relativism when examining cultural beliefs and practices
  • Explain the importance of ethical fieldwork and participant observation
  • Critique the concept of “race” and deconstruct racist views

February 1: Introduction to Anthropology

Anthropologists define our discipline as “the study of humanity;” this area of research should consider diverse perspectives in order to best understand the complete human experience. But, like so much of our modern world, anthropology is dominated by primarily Euro-centric paradigms and White voices that can hinder our understanding of the full range of humanity as a diverse species.

February 2: What is anthropology?

As you engage with this anthropology course, you may be unclear on what anthropologists do. As anthropology is the study of humanity, the work of anthropologists spans a wide range of subjects and touches upon all areas of the human experience. While anthropology includes four distinct fields, all anthropologists consider the perspectives and evidence from all four fields in order to gain a “big picture” understanding of what it means to be human. So, at this point in the course, it’s important that you know something about all four fields.

  1. Cultural Anthropology
  2. Biological Anthropology
  3. Linguistics
  4. Anthropological Archaeology

February 3: Holism and Intersectionality

Anthropologists embrace the “four-field” approach toward the study of humanity because we acknowledge that there are connections between the cultural, biological, linguistic, and material aspects of human life. In fact, these connections are quite common; no part of the human experience exists in total isolation.

  • Medical anthropologists worked in West Africa throughout the Ebola epidemic. Simply examining the genetic material of the virus was not sufficient in understanding why and how the disease spread so rapidly. Anthropologists therefore looked to the religious beliefs and practices of the community to learn that some West African communities touch and hold the bodies of their deceased loved ones as part of their religious and cultural ritual. Holistically combining this cultural knowledge with the scientific knowledge that Ebola is still contagious immediately after a person’s death, social scientists and doctors were able to see the big picture and to understand the progression of the epidemic (Wilkinson et al., 2017).
  • Marriage is practiced in a variety of ways and, in some rural Tibetan communities, women marry multiple men at the same time; most commonly a woman will marry all of the brothers from one family. We call this “fraternal polyandry”. Anthropologists have examined this practice at length and, by examining the culture holistically, we understand that a variety of factors cause a family to enter this type of marriage (Starkweather and Hames, 2012). In traditional Tibetan society, families prefer to keep their farms intact without splitting the land between children (fraternal polyandry keeps the entire farm intact within the same family) (Goldstein 1987). Traditional Tibetan society does not employ the same gender expectations that forbid a woman from having multiple husbands. So, by looking at the big picture and considering farming traditions, rules of inheritance, gender roles, and sexuality in this society, we can understand why these communities would practice fraternal polyandry.

February 4: Intersectionality and Black Feminism

Anthropologist Irma McClaurin coined the term “Black Feminist Anthropology” as she developed a new methodology for anthropological scholarship. This movement within anthropology frames cultural issues in a way that fully embraces the intersection of both anti-racist scholarship and feminist scholarship (two fields that have an unfortunate history of being mutually exclusive). In McClaurin’s view, this new approach to anthropology is a form of knowledge production that better represents the communities it strives to examine. McClaurin calls her work a “Black feminist anthropological intervention.”

February 5: Worldview

When studying the human experience, anthropologists consider a community’s and/or individual’s worldview. Your worldview is the way that you view the world including:

  • Your understanding of “good” and “bad.”
  • Your understanding of “better” and “worse.”
  • Your ideas of how people should behave.
  • Your idea of what gender roles are.
  • Your idea of what justice is.
  • Your understanding of history.
  • Etc.

February 6th: An Overview of Anthropology’s Relationship with Colonialism

The history of anthropology is connected to the problematic history of colonialism. The actual “beginning” of anthropology is hard to identify because human beings have, to some extent, always been interested in studying each other. Long before anthropology was officially recognized as a field of study, early travel writers and philosophers from ancient societies all over the world studied and wrote about the diversity of human culture (Guest 68). But, before colonialism, anthropology was a field of study that often had no clear value to those who held power in their respective societies (Lewis 269, 300).

  • Producing propaganda that presented native peoples as “savage” or less-than-human (while producing propaganda that their own people were “civilized”). When these early anthropologists were viewed as “experts,” they were taken at their word by Europeans living at home. And, when anthropologists produced accounts of culture that were steeped in racism, they were justifying the abusive control that European powers sought to keep over the rest of the world (Crewe and Axelby 28–31; Kuper 111; Willis 123).
  • Developing a hierarchy of cultural value. European anthropologists believed that their culture was, inherently, the “best” culture. They then strove to compare all other cultures against that standard in order to determine which people were more advanced than the rest. This logic is inherently flawed because the European standard of greatness is not a universal standard and these cultural hierarchies were not objective (Ibid; Trouillot 2003; 1; Mines 312–313).
  • Collecting census data. By surveying the number and types of people in each community, the colonial governments could better exercise control. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning the local culture and languages. It was easier to control a population if you could understand how they spoke to each other and about themselves. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning about local judicial systems so that the foreign governments could use them to better control the local population. (Ibid)

February 7th: William S. Willis on Anthropology’s Colonial Heritage

As the field of anthropology was initially steeped in colonial interests, many anthropological projects sought to advance the idea of biological determinism (the false idea that people’s traits and characteristics are biological). With early anthropologists seeking this connection between biology and culture, early biological anthropologists and cultural anthropologists produced bodies of work attempting to establish a discrete and hierarchical categorization of the races while similarly demonstrating the racial connection to cultural development.

February 8th: Introduction to Cultural Relativism

Colonial anthropologists practiced ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the practice of measuring the achievements or cultural practices of another community against your own cultural standards. In other words, if your favorite color is blue then you might say that a green car is ugly because it isn’t blue. In this circumstance, we know that the judgment is not objective because not everyone agrees that blue is better than green. This was the logical mistake that many fields made during the Era of European expansion: they decided that European culture was the best and then measured everyone else’s value against how ‘European’ their cultures were (Hammond 1; Lewis 586).

  1. This belief prevents antisocial behavior. We define antisocial behavior as any behavior that does not conform with society’s expectations. So, for example, if you get into a fight with a person in public and then learn that they fell and broke their leg afterward, you might be accused of hurting them with your anger. In Azande society, a person who is accused of witchcraft is often kicked out of the community or sometimes killed. So, many of the Azande will make an effort to maintain composure and to not behave with great jealousy because they don’t want to be accused of being witches if the person they fought with has some bad luck (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 419). Anthropologists call these “witchcraft accusations” and they serve the function of preventing antisocial behavior (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 25).
  2. This belief explains misfortune or suffering. To many human beings, life can feel exceptionally illogical and out of our control. All cultures find a way to explain why bad things happen. Witchcraft beliefs explain misfortune by tying the misfortune to people’s intentions (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 30).

February 9th: Sheila Walker Reframes Ethnocentrism

The question of ethnocentricity is re-framed by anthropologist Sheila Walker. In “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism: Some Reflections from An Afrocentric Anthropologist,” Walker argues that anthropologists should recognize our colonial history as, actually, one of Eurocentrism whereby early anthropological works prioritized and centered the cultures and norms of people with White/European heritage. Walker makes the point that ethnocentrism can be defined as a focus and appreciation for one’s own group. Ethnocentrism, in this way, can actually allow anthropologists to focus, specifically, on studying people with whom they feel kinship in order to bring that essential insider perspective into anthropological discourse. Walker calls this positive ethnocentrism and labels her own work as “Afrocentric.” Walker has extensively researched issues facing the African Diaspora and centers these perspectives in her own work.

February 10: Participant Observation

Colonial armchair anthropologists were largely failing to capture the true realities of people living across the globe because their perspectives and goals were marred by the colonial endeavor. Today, we embrace an essential fieldwork strategy called participant observation in order to better examine and reflect the realities of our communities of study.

  1. Stay for an extended period of time: This may seem obvious to us now, but it was groundbreaking at the time. Malinowski wanted to make sure that anthropologists spent years living among the people they were studying in order to have enough time to fully understand all elements of the culture.
  2. Learn the local language: If you are multilingual then you know that different languages lead to different ways of thinking. Malinowski realized that you can’t understand a community if you can’t learn how they speak about themselves and about the world.
  3. Explore the mundane imponderabilia: in other words, “make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange.” Anthropologists strive to make sense of cultural practices that seem “strange” while equally trying to identify what might be unique or “strange” from an outsider’s perspective in order to highlight what, exactly, is a social construct in our own cultures.
  4. Get off the veranda:” Malinowski wanted anthropologists to leave their homes and actively participate in the cultural practices of the people they were studying (DeWalt 1–17). It is only by getting off the veranda and participating, while also observing, that we can ever fully know the people that we are studying.

February 11: Fieldwork Ethics

Anthropologist Delmos Jones conducted research in three separate areas: among the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, among the Lahu of Northern Thailand, and within the Black community of Denver, Colorado. Each of these areas of research led Jones to profound conclusions that shaped the future of anthropology, and his work within Black communities in Denver offered a particularly powerful insight toward the power of “native anthropology”. Jones writes, “I am an intrinsic part of the social situation that I am attempting to study. As part of the situation, I must also be part of the attempt to forge a solution (Jones 255).”

  1. Do No Harm: Above all else, anthropologists must not harm their communities of study. This principle emphasizes the role of anthropologists as researchers whereby we must not experiment on or manipulate the communities who we are striving to better understand. Additionally, we cannot publish information that would jeopardize the safety or wellbeing of the community.
  2. Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work: Deception has no role in anthropological fieldwork. Anthropologists must remain transparent about our work. We share the purpose and implications of our fieldwork with our informants.
  3. Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions: Before conducting any interviews or field observations, anthropologists must communicate their research interests and purpose to their informants and gain informed consent. Information gathered without consent cannot be used in any anthropological publications.
  4. Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties: Anthropologists must consider how time, research, and publication might impact the people and institutions who we research and work with. Vulnerable groups must be protected and prioritized in fieldwork, research, and publication.
  5. Make Your Results Accessible: The communities that we study have a right to understand and engage with any publications that result from our fieldwork. Your conclusions must be made available to the people who we interviewed and observed.
  6. Protect and Preserve Your Records: Anthropologists must keep their research preserved (while protecting confidentiality).
  7. Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships: Anthropologists are required to respect colleagues and informants alike. Always credit informants or fellow anthropologists for their own information and research while always prioritizing equitable workplaces and field sites.

February 12: Presenting Ethnographic Research

Anthropological fieldwork traditionally results in the production of written texts, called ethnographies, that reflect the beliefs and practices of a particular culture. But, written work is not the only way to convey our anthropological findings.

February 13: The Construction of Race

As you recall, the colonial effort was structured around the idea of European supremacy whereby European colonial powers systematically took control of lands, resources, and peoples across the world under the false guise of European superiority (Buck 31–67; Bejarano et al 17). In many parts of the world, clear racial delineations did not exist before the arrival of European colonial powers; these colonial governments designed and implemented rigid racial hierarchies in order to justify their own system of control (ibid). A standard colonial strategy followed the idea that, if people are separated into distinct groups, assigned limited roles in society, and then placed upon a hierarchical structure that prevents cooperation and resistance then they are easier to control and dominate (Willis 123).

February 14: Race and Biology

Each cell in our body contains DNA. DNA is packaged as chromosomes, and these always come in pairs. These pairs are called homologous chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. A gene is a section of a chromosome that has a particular function, and the matching sections of paired chromosomes work together to carry out that function. Any particular gene can come in different varieties. Some genes come with two variations and some come with more than two variations. These variations are called alleles. The way that a gene functions will depend on which alleles are present on the chromosomes at that gene. When an individual carries the same allele on their paired chromosomes, they are called homozygous for that gene. When an individual has different alleles for a gene, they are called heterozygous for that gene.

  • Blood Type: A person can either have type A, B, O, or AB blood
  • Cleft chin: A person either has a cleft chin or does not
  • Earlobe attachment: A person either has attached earlobes or detached earlobes
  • In Brazil, race is based on skin tone. In this way, a person can actually be a different race than their own parents (Guest).
  • In the United States, race is based largely on parentage. While physical characteristics are key in determining race, we typically assign a person’s race based on what races their parents are. The United States implemented the “rule of hypodescent” which categorized mixed-race people with any amount of African heritage as “Black” and not at all white. Initially, this rule was used to expand power over the enslaved population (Delgado and Stefancic 152).
  • In South Africa, race is based on ancestry (African ancestry, European ancestry, etc.). In contested cases, the “pencil test” was used whereby people were asked to place a pencil in their hair and, if the pencil didn’t fall out, they were categorized as Black. Black people were then separated from society’s essential resources throughout the era of Apartheid.

February 15: Closely Examining Race

When forensic and physical anthropologist Charles Preston Warren began his career, racial categories were incorrectly considered to be permanent, unchanging, and biological. Warren focused his research on a group of darker-skinned communities in the Pacific who were misunderstood both biologically and culturally. His work was an early example of disproving the biological reality of race by utilizing holistic research.

February 16: Vindicationism

Anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima researched pre-colonial technologies to combat the myth of African inferiority. Due to colonization, genocide, slavery, and other destructive forces, the general public has limited knowledge of what life was like in many pre-colonial countries. In African history, for example, many people can only recall as far as the arrival of Europeans. Meaning that various African lifestyles before the 15th century have been neglected in academia. Van Sertima sought to deconstruct the “myths about [Black] fundamental inferiority” through his research and publications on the African presence in the Americas prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus (Cush, 2009).

February 17: Applied Anthropology

Modern anthropologists know that no racial or cultural group is truly homogenous. When we conduct fieldwork, it’s essential to seek out diverse members of any given community in order to ensure that we are examining the cultural experience from all possible angles and circumstances. Anthropologist Vera Mae Green identified research shortcomings in anthropology by highlighting the fact that the vast diversity within the African Diaspora was not fully recognized in anthropological research. Ultimately, she argued, anthropology’s biases were present in the way that Black people were both researched and represented.

February 18: Anthropology and Abolitionism

As applied anthropologists seek to use their expertise to enact change in academia, policy, and the world at large, many anthropologists who closely examine the American judicial system have embraced an abolitionist framework within which to better explain inequalities in the American judicial system. Abolitionism is applied as a critique of the judicial system that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities.

February 19: Critical Thinking and the Production of Knowledge

At this point, you need to understand how important critical thinking is in this class (and, indeed, in all classes). Each anthropologist that we read and study in our course will have a political viewpoint, personal bias, and academic agenda. All people are steeped in a particular worldview and this worldview will inevitably come through in our work. Some anthropologists have historically worked to construct groups of people as subhuman while some modern anthropologists might fail to fully recognize a damaging cultural practice within a community. Please prepare yourself to critically examine everything that you read and learn in this course and in this text. Anthropologists are humans studying humans and our perspectives will always be present in our work.

February 20: Power and Story-Telling

Much of our understanding of the world around us is framed by the stories that we are told. In classrooms, from news desks, and at the dinner table, stories shape our sense of self and — often — our sense of morality. Anthropologists know that the most powerful in any given society typically define the narratives that shape our culture’s ideologies. Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot paved the way to closely examine power and story-telling by fusing together his expertise in both historical and cultural analysis.

February 21: “Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion”

How have religious texts been altered throughout history to maintain power? Listen to NPR’s story titled, “Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion” to learn more.

  1. What types of material were removed from this Bible? What portions were left in? What does this tell you about the way that myth was used to shape behavior and worldview within these colonies?
  2. Have you seen something like this in your own life? How do people include or exclude religious excerpts in order to meet a political agenda today?

February 22: Intersectionality Reflection

Watch Kimberle Crenshaw’s Ted Talk to better understand intersectionality.

  1. What does Crenshaw mean when she speaks about “frames”? How do these frames tangibly impact our cultural lives?
  2. What is the “problem” that Crenshaw proposes? How can a new word (intersectionality) help us understand the reality of this problem?
  3. How is this an example of gender blindness? How is this an example of racial blindness? And, why must we remember that these two trends are not actually separable?

February 23: “Towards a Native Anthropology”

Using your institution’s credentials, download and read Delmos Jones’ “Toward A Native Anthropology.

  1. Using specific examples from the text, explain why the traditional view held that “insider” anthropologists could not conduct reliable fieldwork. Please properly cite your evidence in-text.
  2. How does Jones address “the problem of point of view?” What are some strengths that the “insider” has when entering the field?
  3. How does “participation” resemble “solidarity” in the eyes of the community? Give a specific example as explained by Jones.
  4. Ultimately, how does Jones view the power of the “insider’s”and “outsider’s” views?

February 24: “Teens Dig Into Black History As Urban Archaeologists”

How can anthropological work bring historically marginalized stories to light? Listen to NPR’s story titled, “Teens Dig Into Black History As Urban Archaeologists.”

  1. What does this story tell us about native anthropology (the practice of studying ourselves)? How might you be able to study your own local community in an equally powerful way?
  2. What can anthropology students offer to our field? What unique perspectives can the next generation of anthropologists bring, in your opinion?

February 25: “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet”

Using your institution’s credentials, download and read William S Willis’ “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet.”

  1. Using specific examples from the text, how did Willis view the shortcomings of anthropology’s claims of anti-racism?
  2. What was anthropology’s role in the establishment of racial hierarchies? Use specific examples from the text.

February 26: Study Guide

Define the following concepts in your own words:

  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Biological Anthropology
  • Biological Determinism
  • Anthropological Archaeology
  • Tulsa Massacre
  • Restorative Justice
  • Linguistics
  • Applied Anthropology
  • Four-Field Approach
  • Holistic Perspective
  • Intersectionality
  • Black Feminist Anthropology
  • Worldview
  • Colonialism
  • Armchair Anthropology
  • Scientific Antiracism
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Cultural Relativism
  • Azande
  • Antisocial Behavior
  • Positive Ethnocentrism
  • Participant Observation
  • Emic Perspective
  • Etic Perspective
  • Native Anthropology
  • Ethnography
  • Collective Memory
  • Race
  • Racism
  • Gene
  • Allele
  • Discrete Trait
  • Continuous Trait
  • Rule Hypodescent
  • Pencil Test
  • Melanin
  • Structural Violence
  • Structural Gender Violence
  • Medical Racism
  • Vindicationism
  • Caste-and-Class Framework
  • Abolitionism
  • Expert
  • The Production of Knowledge
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Caroline Bond Day
  • Alicia Odewale
  • John Wesley Gilbert
  • Mark Hanna Watkins
  • Irma McClaurin
  • Johnetta Betsch Cole
  • Faye Harrison
  • Rachel Chapman
  • Niara Sudarkasa
  • Franz Boas
  • William Shedrick Willis Jr.
  • Sheila Walker
  • Bronislaw Malinowski
  • Delmos Jones
  • Glenn Jordan
  • Katherine Dunham
  • Pearl Primus
  • Charles Preston Warren
  • Dána-Ain Davis
  • Ivan Van Sertima
  • St. Clare Drake
  • Louis Eugene King
  • Vera Mae Green
  • Allison Davis
  • James Lowell Gibbs
  • Savannah Shange
  • Michelle Rolph-Trouillot

February 27: Anthropology and Black History Quiz

Instructors can import the quiz from Canvas Commons. Need the quiz questions in an alternative format? Email Amanda Zunner-Keating (

February 28: Your Favorite Anthropologist

If you pursue a career in anthropology, what would you like to research? If you’re assigned a research paper in your anthropology course, what will you be researching?

  • Which anthropologist had the most interesting and/or useful approach, in your opinion?
  • How might you build your own anthropological research upon their research?
  • What areas of research did this anthropologist focus on that are similar to your own research?
  • How did your anthropologist-of-choice blaze the trail for you to study anthropology?



Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles