Black History Month: “X” and Sam Cooke

I always feel torn about relegated “months” of appreciation.

Historically marginalized groups should be recognized within curriculum–I have no argument with that–but I also believe that a well-constructed curriculum should explore many races/groups throughout the entire year in conversation with one another. The, “It’s February so everything we read needs to be by a Black person” approach that my high school used to take drove me nuts. Additionally, at my high school we did nada for Hispanic Heritage Month (October), nor for Women’s History (Herstory) Month (March) and the students noticed this neglect–they are more observant and analytical than we give them credit for. The Latino students would point out, “But you didn’t do anything for our month!” and, as we say here in Brooklyn, fuhgeddaboutit if you were Asian, Arab, or any other race/ethnicity–you don’t even get a month. See how these months get complicated?!

My approach to these months, and to teaching overall, is to try to spark some critical thinking on issues of race. It can be a couple of lessons woven into a curriculum that bring up a concept that you might touch upon regularly throughout the unit, it might be a song or a poem or a video used to supplement your whole class text, or it might be an entire unit of study that may or may not fall during October or February. But whatever it is, it needs to be powerful; it has to move the students in some way and let them know that this often uncomfortable and messy topic of race warrants our intellectual investigation.

My students always loved music; it transformed the room. I was listening to NPR the other day when this piece on Sam Cooke’s song “Change Gonna Come” came on and I stopped in my tracks to listen. I love this song. I memorized all the words many years ago when I taught The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley with the Spike Lee film “X” in my senior elective Books to Film class. This song plays at the end of this epic film, after Malcolm has left the Nation of Islam and gone to Mecca. He is driving  from Long Island to Harlem where he will speak. We–the audience–have the foreboding feeling that he is now going to die. He is shot, and the song serves as a harbinger of what was to come. Was it change? Was it death? What did Spike Lee mean when he placed that song at that specific part of the film?

Do you want to know something ridiculously embarrassing? When I first watched the film “X” it was the summer of 1995. I was home alone and it came on cable. I sat down and began to watch, totally entranced by the story of a man I had only vaguely heard of before. And then–when Malcolm X gets shot at the end–I hysterically wept, but not because I was sad (although I was), but because I DIDN’T KNOW THAT HE WAS DEAD. Yes–you read that correctly. I was a White girl who had been raised in the suburbs of the South.I had graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA, was in an Honors Program at UNC Chapel Hill, had just spent a year abroad in France, and I did NOT know that Malcolm X had been killed. I was crying from shock–both at the fact that he was dead and by the fact that I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know he was dead?! I can’t put enough question marks and/or exclamation points at the end of that sentence to emphasize the shock I felt and still feel from that experience.

Sometimes my own ignorance, and those gaps in my education, astound me.

If I were teaching now, I would show that clip of the film and have the students infer what might happen next based on the music. Then I would have the students listen to this 8 minute NPR piece: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/01/268995033/sam-cooke-and-the-song-that-almost-scared-him and take notes (perfect note-taking practice length). Next, I would have them look at the lyrics, break them down, connect them to today, have them debate, “Has change come?” and then I’d return to the film one last time to rewatch the scene until the end and ask them the questions I posed above: Why this song at this place in the film? What’s its purpose? Then, of course, they’d have to write some sort of essay using their notes from class, the lyrics, and their own analysis on if change has come–or not. I guess this, once teased apart, would be a 2 day lesson.

Here’s to a month–and a lifetime–of critically investigating race in the classroom, our own gaps of knowledge, and to continuously learning about each other.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, “Don’t hang around”
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

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