How might a teacher encourage students to appreciate those who fought for social justice?
By Bill Bigelow
Schools are identity factories. They teach students who “we” are.And as Howard Zinn points out in his essay “Unsung Heroes” toooften the curricular “we” are the great slaveholders, plunderers,imperialists, and captains of industry of yesteryear.
Thus when we teach about the genocide Columbus launched againstthe Tanos, or Washington’s scorched-earth war on the Iroquois,or even Abraham Lincoln’s promise in his first Inaugural Addressto support a Constitutional amendment making slavery permanentin Southern states, some students may experience this new informationas a personal loss. In part, as Zinn suggests, this is becausethey’ve been denied a more honorable past with which to identify- one that acknowledges racism and exploitation, but also highlightscourageous initiatives for social equality and justice.
The best and most diverse collection of writing I received lastyear from my sophomore U.S. history students was generated froma project aimed to get students to appreciate those “other Americans.”From time to time over the years, I’ve had students do researchon people in history who worked for justice. But these were oftentedious exercises and, despite my coaxing and pleading, studentwriting ended up sounding eerily encyclopedia-like.
An idea to revise this assignment came to me while reading StephenO’Connor’s curricular memoir, Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, about his experiences teaching writing to junior-high-schoolstudents in New York City. O’Connor was captivated by August Wilson’smonologues in his play Fences. He read some of these aloud tohis students and offered them a wide-open prompt: “Write a monologuein which a parent tells his or her life story to a child.”
It struck me that I might get much more passionate, imaginativewriting about the lives of social justice activists if I offeredstudents a similar assignment. Instead of asking them to standoutside their research subjects and write in the third person,I invited them to attempt to become those individuals at the endof their lives. Students could construct their papers as meditationsabout their individuals’ accomplishments and possibly their regrets.They might narrate parts of their lives to a child, a youngercolleague, or even to a reporter.
Last year I decided to launch this project out of a unit I dothat looks at the sometimes tense relationship between the abolitionistmovement and the women’s rights movement in the years before andright after the Civil War. I framed it as the “Racial and GenderJustice Project: People Who Made Change.” Because this would likelybe the only time during the year that I would structure an entireresearch project around the lives of individual social justiceactivists, I wanted to give students an opportunity to learn aboutpeople throughout U.S. history, not simply during the decadesbetween the 1830s and 1860s. I was aware that this presented somethingof a problem, as students wouldn’t yet have the historical contextto fully appreciate the work of, say, Dolores Huerta or Emma Goldman.But their reading would alert them to themes and events that wewould cover later, and I could fill in some of the blank spotsin their knowledge as they completed their research.
I remember one year writing up and assigning a choice-list ofactivists for students to research. I reviewed them in class oneby one, talking briefly about their work and accomplishments.Can you spell b-o-r-i-n-g? This time I decided to write up shortfirst-person roles for students to “try on” in class and to meeteach other in character. I wasn’t very scientific in the choicesof activists that I offered students – in fact, some, like BessieSmith, fell a bit awkwardly into the “activist” category. I triedfor racial and gender diversity; I also tried to mix the famouswith the not-so famous, mostly concentrating on people who workedin social movements. (If the activists were too “unsung,” studentswould have difficulty finding out enough about them to completethe writing. See box with complete list on p. 24.) My list wasunavoidably idiosyncratic and missed lots of worthy individuals.However, in the end, if none of the people I included excitedstudents, they could propose alternatives.
I wanted the roles I wrote up to be short and provocative. The point was not to do the assignment for students but to lure them into the activists’ lives. Because my students are mostly white – and with this group (my only U.S. History class), overwhelmingly male – I wanted to make sure that at least several of the social justice activists were white men. It was important that the young white men in class know that people who look like they do have not only been the slaveowners and land-grabbers, they have also been part of a rainbow of resistance in U.S. history. Here are a couple of typical roles (click here for the entire list):
- John Brown: People have called me crazy because I, a white man, gave up mylife in the cause to free Black slaves. I fought in what was called”bloody Kansas” to make sure that Kansas did not enter the UnitedStates as a slave state. And it’s true, I killed people there.But it was a just cause, and I took no pleasure in killing. I’mmost famous for leading the attack on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’sFerry, Va. In one sense my mission failed, because we were capturedand I was executed. But I am convinced that my actions hastenedthe day of freedom for Black slaves.
- Fannie Lou Hamer: I was the youngest of 20 children. After I married, I was a sharecropperin Mississippi for 18 years. I risked my life when I registeredto vote in 1962. I’d had enough of poverty. I’d had enough ofracism. I began to organize for our rights, by working with SNCC,the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. In the summerof 1964, I traveled to the Democratic National Convention whereI was a representative of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,which we’d created because the regular Democratic Party wouldn’tallow Blacks to participate. I sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain,”and asked the now-famous words: “Is this America?”
In class, I briefly described the project and distributed a card with one role description to each student. I gave them a few minutes to trade cards if they felt like it, but I emphasized that ultimately they weren’t stuck researching the person on the card they drew; they would be able to choose someone else if they liked. I wanted students-as-historical-activists to meet each other and learn a bit about each other’s life work. Once they’d settled on an individual, I distributed “Hello, My Name Is …” stickers and had them write down and wear their names prominently, so other students would be able to easily see who was who. Finally, I gave each of them a “Racial and Gender Justice Hunt” sheet. The assignment gave students tasks like, “Find someone in the group who has spent time in jail for their activities or beliefs (or would have if they’d been caught). What happened?” I required them to use a different person in their answers to each question, so they needed to keep circulating among other class members to complete the assignment. This was a delightful activity, filled with laughter and energy.
The following day we circled-up to review some of the questionsand talk over what they had learned about the different individuals.Before we headed for the library to begin research, I gave thestudents an assignment sheet: “Choose an individual who stoodup for racial or gender justice. Perhaps this individual workedto end slavery, for women’s right to own property or to vote,for farmworkers’ rights, or to integrate schools in the South.You needn’t agree with everything this person stood for or agreewith how he or she went about working for change. The only requirementsare that the person tried to make this a better place to liveand also significantly affected society. You may choose an individual(or group) who attended the ‘getting to know you’ gathering wedid in class or come up with one of your own. If you choose oneon your own, check with me first.”
I told them that they were going to be writing about their individualin the first person, but I didn’t want to describe the full assignmentuntil they had read and collected stories.
For their library and outside-of-class research, I gave studentswritten research guidelines: “Find out as much about your individualas you can. Try to answer the following questions – and be sureto look for specific stories from their lives:
1. What significant events in this person’s life shaped theirsocial commitment? What happened in their life to make them willingto take the risks they took?
2. What did the person want to accomplish or change?
3. What did they accomplish?
4. What methods did this person use to try to effect change?
5. What, if anything, about their life reminds you of somethingin your life? Is there anything in their life that you relateto, or that is similar to feelings or experiences you’ve had?
6. What meaning does this person’s life have for today?
7. Find at least three quotes from the individual that you agreewith or think are somehow significant.”
I told them that they would need to turn in full answers to thesequestions with their final write-up.
Not surprisingly, some students had an easier time than others.The student doing Elaine Brown, onetime leader of the Black PantherParty, had trouble finding anything on her life and, unfortunately,didn’t have the energy to read the entirety of Brown’s excellentbook, A Taste of Power, so moved on to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But by and large studentswere able to discover lots about their activists.
GRANDMA T. AND OTHER STORIES
I’ve found that it’s always better to show students what I’m lookingfor, rather than just tell them. So I save student papers fromyear to year to use as examples. My student, Wakisha Weekly, virtuallybecame Sojourner Truth in a paper she had written for me in aprevious year. I read it to the class to demonstrate the kindof intimacy, detail, and voice that I hoped students would strivefor. She structured it as a conversation between a dying SojournerTruth and her granddaughter. It opened:
“Grandma T., how are you?”
“Oh, I am fine, baby doll. As fine as you can be in a hospitalbed with all of these tubes.”
“Are you going to die, Grandma?”
“I’m not going to die, honey. I’m going home like a shooting star.”
“Can you tell me a story, Grandma?”
Wakisha’s “Grandma T.” tells her granddaughter about life as aslave, being sold when her master died and of life with successiveowners. She talks of her escape and her conversion:
“Later in my life is when I felt a powerful force. It was Godall around me. God gave me the name Sojourner and told me to moveto New York and to speak to people. I called it preaching. I oftenput people in tears. The better educated didn’t like me becauseI was so good at what I did, and I loved speaking out to people.I can’t read a book, but I can read the people.”
“You don’t know how to read, Grandma?”
“No, I was never taught. Slaves didn’t go to school or to collegeto be educated. The masters thought you were there just to workfor them.”
“But Grandma, I love to read, and I am really good at it.”
“That’s good, baby. And part of the reason you can read and goto school is because women didn’t like to be put down by the menand wanted to work, earn money, and even go to school. So we stoodup for ourselves.”
“Who is we, Grandma T?”
Wakisha used the granddaughter’s questions to pull her narrativealong. In response to questions and comments, Grandma T. continuedto tell the history, weaving her personal story with movementhistory – both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.
After hearing Wakisha’s piece, students and I talked about whatthey liked about it and what made the writing both interestingand informative. We followed by brainstorming ways that we couldwrite about the lives of our racial and gender justice activists.They came up with excellent ideas, including: students going toa nursing home to interview someone for a class project; a letterto a loved one, saying what you never got to say during your life;two life-long friends walking and talking about the activitiesthey participated in together.
I didn’t want students to run simply with the first thing thatcame into their heads, so for homework I asked them to write twodifferent introductions to their piece. We began these in classand the next day they brought them in and read them to one anotherin pairs. I asked people to nominate exemplary openings that theyheard so that these could be shared with the entire class andbroaden our sampling of possible approaches.
What students ultimately produced sounded nothing like an encyclopedia.Andy wrote a story about “Nicholas,” a former member of the Massachusetts54th, the first regiment of Black soldiers in American history.Drawing largely on letters in the book A Grand Army of Black Men (edited by Edwin S. Redkey), Andy set his piece in a facilityfor seniors, many years after the Civil War. Nicholas is sittingwith his regular breakfast companion, Susan, who asks him at longlast about the part of his ear that is missing. “To know aboutmy ear, I would have to tell you a story,” and launches into arichly detailed tale about his decision to volunteer for the 54thand his experiences fighting in South Carolina.
Tyler’s Marcus Garvey lies on his death bed wondering whetheror not he did enough for racial equality. He flashes back to hisimpoverished Jamaican childhood: “Though we had close to no money,we had heart, and each other.”
Jennifer patterned her story about Rosa Parks on Wakisha’s GrandmaT. In an interior monologue, Jeff’s Malcolm X reflected on howhe changed, and what he feared and hoped for, while sitting ina hotel room the day before his final speech at the Audubon Ballroom.Jonathan wrote an unusual and complex piece that began on theday Leonard Peltier was released from prison – a day that is stillin the future. His daughter tells the story of how she becamean activist for Native-American rights after listening to herfather narrate a videotape-letter to her about why he can’t bewith her as she grows up.
Gina wrote an utterly authentic-feeling story about two youngchildren who visit Cesar Chavez for a class project. In her story,Chavez narrates episodes from La Causa:
“The fight was not over. In 1968, I fasted – that means I didn’teat anything – for 25 days. A different time I fasted for 24 days,and again I fasted, this time for 36 days. You know how hungryyou can get when you miss breakfast or lunch – but imagine missing36 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.”
“But Mr. Chavez, didn’t you ever fight? Like punch them or anything?”Richard asked.
“No, no! Violence isn’t right. Everything can be done withouthurting somebody else. You can always show people your side withwords or pictures or actions. Hurting somebody to make your pointis wrong, and it never needs to be done. We never punched anyone,even if they punched us first. We just stayed at our place andshowed them that they couldn’t stop us.”
“That’s really neat, Mr. Chavez! I’m gonna do that,” Linda saiddeterminedly.
“I’M GONNA DO THAT”
In a myth-shattering history curriculum where heroes are regularlyyanked from their pedestals, it’s vital that we alert studentsto currents of generosity, solidarity, democracy, anti-racism,and social equality in the nation’s past – and present. We don’tneed to make these up. They are there. Yes, we need to carefullyanalyze movements for change and acknowledge their shortcomings,the times they manifested those very characteristics that theysought to oppose in the larger society. And yes, we need to engagestudents in thinking about the relationship between strategiesand aims, because not all activism is equally effective, and somecan actually be counterproductive. But the curriculum that demandsperfection will be filled with blank pages. As Howard Zinn emphasizes,there are countless individuals who have worked “to keep alivethe spirit of resistance to injustice and war.” Let’s work concretelytoward a curriculum of hope. Let’s give students the opportunityto conclude: “I’m gonna do that.”