Every once in a while in education the planets seem to align and the stars shine bright enough to allow for a brief moment in time where everything fits together. Today was one of those days. Today’s lesson dealt primarily with the era of Jim Crow, including lynchings, and Plessy v. Ferguson. I included a new piece of media to the lesson this year, an Eric Foner interview published by CNN, which focuses on “Racial Amnesia,” or the country’s tendency to forget or ignore the ugly and dark chapters of the nation’s history. In this interview, Foner seamlessly ties together a historical concept with the 2016 Presidential election. I thought it would be a discussion starter which is why I included it; I was right.
Today, my U.S. History classes took notes on Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson. We watched a short video on Plessy v. Ferguson and then transitioned into the Eric Foner video. When the video ended, I displayed them snippets of textbooks from the early 20th century, needless to say, depictions of African-Americans in these texts were far from flattering.
“Although the Negroes were now free, they were also ignorant and unfit to govern themselves.” (Everett Barnes, “American History for Grammar Grades,” p. 334.)
‘”The Negroes got control of these states. They had been slaves all their lives, and were so ignorant they did not even know the letters of the alphabet. Yet they now sat in the state legislatures and made the laws.” (D. H. Montgomery, “The Leading Facts of American History,” p. 332.)
“Legislatures were often at the mercy of Negroes, childishly ignorant, who sold their votes openly, and whose ‘loyalty’ was gained by allowing them to eat, drink and clothe themselves at the state’s expense.” (William J. Long, “America— A History of Our Country,” P-39 2 -)
“In the exhausted states already amply ‘punished’ by the desolation of war, the rule of the Negro and his unscrupulous carpetbagger and scalawag patrons, was an orgy of extravagance, fraud and disgusting incompetency.” (David Saville Muzzey, “History of the American People,” p. 408.)
After students read over these textbook passages, the floor opened for discussion. One student was pretty appalled at the statements. This child could not believe the rhetoric of the past that many used to describe black people and she quickly pondered about how Americans went from that mindset to one that wanted to ban books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn due to racially insensitive language. Another student pointed out that we see that language as offensive today, but at the turn of the 20th that was the status quo. This brought out an interesting question about our current textbooks, and how they may or may not be biased or offensive without us being aware due to our current mindsets. Some students mentioned the images of lynchings, and specifically how families, children, or the entire town turned out as if proud of the occasion. This of course led to a discussion about learned behavior which brought us full circle to Foner’s video and the present.
I have the good fortune to teach in a very diverse school full of students of different backgrounds and all walks of life. But that wasn’t always the case. As I told my students today, I grew up in an area that was 98% white. I could name every black student that went to school with me, because there are only a few. In a community like that, it’s easy for racial amnesia to take place. In large part, Catoosa County is mostly middle or lower class residents. Concepts like racism and privilege are abstract and hard to grasp for people who work their tail off to provide food. It is hard for anyone to see any sort of privilege in that atmosphere. I told them my first real experience with a diverse setting was when I went off to college and played football with people from various parts of Georgia and Alabama. Many of these young men were African-American. After awhile, there was enough trust between teammates for them to tell their stories: being refused service in a Waffle House; dirty looks in a small store. This recollection led some of my students to share their personal stories of the discrimination they’ve faced.
This brought up a conversation about the 2016 election and how it seemed to stoke the fires of animosity and hatred. One student lingered after the bell to tell me how he felt about the current situation. He told me he’s a DACA kid, and that his parents failed numerous times to get into the country simply because they couldn’t afford it. Now they’re here, and his Mom works her butt off for $9.00 an hour. He told me he thought since I study history I seem to understand more of what he was going through. I told him I appreciated the compliment (probably one of the best ones I’ve ever received), but to keep in mind I’m a white boy from Ringgold – and I’ll never know what it’s like to grow up brown in the U.S….but I told him he could tell me what it’s like anytime.
Unless you live under a rock you probably have heard or seen Meryl Streep’s trending take-down of the President-elect (above). I’ll be honest, I did not see it live. I went to bed early and missed the awards this year. The next day when I saw it trending on Facebook, Twitter, Google News, etc. I watched it during lunch. I was amazed. I have never before witnessed such an uplifting show of compassion coupled with a incredibly pointed and condemning rebuke. I liked her commentary about how the people in the room of the Golden Globes were among the most vilified in society currently. In a room such as that, full of so much material wealth, it can be hard to acknowledge this fact. But bare in mind Hollywood is full of immigrants/foreigners and people currently lambasted by the President-Elect for refusing to adhere to his way of thinking. Two segments from her speech really spoke to me.
This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everyone’s life. Because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence invites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.
Today, and on occasion before today, some of my students have expressed concern about this. Concern that the election and Trump’s narrative helped embolden others to act out on their racial animosity. Such as a middle school cafeteria in Michigan. I can imagine why some of my students are worried about their futures. The second statement in her eloquent speech that grabbed me was this,
Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners…
Much like my classroom…and like Meryl, I think I’ll celebrate that.