The first day of my African American Cultural Studies course, my students ate a birthday cake decorated with red, black, green, and gold icing representing the patriotic colors of the African Diaspora. Selected in the 1920s by the Universal Negro Improvement Association leader, Marcus Garvey, these colors symbolize cultural pride, the call for self-determination, and a respect for African heritage. The red represents the blood of the people; black, the race; green, the motherland, and gold, the continent’s rich resources. Many of the students – 26 9th-12th graders, all of them African American except two – did not know precisely what the colors represented.
But identifying colors of a flag is much easier than getting students to understand the lasting impact of slavery upon African-descended people. I knew I needed an engaging resource that would help introduce the course’s theme and purpose: to develop greater cultural awareness and knowledge and to examine how African-descended identity has been shaped throughout the Diaspora.
I found Mychal Wynn’s modern short tale, The Eagles who Thought They were Chickens, a powerful tool for exploring a range of issues, from African history to institualized racism. In particular, the book is useful for discussing cultural empowerment and internalized oppression – by which I mean the dominated racial group taking on, acting out, or enforcing the dominant racist beliefs about themselves or members of their racial group.
This tale, told in the tradition of West African proverbs, parables and storytelling, is a metaphor for the history of African-descended people in the Americas. As the introduction explains, the tale tells “the tragedy of the unrealized potential of the eagles who didn’t believe that they could fly.”
The story is of baby eagles brought over to America in a slave ship and taken to a plantation chicken yard. Kept ignorant of their heritage, they lose their sense of identity, and are scorned and ridiculed by the chickens and the rooster overseer for being different. Made to feel ugly and inferior, they lack any confidence in themselves as eagles and are unable to fly.
Along comes the Great Eagle – an eagle who had survived the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Aware of his past and culturally proud, he rescues the baby eagles. “We are not chickens,” the Great Eagle tells them. “We come from a land rich in history and cultural heritage. We are not born to walk like chickens, but to soar through the clouds. We are the symbols of a great and proud people.” The baby eagles develop a positive self-image – and learn to fly.
“Since that day,” the story ends, “eagles have been soaring throughout the world, helping others to believe in their beauty, their brilliance, their potential, and the extraordinary possibilities in their lives.”
Wynn provides activities for grades K-12, ranging from discussion guidelines to lessons on vocabulary development, writing, and research. I find the tale especially useful to discuss the concept of internalized oppression, and how the subjugation of slavery went beyond physical restraints and violence. In studying slavery, one of the most common questions from my African-descended students is how white slave masters were able to subjugate Black people and keep them shackled through hundreds of years of oppression.
In one of his suggested activities, Wynn provides phrases that students match with the characters in the story – the baby chickens, the baby eagles, the rooster overseer, and the Great Eagle. For example, the baby chickens might say, “There’s a new kid in school. Let’s go beat him up and let him know who’s in charge.” Through our discussion, my students and I add other chicken-phrases like, “Girl, she’s too ghetto for me to hang around with.” Other phrases include: “I can’t study with him, he don’t know nothin’;” “She’s too dark, I can’t date her;” “The best chance I have for success is playing basketball.” We talk about how such demeaning views are ways in which racism from the outside is internalized within the victimized group, and used as a form of control.
During such discussions, we also identify how the word “nigger” was historically used by whites and eventually by many African people as a label of inferiority and scorn. We analyze why it was important to slave owners that African-descended people see themselves not as members of the Mandingo, Ibo, Yoruba, Ashanti, or Fulani tribes of Africa, but as slaves, savages, wenches, bucks, or pagans in need of white Christian salvation. Or as the African historian Ali Mazuri wrote in his book to accompany PBS video series, The AFricans, the process of enslavement involved comments such as, “Forget you’re AFrican; remember you’re black.”
In his journal reflection, one student, Cory, underscored the story’s contemporary applications. He wrote that the tale “was good for people in general because it is sort of how society lives and depicts in people’s minds that this is the only way to live. To society’s point of view, divide and conquer and one crab pull another crab down are the methods in which society attempts to steal and hide resources and make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.”
Kenya, meanwhile, focused on the problem of internalizing racist images and stereotypes. As part of an independent writing project for the class, she wrote the following poem.
Ooh yo’ hair is nappy
Why don’t you get a perm?
Look at yo’ face. You need to put some
because you look bad.
Why yo’ nails ain’t did? You look like
been working in the field.
Why you wit’ that nigga fo’?
You better get you a white boy to
buy you shit.
Where’s yo’ shoes at?
You must think you a queen or
and can walk on rose pedals and stuff.
What you puttin’ oils on for?
You better go to the swap meet
and get you some cheap perfume.
Why you cryin’?
The Great Eagle Wisdom
Although Wynn’s tale is a good starting point for discussing internalized oppression, I am mostly drawn to the story because it contains the Great Eagle, a symbol of cultural resistance, hope, and liberation. This perspective is too often neglected in classrooms, especially in terms of teaching about subjugated groups.
One white student in the course picked up on this theme of resistance, and wrote how he admired the “strength and resistance shown by the Great Eagle – to be beaten and ridiculed, yet still remained resistant. All too often in this world, people persuade us through intimidation or action to give up on something or to back down. It’s good to read a story about taking the blows and still standing by your convictions.”
To extend the metaphor of resistance further, I ask students to provide historical and contemporary examples of this activist eagle. I also use this question to find out what students know about the traditions of resistance and cultural awareness in African-descended culture. The students cite members of their family (and even themselves), historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr., and struggles such as the Civil Rights Movement. To help students in this activity, I put together a list of quotes from different African-descended activists. I ask students to select quotes from this list and respond in their journal for later discussions.
In subsequent sections of the course, The Eagles who Thought They were Chickens became a reference point as we worked through units such as great African empires before colonialism, the development of the African slave trade, the institutionalization of white supremacy, the impact of color pigmentation within the African community, the history of resistance of African-descended people, and the concept of Black nationalism and its role in shaping African-descended identity. I also used other resources to reinforce the course’s themes and issues.
By course’s end, I felt that the students, just like the baby eagles, had a greater sense of cultural identity and purpose. As one student wrote in the course evaluation: “We must learn to love and work with one another and forget about color. We are all African regardless of shade. We also must decide on our identity so that we can become a strong, unified, people who are able to give birth to the next generation of rebels.”
Stuckey, Sterling, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and The Foundations of Black America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Tatum, Beverly Daniel, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Wynn, Mychal, The Eagles who Thought They were Chickens: A Tale of Discovery. (Marietta, GA: Rising Sun Publishing, 1993). To order call: 1-800-524-2813.