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malcolmxmovieposterI’m pretty sure I first discovered Malcolm X through Spike Lee’s biopic starring Denzel Washington. Somewhere around 1995 in the 6th grade. I have some vague memories of my parents explaining things to me before the movie, but not too much.

In Ms. Kramer’s 6th grade class we had to do a “Famous American” project. The assignment was do some research, read a biography, then put together a snapshot biography of that person’s life highlights and give a presentation as that person in a way that illustrates why they are an important historical figure. The culminating event was called the “Night of the Notables” in which we all dressed as our notable person and had to represent the person to visiting parents.

I picked Malcolm X. 12 year old white kid in the suburbs was about to research, write about, and present as one of the most polarizing political figures in American history. What could possibly go wrong?

What’s strange is nothing went wrong. I picked Malcolm and I don’t remember my teacher batting an eye. I don’t remember anyone questioning me or giving me a hard time. No comments like “why did you pick a Black guy?” I wanted Malcolm X, I got Malcolm X.

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as the biography and did research. I made the snapshot biography. When it came time for the presentations I wore a suit (maybe glasses?) and presented. No fake facial hair, no blackface. It didn’t even cross my mind and thankfully no one suggested it. During the Night of the Notables I was right next to a girl who studied Ayn Rand as her notable American. My 12 year old self didn’t get the irony. I don’t remember any reactions from other parents.

As I think about the 52nd anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, which comes a few short days before my own birthday, on February 21st it strikes me that ever since that project I’ve felt an unspoken affinity for Malcolm. I’m not black and I didn’t grow up with his experiences, but I identify nonetheless. As a 6th grader I took on his persona and  had to put myself in his shoes – to cross identify with why he said what he said. I had to figure out why this man would call people “white devils” or felt the need to speak so strongly for uplifting Black people in this country. Somehow even in his early and most militant stages I never felt like the target of Malcolm’s fire and I’d like to think that this early experience helps me be a more understanding adult.

malcolmxbookcoverI’m also struck, in this current racially and politically charged moment in my lifetime, at how normal it all felt to me then. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve taught high school, I realize that a white kid in the suburbs even knowing of Malcolm X is not that common. Reading the autobiography? Taking on Malcolm’s persona for a presentation? That’s quite rare. Someone probably should have told me that those are all strange or that I was taking a risk, but no one did. And I’m glad. I might not have done it.

My parents, teachers, and peers all helped normalize the idea of cross-identification for me. I have no idea how much of that was intentional, or accidental. I can even imagine a situation where all the other parents at the Night of the Notables were too stunned to even bring it up, whispering behind closed doors about this strange kid, potentially wondering if my “commie-pinko-hippie” (my words) parents had pushed me to make the choice as a way to “make a statement.” They didn’t. They all let me make my own choices.

My proudest moment of the whole experience actually came a few months later when I showed the snapshot biography  to my older cousin. (I still have it, but it’s buried in storage at my Mom’s house. It’s one of the few school projects I’ve kept.) We were going through the book I made and on the page covering Malcolm’s Hajj I wrote about how he changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This helped her understand who was being referred to in Lauryn Hill’s verse in “The Beast” when she rhymes: “The subconscious psychology that you use against me / If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary / Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like el-Hajj Malik Shabazz / High class gets bypassed while my ass gets harassed” When she told me that I helped her learn something I was over the moon. (This was about 1996 so it’s a pre-Wikipedia, pre-Genius internet.) When she later bought me the album for my  birthday “The Beast” quickly became my favorite track. More than anything that interaction cemented in me the idea that I could teach things to people older than me through study. This wasn’t part of the original lesson.

The fact that I could choose to study and portray Malcolm X as a 12 year old white kid in suburban America significantly shaped my life. I hope that as an educator I’ve learned from the model that Ms. Kramer set for me in 6th grade. I hope that when my students took on potentially risky academic choices that I was able to support them and help normalize their ideas in a positive way. I also hope that now as a teacher educator I can help teachers feel comfortable supporting their students in these areas.

Even twenty three years later I look out for anything that relates to Malcolm X and I have a personal connection to his work. The experience was one of a handful of truly memorable school assignments and there are so many ways that it could have been stifled. My teacher could have encouraged me to pick a safer choice. My parents could have raised concerns about me portraying a Black revolutionary. My peers could have made fun of me. Instead I was allowed the space to make my own choice and I poured myself into the project. As a result that lesson sticks with me forever when so many others are gone.

 

 

 

If you teach U.S. History anywhere near the 20th Century I’m going to go ahead and assume that you take some time for the Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully even a couple weeks. If you don’t we have bigger issues to discuss and we should probably schedule a one on one meeting to look at your curriculum. (That wasn’t a joke.)

I’m also going to assume that you use a few key texts like King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, or maybe his speech from the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. You might use Brown v. Board. Perhaps you use some texts related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You might show films or clips of films like Selma or Eyes on the Prize. If we’re really lucky you might use  something from Malcolm X like The Ballot or the Bullet or even some texts from SNCC or the Black Panthers.

You should also use March.

march-coversMarch is the three volume story of Representative John Lewis’ (D-GA) life in the specific context of the Civil Rights Movement and President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. The story is told as a series of prolonged flashbacks as Representative Lewis processes the historical significance of President Obama’s election. I recommend all three volumes though you could probably get away with just volume 3. Books for a school or class aren’t cheap.

If you want it in a single sentence March is to the Civil Rights Movement as Maus is to the Holocaust minus the plot line about Art Spiegelman’s issues with his father. And frankly, from a comics standpoint March is a superior piece of work. (Luckily you could use both!)

I’ve written before about how comics can increase interest and accessibility for students and that all remains true here. Volume 3 also won the National Book Award making it the first comic or graphic novel to do so. That could be reason enough.

You will need to be a courageous teacher to use it and I have faith that you are capable of that courage. (Lucky for you the people at Top Shelf created a teacher guide for book 1 as well.)

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Unlike many civil rights stories in other media, the experiences of the movement are extremely visceral thanks to Nate Powell’s art. March moved me and helped me identify with Representative Lewis in a way that no prose text or film has done previously. I felt pain when Representative Lewis gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was sick to my stomach when protesters were harassed and taunted by other citizens. I choked up when Powell revealed the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church even though I knew it was coming. And I completely broke down at the end when President Obama is inaugurated and he and Representative Lewis exchange a few words. Students need to engage directly with the emotions that March brings up.

march-marchIt’s easy to just keep using the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s easy to stick with excerpts from “I Have a Dream.” They are known. They are safe. They’re excellent. They also keep the brutality at a distance. The conversations stay intellectual. Those texts avoid images of adult white men beating young black boys. They avoid the emotional pain and embarrassment of being repeatedly turned away from a lunch counter. Of having your church burned to the ground. They avoid the repeated arrests and the reality of putting one’s body on the line for the sake of justice.

March steps directly into that challenging space and as a teacher will force you to do the same. You owe your students an honest representation of historical struggle for justice. The dominant narrative that paints Dr. King as an infallible saint who never disturbed anyone. The dominant narrative tells us Rosa Parks as some tired old lady and does them a disservice and that narrative is a disservice to the movement as a whole.

March places the ownership of the movement in young people. Many young people working together over a long period of time. March is a story of resiliency in the face of oppression that is honest with readers about the time and effort and struggle required to make social change. And it is honest about the risks.

Without the emotional weight and the seriousness of the movement, why even teach it? Teaching the movement is not important because it may come up on the final. Teaching the movement is important because lives were at stake and young people took action. Lives are still at stake and young people can still take action and as educators we have a responsibility to help students realize their own power.

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Thanks to Max Brooks and Caanan White you can stop teaching All Quiet on the Western Front. Seriously. Just stop. Right now. You don’t need Remarque’s four hundred pages of Paul Bäumer ruminating on camaraderie, lice, mud, and the horror of World War One. Instead you now have The Harlem Hellfighters.
NoQuietHellfighterThe Harlem Hellfighters
is Max Brooks and Caanan White’s fictionalized history of United States’ 369th Infantry Regiment. Much like All Quiet, the precise details of the story and characters are fiction, but the context and the core history are accurate. This makes the text applicable in both English and Social Studies contexts. Brooks even includes a brief, but thorough bibliography for students or teachers who want to do more research into the war or the 369th.

It’s also a graphic novel. If your school teachers Maus or Persepolis you should have no trouble justifying Hellfighters. It’s on that level of greatness.

So What’s So Great About The Book?
Hellfighters is a great war story. It has incredibly poignant depictions of the horror of war, dehumanizing combat technology, and deep camaraderie. Hellfighters is a story about a few men who hoped to fight for their country’s honor and found a much tougher battle when they got to the front line and had to fight a two front war. One against the German enemy and one against an American enemy. Hellfighters is also a black story; a story specifically about black Americans during World War I.

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There’s no two ways about it. The standard canonical curriculum needs more black stories. There are bits and pieces of black stories when we cover 18th century slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, but those are scattered pebbles. There is rarely a clear path through the chronology. Black voices are typically absent or tokenized in the curriculum.

Hellfighters examines the black experience in the United States through the lens of World War I. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty. Brooks doesn’t sugar coat the oppression and bigotry the soldiers faced while trying to fight for this country.

Historically, the Hellfighters stand out as the American unit that spent the most time in combat during World War I, never losing ground to the enemy and never losing a soldier to capture. (I’d never heard of them before reading the book.) The Hellfighters were also the United States’ first black regiment to serve in World War One, but the regiment was assigned to the French Army for the duration of the war because white American soldiers refused to serve alongside black solders. Such is our legacy.

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It Also Has Pictures:
If counteracting a hegemonic historical narrative is not enough reason to you use Hellfighters in your class, it’s also a comic and White’s art is incredible throughout. Somewhere between manga and Jack Kriby styles White’s art has extremely clean lines that explode into chaos as the battle ignites. Throughout the text White’s art supports Brooks’ words with raw, immediate, emotional content. It’s powerful stuff.  Just as powerful as Remarque’s vivid descriptions of bombardments and hand to hand combat and more accessible to a range of students.

There’s Nothing Wrong With All Quiet:
All Quiet is a phenomenal text. It might be the greatest war novel ever written. (The cover says it is.) I also really like the book. It was probably my favorite school book before Ms. Jones blew my brain open during my junior and senior years of high school. It’s also one of two school books that I voluntarily reread later in life. All Quiet also has the unique position as a historical document, being written by an active soldier immediately after the war. There is great power in situating the book in its historical context and I fully encourage using All Quiet with students. There would likely be no Hellfighters without All Quiet.

The problem is time. I don’t know of any high schools that offer a narrowly focused class on World War I, or the Literature of War, or any other course where you can justify teaching multiple complex texts on the same fairly narrow subject. We simply ask high school for too much breadth. (The fact that I can call World War I a “narrow subject” tells you how packed the history curriculum is.) With that in mind, swapping in Hellfighters in place of All Quiet is efficient. It’s a much quicker read without sacrificing emotional or historical content.

It’s also a black story and we need more of those. Hellfighters solves the dilemma of how to add other perspectives without sacrificing core content.

Stop Doing Good Things:

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World War I is an important topic to U.S. history and world history courses and the canon has a truly outstanding text already in place with All Quiet on the Western Front. Asking teachers to drop that text in favor of The Harlem Hellfighters is a prime example of the difficulty of changing education. For the most part, teachers are doing very good work. That means in order to improve we have to stop doing  very good work in order to do excellent work.

Teaching Hellfighters would be a bold move and I appreciate the difficulty of asking teachers to stop doing very good things to risk something new and unknown, but  there’s a big gap in much US History curriculum. The black experience frequently disappears from the classroom and Hellfighters reminds us that black people didn’t disappear. That is a critical message to send our students.

StrangeFruitCoverIn Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History Joel Christian Gill collects nine snapshot biographies of exceptional, yet largely uncelebrated, black men. The stories are situated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and predominantly focus on black experiences in New England, where Gill felt the need to stay out of neighborhoods in Boston after growing up in the South. Gill’s explicit goal is to “cut the rope” off of the lynching tree and harvest the strange fruit referenced in the title by shining a spotlight on stories of black excellence under highly oppressive circumstances. Gill’s mission is sorely needed in the U.S. History classroom that has a tendency to portray sweeping universal narratives that lack human complexity.

Gill’s book is essential material for any U.S. History class due to its overall mission and the highly accessible presentation of material. This would be useful for any class working in the time period, or on the black experience in America more broadly. The comics medium allows students of varying reading abilities to jump right into the stories and Gill makes the stories extremely poignant without removing the narrative’s clarity. Strange Fruit also broadens the story of black experience during slavery, reconstruction, and early Jim Crow eras. Gill’s work acts in direct opposition to history’s tendency toward the single story; a highly valuable resource for the classroom.

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It is easy to tell stories of oppression in black history. There are innumerable resources, but oppression alone is too simplistic to be an accurate representation of human experience. We need stories excellence and defiance alongside stories of oppression and Gill provides that much needed complexity by helping readers explore how black people excelled despite systematic oppression, thus adding strength to their already remarkable feats. It is incredible to be a dominant cyclist, even more so as a black man in the 1890’s like Marshall Taylor. This complexity is further highlighted in the story “Richard Potter’s Greatest Illusion” in which a mixed race man presents himself as an Indian magician to great commercial success, bringing up issues of skin color and the concept of “passing”. Other success range from mastery in chess, excellence in law enforcement, and the recovery of a man’s daughter during the Civil War. By exploring a range of successful of black experience, Gill also brings humanity to the narrative of black experience, something often lacking in the U.S. history classroom’s focus on great men and great wars.

Gill’s work on New England’s black history, much like Jack Jaxon’s work on Texas History, stands as a strong example of comics as a serious historical product. Gill is not out to tell children’s stories or invent fictions. Gill and Jaxon both explicitly identify their motives and intentions through the introduction and afterwards as well as by providing a bibliography. Gill sets a strong example that students could easily follow by creating snapshot biographies of their own. There is strong educational research on the power of summary to help students understand material, and creating an illustrated snapshot biography, that is highly accessible to many audiences, would take a great deal of research and summary to produce. With appropriate structure and support students should be able to produce highly engaging work that requires the development of research, narrative writing, and historical analysis skills. There is no shortage of potential subjects.

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The structure Gill presents could also be easily extended into a research project for other groups of people and other historical time periods. What would it look like for students to actively research stories of how Native Americans excelled despite consistent oppression? How powerful would it be for students to investigate the myriad of experiences involved in the Tejano experience in the American Southwest to overcome the narrative of all those of Mexican descent as being immigrants? This could even be focused to a very narrow time period and location to provide much needed depth to U.S. History and an excellent vehicle for local history projects. Time constraints and curricular guidelines can often lead to teachers covering history in broad brushstrokes  and leaving details aside, but by including more individual stories students can better understand the complexities of history and marginalized groups can be brought into more deliberate focus.

If there is any major fault in Gill’s work, it would be that he includes no stories of women. There is one story that focuses on a community off the coast of Maine, but the other eight stories are all stories of black men. This does not at all take away from the qualify of Gill’s stories and I’m hopeful that in following volumes Gill spends time with stories of black women as well.