Lessons and Resources for decolonizing the “Age of Revolutions” in the World History classroom

UPDATE: New blog post with reflection on additional resources and framing such that Black Lives Matter.

Black and white illustration of a black man, shirtless, with rifle
Image of a Jamaican maroon, 1796. Wikipedia, via DiG History Podcast

This page builds on a blog post outlining rationale for World History teachers to globalize our framing of the “Age of Revolutions” in the Americas, Caribbean, and France, c. 1760-1850. Essentially, telling students that people like the Jamaican maroon pictured here needed ideas from European salons in order to act on their desire for freedom and equality colonizes their revolutions. Click here to jump to resources.

In the post I outlined three steps for decolonizing my classroom coverage of the Age of Revolutions. The first two could fill the first two periods of a unit on this Age. I see the last as framing source-based discussions that continue through the unit. These can be expanded or contracted based on student capabilities and instructional time.

Day 1: Center Haiti

The Haitian Revolution has become increasingly prominent in World History classrooms during my teaching career. As such there a lot of great results available. I love how this short graphic-history of the Haitian Revolution opens the narrative with the voices of Haitians: “There is a Vodou song in Haiti that recalls the Middle Passage.” Noted historian of Haiti Laurent Dubois, who wrote the text, presents Enlightenment ideas and the French Revolution as context, not causation. Students can read this on the first day of the unit and generate questions to guide their inquiry into an “Age of Revolution.” The narrative could also form the basis of discussion of what does it mean to be “revolutionary.” List of resources below includes more useful material for teaching the Haitian Revolution.

Alternative: Center the Tupac Amaru rebellion in colonial Peru.

Music from Boukman Eksperyans makes a good soundtrack
for centering the Haitian Revolution

Day 2: Complicate the Enlightenment

European ideas of the Enlightenment do form an important dimension of the context for the Age of Revolutions. But, I want my students to see the paradoxes of the Enlightenment while learning about the revolutionary impact of the ideas. The slides below outline the key paradoxes for students. Students could read excerpts from key Enlightenment texts from Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and/or Kant as part of this. The point is for students to see that European Enlightenment thinking had many different relationships to revolutionary events. This is an open historical issue. They can and should draw conclusions based on evidence. Link here to the slides below.

Classical music, such as Haydn’s string quartets, uses rational patterns that compliment discussion of European philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Ongoing: Globalize Coverage

Students need to understand the basics of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions and the Latin American wars of independence. A simple chart can do the trick. In my AP World History class students do this through text book reading. Include a key document from each:

  • American Declaration of Independence
  • French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen;
    Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Olympe de Gouges’s criticisms of the patriarchal nature of the French Revolution
  • Haitian Declaration of Independence
  • Simon Bolivar’s “Jamaica Letter”

Organizing Question: To what degree did the Enlightenment shape the Age of Revolutions?

The key: instead of digging into the details of one or more of the revolutions, students expand conception of the Age of Revolutions through comparison.

Using primary and/or secondary resources students explore at least one of the revolutions beyond the four events above. Then, students compare this revolution with one of the four main examples. An online discussion in small (7-8 students) groups could be efficacious, as many will need substantial wait to work through the examples and analysis. Students’ initial posts would compare two revolutions and their relationships to the Enlightenment. Ongoing discussion brings in other revolutions. Students would close the discussion with an overall thesis on the role of the Enlightenment in the revolutions. Alternately, this could be a series of face to face discussions in small and/or large groups. Here is a screen shot of the prompt for the first run through this assignment. Students from two schools are in groups of seven or eight.

Image shows text
Moodle discussion prompt


I will update this section, and welcome suggestions.


Brazil and the Caribbean

Centering Haiti

Complicating the Enlightenment

Indigenous North America

  • Colin Calloway’s chapter “Red Power and Homeland Security: Native Nations and the Limits of Empire in the Ohio Country” in the book Facing Empire contains a useful summary of Pontiac’s Rebellion starting on p. 145 (Google ebook preview does not include this chapter).
  • The editors of Facing Empire–Kate Fullager and Michael A. McDonnell–blogged about the book on the invaluable Age of Revolutions site, as part of a series on “Native American Revolutions.”

Indigenous South America

Latin American Independence

Please consider supporting Dr. Yvette DeChavez who has written about the need to decolonize our syllabi and created the wonderful image below. Available on shirts, posters, and bags.

Black background, flowers, and, in the center, a ribbon with lettering reading "Decolonize your syllabus"

2 replies on “Lessons and Resources for decolonizing the “Age of Revolutions” in the World History classroom”

Hello – I really appreciate this blog in which you share so many useful ideas. I’m teaching World II for the first time and I’ve found many helpful tips here to decolonize my district’s Eurocentric curriculum. With that said, I wonder if you have included Anton Wilhelm Amo or Zera Yacob in your study of the Enlightenment? Some sources suggest that these African philosophers may have influenced European philosophes. I included them in our study of the Enlightenment as a weak/first attempt to make it more multicultural, along with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Thanks for the suggestion and the kinds words, Katerina! I have heard of Amo and Yacob, but have not included them with students. But, I should. I just added a link to an article on Aeon about how they fit into the Enlightenment above.

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