Thursday, April 4, 2019

2019 Post #21 -- History Written By the Victors

by Mike Melie

Before students read the poem "Enlightenment" by Natasha Tretheway, have students consider and discuss the following quote from Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.”

What does Churchill mean? How has America been a “victor” throughout its history - who has it defeated? What would America’s history look like if its history was told from the point of view of one of the groups that it had “defeated”?

After reading the poem, discuss the title: What is the “enlightenment” referred to in the title? Who is enlightened during the course of this poem, and what is the nature of his/her enlightenment?

Next, choose one or more elements of the poem to explore with greater depth.

Paradox: A paradox is a joining of two things that are seemingly impossible to connect together, which forms a contradiction. Example: “I can resist anything but temptation” -Oscar Wilde OR “All [men] are equal, but some are more equal than others” -George Orwell. What examples of paradox or contradiction do you see in this poem? What is the author’s purpose in including these seeming impossibilities?

Analysis: The speaker states, “For years we debated the distance between word and if to prove a man’s pursuit of knowledge is greater than his shortcomings, the limits of his vision.” Compare Jefferson to the speaker’s father. What were their “pursuits of knowledge”? What were their “shortcomings”? Does one outweigh the other, and is it fair to judge someone’s legacy in these terms?

Tone: Briefly research Sally Hemings here and here. Consider the speaker’s tone (attitude towards the subject matter) when discussing Hemings in the poem. How would you describe this tone? How would you describe the father’s probable tone when discussing Hemings? Support your answers with evidence from the text.

As a closing activity, ask students to reflect on the poem and to apply Churchill’s quote above. As a “victor” in American history, how is Jefferson traditionally portrayed in elementary and high school history classes? After researching more about Sally Hemings, does her story change your view of Jefferson’s accomplishments? Why or why not?

For a post using another one of Natasha Tretheway's poems, click here.

Further Reading:

Mike Melie is an English Teacher and Instructional Coach at Downers Grove North High School in Downers Grove, IL. He is one half of the Trojan Poetry web series with his friend and colleague, John Waite, in which they make poetry accessible for students through conversation (and laughter). You can find Trojan Poetry on YouTube and Twitter; you can also follow Mike’s blog on equity issues here and contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment