Teaching Migration, In Song

October 17, 2014

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of "Living For The City," circa 1974.  (http://youtube.com).

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of “Living For The City,” circa 1974. (http://youtube.com).

If I ever had the chance to teach a course specifically on the history of Black migration in America, I already know what books I’d use. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010); Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land (1991); James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1989); Mary Patillo’s Black Picket Fences (1999); even Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). All have moved beyond the statistics of some seven or eight million Blacks moving from the rural Jim Crow South to America’s cities, North, Midwest, West and South for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

But that wouldn’t be near enough to communicate the range of emotions, the psychological states and the pressures that these people faced in leaving their homes for the not-so-bright lights of America’s big cities, not to mention what they faced in the days and years after they arrived. I should know. I’m the nearly forty-five year-old son of a mother originally from Bradley, Arkansas (population 500) and a father from Harrison, Georgia. They moved to New York City in the ’60s (specifically, the Tremont section of the Bronx), then to the South Side of Mount Vernon, New York (just outside the Bronx), hooked up, and sired me and my older brother Darren between December 1967 and January 1970.

That short summary is hardly the story, though. For me — like with so many other things in my life — music tells the story, emotions and psychology beyond what words on a page alone can approximate, but not fully duplicate. Music communicates the stories, emotions and psychology of those who migrated and stayed (or didn’t) in cities across the US better than Census data or a hypothesis on proletarianization. I wanted music from my own lifetime (or at least, within a few years of it) — not just folk songs or Blind Willie Johnson or Duke Ellington — music that fit my family’s transition from migration to our current times of racism and urban poverty.

Easily the top two songs on my list to play in class would be:

Trade ad for Otis Redding's single "Try a Little Tenderness," January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

Trade ad for Otis Redding’s single “Try a Little Tenderness,” January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

1. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” (1968), released after Redding’s death in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin; and

2. Stevie Wonder, “Living For The City,” (1973).

Both songs run the full emotional and psychological gamut. From hopefulness to oblivion, from delusion to despair, from rage and anger to resignation. The melancholy of Redding’s “It’s two thousand miles I roamed/Just to make this dock my home” (in reference to the distance from Georgia to San Francisco Bay) juxtaposed with Wonder’s bitterness and anger:

“His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution…”

It communicates so much beyond the lyrics and liner notes, a reminder for those of us who find America and its cities unforgiving today just how relentless it must’ve been for our parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents forty or more years ago.

There are other songs that I’d put on this playlist. Some are directly related to Black migration, some try to bridge the gap between the abundance of music on “the ghetto” and urban poverty and chaos and the lack of music from my own lifetime on migration.

3. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973).
4. Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues” (1971).
5. Gil Scott-Heron, “95 South (All of The Places We’ve Been)” (1977).
6. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1987).
7. Nas (featuring Olu Dara, his father), “Bridging the Gap” (2004).

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s "urban renewal" project was built, but  failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s “urban renewal” project was built, but failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

That most of these songs come from the period between 1967 and 1974 isn’t an accident. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, combined with the Black Power Movement and the “Black is Beautiful” campaign, the beginning of the White backlash against civil rights — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — and the Anti-War Movement was in full swing. It was a good time to take a look at the present and recent past to reconnect with hopes and dreams in the midst of the nightmare of urban poverty.

After ’73 was the beginning of the dance and disco era, as well as a focus on the urban, on crime, on drugs, on poverty  — but not in a “let’s try to solve it” kind of way. This was where rap, hip-hop, some R&B and early forms of what we now call neo-soul picked up, with little reflection on this once prominent past.

Still, there would be some honorable mentions for this migration course, music that could evoke some aspect of the Black migration, of the hope that took a downward turn, of the poverty and joblessness that have permeated America, Black and White and Brown, since the ’70s.

8.  Arrested Development, “Tennessee” (1992).
9. Tina and Ike Turner (and Credence Clearwater Revival), “Proud Mary” (1970).
10. Nina Simone, “The Backlash Blues” (1967).
11. NWA, “Straight Outta Compton” (1989).
12. Tupac, “Cradle 2 the Grave” (1994).
13. John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses” (1983).
14. Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A..” (1984). [the song’s release was thirty years ago this month, by the way]
15. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up” (1986)

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Through music, I’d hope to have a course and discussion about Black migration that reaches beyond the words origin and destination, that migration has merely been a physical manifestation of a difficult and seemingly unending cultural and spiritual journey in the US. That Black migration can also easily include the parallel journeys of those of the African or Afro-Caribbean diaspora, not to mention those from Latin America.

For me, though, a course like this would be a personal foray into all the things that have made me who I’ve been for nearly four and a half decades — a person better than the sum of America’s parts and racist, sexist, homophobic and evangelical assumptions.

Black History = American History, But For American Stupidity

February 4, 2014

Pythagorean Theorem (except when it comes to Black history and race), February 4, 2014. (http://ncalculators.com/)

Pythagorean Theorem (except when it comes to Black history and race), February 4, 2014. (http://ncalculators.com/)

It’s Black History Month. It’s a month that often feels more like an obligation to honor the Civil Rights Movement than it does a full month to celebrate and appreciate all African American contributions to the development and success of the United States over the previous four centuries. Yet there are many Whites, Blacks and other people of color who refuse to see this at all. Some argue for a White History Month, some argue that Blacks don’t have a culture or history at all — or at least, one worth celebrating. And some argue that the time and need for a Black History Month has passed.

Some of this ridiculousness I parody here:

No argument is more central to the reason why Black History Month needs to continue than the one I’ve heard from conservatives and former students over the years. That because Black history shines a light on America’s racist, economic loading of the dice in favor of White elites and business interests, I’m being “anti-patriotic” when I talk about or teach on this. Then, of course, I get the “love-America-or-leave-it” response.

People who respond this way are such assholes. Some of your ancestors brought my ancestors here in chains, well before most of these alleged patriots’ ancestors even thought about coming here. My ancestors built plantations, chopped down forests, grew the cash crops that made White men rich and provided the money necessary to make America an industrial capitalistic powerhouse, built the White House and the Capitol, and have fought in every war this country’s been a part of. But I’m unpatriotic when through Black history I can point out America’s flaws and great failings?

The less evolved part of me would say, at least in a street argument, “Kiss my Black ass!” But to be honest, I don’t want these folks to touch me, much less kiss my butt. What I want them to do is read, listen, watch and learn, and not just assume everything they’ve heard from FOX News, their parents and in elementary school social studies is the gospel truth. That way, they would then have the choice between understanding that US history and Black history are one and the same and wallowing in their willful stupidity.

Grad School & My Most Special Summer Reading List

August 31, 2013

Just a small sample of the books I read/re-read summer before grad school in 1991, August 31, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Just a small sample of the books I read/re-read summer before grad school in 1991, August 31, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

For me, August 28 this week was significant for any number of reasons. It wasn’t just that it was fifty years to the exact day and date that the March on Washington occurred and MLK gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Or that is was fifty-eight years to the date that White supremacists lynched Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at some flat-butt White girl. This past Wednesday was also twenty-two years to the day and date that I began my first day of graduate school as a master’s student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History.

Of course, I didn’t discuss this earlier this week (it would’ve been incredibly arrogant on my part to bring this up three days ago). My big steps for myself were infinitesimal when in measured comparison to the beginning of the two-year height of the official Civil Rights Movement. But even on an afternoon in which I attended my first course and meeting about teaching/advising assignments for the semester, it did feel like a bit of a triumph. Especially when considering what I had to do that spring and summer to get into the program with funding in the first place.

I didn’t learn that much that day. Except the low contempt Joe White and some of the other professors held toward pedagogy and teaching. “You already know more than your students,” White said as advice to us who’d be TAs that semester. I was lucky to not be among them for my first year. I was a GSA assisting in the advising of history majors, some of whom were my fellow undergrads just a few months before. But even then, I thought two minutes’ worth of advice on viewing students as empty vessels was insufficient training for learning how to lecture and facilitate conversations with upwards of 100 students spread out over several discussion sections each week.

I had other things on my mind at that moment, though, including the relief that I’d survived a summer making $5.20 per hour as a full-time employee with a Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic project in which the project investigators were far more psychotic than the patients. Aside from that, I thought about how the previous four months had served as my preparation for the White world of grad school.

I’d done a lot of reading that late spring and summer, spurned on by boredom, disappointment in my weirdly evolving friendship with Elaine, and a sense that I needed to read to fortify myself against the neo-Marxists in my eventual field. So I read. I started off with Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), believe it or not, the first time I’d ever read it. Like so many before me, it made my views of the man less black and white than it had been before. I then picked up W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk (1903), the first time I’d read that book since I wrote a book report on it for Mrs. O’Daniel’s class in fifth grade. Unsurprisingly, I got much more out of it in May ’91 than I did in May ’80.

I didn’t stop there, as my reading took me on three different tracks in June, July and August. One was the “I didn’t get to read this before” track, as I read Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Beloved (didn’t understand it then, and still don’t get the big deal about it now). Along with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), bell hooks and several others on Black Women’s literature. Then, I decided to go back and reread some James Baldwin and Richard Wright that I’d first read for high school, and added Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) to the mix. On the non-literature track, I ended up reading Franz Fanon, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) — at least, I put a significant dent in it — Derrick Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), and other writings on Black history and culture (broadly speaking).

But the third track would end up taking me on a path toward my dissertation topic and my first book, Fear of a “Black” America (2004). It started with articles on multicultural education that took me to James Banks’ theoretic constructions of what multicultural education ought to have been, but wasn’t. I also found myself reading books like Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991), Molefi Asante’s The Afrocentric Idea (1987), Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (completely indecipherable in a circular firing squad of a thesis kind of way) and Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro (1933). I was reading anything that could inform my thinking about K-12 and higher education and how it played the role as both equalizer and oppressor for so many Black folks over the years.

It was easily the most reading I’d done on my own since the year before I’d gone into seventh grade, middle school and the Humanities Program. I wanted to read all I wanted to read before spending the next few years drowning my brain in hundreds of books and articles that I’d absolutely need to read as a historian. In the process, I may’ve radicalized myself a bit for the otherwise hum-drum experience of reading mind-numbing accounts of history in which the authors didn’t seem to see their own sense of high-brow White maleness.

And with all of it, I surprised myself. I realized once again that my Black classmates and 616 neighbors were wrong about me not being Black enough. Their “Black” wasn’t my “Black,” of course. But all those books confirmed for me that there were many ways to be Black that folks who didn’t read could barely understand.

The Emotional, The Personal and Black History

February 1, 2013

Black History Month 2013 electronic poster, February 1, 2013. (http://dclibrary.org).

Black History Month 2013 electronic poster, February 1, 2013. (http://dclibrary.org).

After all of these years — and thirty-seven years’ worth of Black History Months — I sometimes forget how emotionally charged Black history can be. After all, I’m an academically trained historian, one whose emotional range varies from sarcastic to ironic with most things US, World and African American history. But ever so often, I’m reminded by my students about the sadness and pain involved in learning history. I surprise myself sometimes at how passionate or angry I can become in revisiting a piece of history that I otherwise would show no emotion for on most days.

Black history, though, can bring out both the water works and the daggered eyes. My African American history students at Carnegie Mellon University surprised me one day in October ’96 during a discussion I tried to have about lynching and the KKK. It was based on the Indiana PBS documentary, A Lynching in Marion, Indiana, about the lynching of two Black men and the almost lynching of a young Black male for allegedly killing and robbing a White male and raping a young White female in 1930.

The forty-five minute documentary showed clips of defaced and emasculated Black men hung from trees, beaten beyond recognition and even burned postmortem. It also showed films of KKK rallies in the 1920s and early 1930s Indianapolis and other towns in the state, as well as pictures from the Marion lynching itself. The young Black man in Marion, one James Cameron, was only saved from lynching because a member of White mob actually protected him. It turned out, per usual, that the alleged murder and rape was a false accusation, but Cameron still had to spend four years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched in Marion, IN, August 7, 1930. (Lawrence H. Beitler). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as It is the only image known to depict this hanging, and is used here to illustrate the event.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched in Marion, IN, August 7, 1930. (Lawrence H. Beitler via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as It is the only image known to depict this hanging, and is used here to illustrate the event.

My students could barely speak to me or each other after the film, much less be part of a dispassionate discussion of the film. My Black students were tearful and angry, and my White students were pale and scared. I let them express their emotions for about ten minutes, but waited until the next class to draw out a more comprehensive discussion. As this was the first standalone class I’d taught as an adjunct professor, I was a bit unprepared for the how emotional my students became, how personally they took the film and its content.

But I should’ve been better prepared, especially given my own emotions about Black and other histories over the years. I remember the first time I watched Roots, along with millions of other Americans, in February ’77. I cried or was stunned that whole week. Twelve years later, in my undergraduate readings seminar for History majors at Pitt, I found myself angry with my classmates. My eventual first graduate advisor Larry Glasco was leading a discussion on slavery and the Middle Passage. I didn’t know why, but I was angry that whole class. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk anger. It was a low-heat rage, beyond anything my idiotic classmates were saying about slavery in the eventual US not being as brutal as slavery in the Caribbean or Brazil.

The following semester, I took my first graduate course as a Pitt junior, Comparative Slavery with Sy Drescher. We got into a discussion of Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), a study in which the authors tried to show scientifically that slavery wasn’t as bad for Africans in the US as it was for Africans in the Caribbean and Brazil. Using records from one plantation, Fogel and Engerman tried to show that since few slaves were whipped, that therefore slavery wasn’t brutal for my African ancestors. I was pissed when some of the grad students in my class defended Time on the Cross  idea that 1,800 calories a day was sufficient for the average slave. It pissed me off so much that I had to leave the seminar room for five minutes to make sure I didn’t punch someone.

Me really pissed, at CMU PhD graduation, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

Me really pissed, at CMU PhD graduation, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

I see some of this in my UMUC students sometimes. Students who turn every issue in US history into a referendum on race. “Immigrants exploited? Well, not compared to African Americans as sharecroppers!” Or “Jim Crow was really a second slavery,” some of my students have said emphatically, as if Blacks did nothing during Reconstruction or Jim Crow to make their lives better. They feel, and rightfully so for the most part, that Blacks have gotten a raw deal throughout American history, and that it is my job to expose the hypocrisy of racism in every lecture and discussion.

It’s emotional and it’s personal. But it’s also historical, which means not so much putting emotions or personal investment aside as much as it does putting these emotions and personal investments in perspective. I’ve never been dispassionate about history – I’ve just learned how to use my New York-style sarcasm to hide my passion pretty well.

The Curious Case of Mrs. O’Daniel

June 30, 2011

I meant to do a post on this last month, but got caught up in other work and other posts. This one’s about the unique experience me and about thirty of my William H. Holmes Elementary School classmates had between ’77 and ’81, and my unique experience in particular. That experience, at least for me (and to a slightly lesser extent, for my classmates), was in having a number of caring, highly qualified Black teachers before we went off to the vicious worlds of A.B. Davis Middle School, Nichols Middle School, and Mount Vernon High School.

Starting in first grade in ’75, I had Ms. Griffin at Nathan Hale Elementary (now Cecil Parker Elementary), Mrs. Shannon — my first teacher crush — in third grade at Holmes, and Mrs. Bryant, a great teacher, in sixth grade. But the toughest and yet very caring of all the Black teachers I had in K-6 in Mount Vernon was Mrs. O’Daniel, my fifth grade teacher. She was the teacher that made me realize how troubled the world around me really was.

I and we learned early on how not to cross Mrs. O’Daniel. Once early in the school year, when our class was wound up and acting out, Mrs. O’Daniel threatened to “introduce [us] to the Board of Education. Do y’all know what that is?” After raising my hand, I said, “Yeah, it’s the building next door to us.” “No, not that Board of Education,” Mrs. O’Daniel said with a slight smile, “this one.” This Board of Education was three yard sticks taped together, and she tapped the palm of her left hand with it to emphasize what it was for — our behinds.

She used it on me one time, because I happened to take something that wasn’t mine from her nook in the classroom, what, I don’t remember. Five taps with the Board of Education across my hand was quite enough for me in the ’79-’80 schools.

Mrs. O’Daniel, though, did much more than provide discipline for our classroom. She spent a lot of our time that year on history, American history, African American history, reading and writing. I read parts of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk in her class that year and wrote a small and wholly inadequate book report on it. I learned about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time in May ’80. I learned so much about MLK and Malcolm X that year, more than I’d learn all through middle school and high school.

I also discovered how far behind some of my classmates were. We had two twelve-year-olds and a thirteen-year old in our class, and all of them read well below the fifth grade level. Mrs. O’Daniel assigned me and two other classmates the task of working with the older classmates to help them build up their reading and writing skills. That spring, I spent a month working with the oldest member of our class, going over words that I once struggled with in second and third grade. I felt bad for him, but even more puzzled about how a teenager could be stuck in fifth grade reading only on the second grade level.

There was a mystery to Mrs. O’Daniel as far as I was concerned. I still can’t remember if she’d grown up in North Carolina or Alabama, or if she had any kids or grand kids, or if her husband was still alive. When she announced in the early spring of ’80 that she had just turned sixty, we were stunned, thinking of how old sixty was compared to ten, eleven or even thirteen. She seemed a bit strange, but certainly not old beyond our knowledge that she was born in 1920. Mrs. O’Daniel was as tall as teacher as I ever had, but hardly frail or old outside of her salt and less salt hair.

She died in ’83, sometime during my first weeks in Mount Vernon High School. Some of my former Holmes classmates, who were now in Humanities in ninth grade, broke down and cried when they heard the news. I must admit, I was stunned. I’d never known anyone who had contact with me and died before. All I knew was that an older person who cared about me, about all of my classmates, had passed away.

It made me sad, but it didn’t sink in until much, much later how fortunate I was to have had Mrs. O’Daniel and Mrs. Bryant, Mrs. Shannon and Ms. Griffin as my teachers early on. I had no idea that the only teacher of color that I’d have until I reached the University of Pittsburgh would be Ms. Simmons, a first-year, seventh-grade math teacher I stood toe to toe with by Xmas ’81. I think that my understanding of African American history and culture would’ve been much more limited prior to my Pitt years if it weren’t for Mrs. O’Daniel. And for that, and so much more, I thank her.


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