“Who Needs the Nutmeg Now, Brother?”: History as a Safety Zone

It’s always difficult to teach the first two weeks in May with so many AP exams taking place.  On most days I may have half of my class present, which makes it very difficult to organize and execute lesson plans.  Over the past few years I’ve shown a movie that fits into the topic under discussion; this usually involves something within the area of the Civil Rights Movement.  This year I decided to show Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.  In addition, we analyzed some of his speeches and read a short article comparing Malcolm and King by Clayborne Carson.  We compare all three sources since the movie does play loosely with Malcolm’s life and especially with the Nation of Islam.  The students find the movie to be very interesting and a number of them have already decided to include the Autobiography of Malcolm X as part of their summer reading lists.  I’ve read the book three times and believe it to be one of the great American stories.

This year I noticed something very interesting.  When the whole Reverend Wright controversy surfaced I had a great deal of difficulty getting my students to think beyond the short clips that were running endlessly on the news.  They seemed unwilling to engage in serious thought and rarely moved beyond their gut responses which revealed a great deal of frustration, misunderstanding, and fear.  They seemed to interpret my prodding of them to think more seriously as an attempt at forcing them to agree with the words spoken.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My job is not to force my students to believe anything, but to learn how to think for themselves.  At times I probed by asking questions to flesh out their views, but for most part it was to no avail.  With that in mind I looked forward to seeing how my students would respond to Spike Lee’s movie.  Interestingly, they were much more open to empathizing with Malcolm given the attention paid to his early childhood.  The movie, along with our other sources, provided a much richer perspective on why Malcolm advocated Black Nationalism and a policy calling for the separation of the races.  His more “controversial” claims didn’t seem to bother my students – at least they didn’t voice it during the movie; in fact, many of them grew in their respect for the way Malcolm dealt with various challenges in his life.  A few of my students who were familiar with references of “White Devils” or “By Any Means Necessary” seemed pleasantly surprised by the larger picture that came into clearer view as the movie and our discussions progressed.  The key to unraveling preconceptions and fostering empathy (not necessarily agreement) was that the movie and other sources revealed a complex life that went through dramatic change. Students appreciated and worked to better understand how and why Malcolm responded to new experiences such as his conversion to Islam in prison and work with the Nation of Islam and later following his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964.

I haven’t touched the Jeremiah Wright controversy since we started the movie, but I probably should.  It would be interesting to know whether they are more open to exploring Wright’s more controversial claims within a more mature and inclusive context.  Perhaps Malcolm himself can provide that window.  It seems to me that the way in which the media approached Malcolm with their overly simplistic questions and need to sell a story is not much different from what happened with Wright.  Perhaps this helps us get at the old saw that the teaching of history helps to shape more informed citizens.  One of my fundamental goals as a history instructor is to teach my students how to better understand others without asking them to necessarily agree or disagree.  Out job is to impress upon our students the importance of gathering information from a wide variety of sources which allows for a more informed rather than emotionally driven judgment. What was driven home for me this past week is that the study of history can provide a safety zone in which to practice these other-regarding skills.  The events are easier to consider because they are in the past and therefore rendered remote or safe to approach.  We do our students a disservice, however, if we fail to give them the opportunity to apply these skills to the present as a way to better understand the shifting world of politics and current events.

The recent events surrounding Jeremiah Wright and the way in which it continues to be covered along with our study of Malcolm X serves to remind me of just how important this responsibility is.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 15, 2008 @ 21:58

    Patti, — Unfortunately I can’t tell you where the image is from. I simply pulled it off the internet. It’s a wonderful image. Why do you believe it’s from Chattanooga?

  • Patti May 15, 2008 @ 21:25

    I would like to know where the photo that is used on this site was taken, or where the inspiration came from. It looks like Chattanooga, TN. (where I am from).

    My daughter is writing a paper on the the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and this pic showed up. Could be a interesting twist to her story . . .


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