Academic journal article Language Arts

The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Exploring Religion and Race in the Elementary Classroom

Academic journal article Language Arts

The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Exploring Religion and Race in the Elementary Classroom

Article excerpt

In October 2006, James Cone, Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, delivered a lecture at Harvard Divinity School titled "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree." In the lecture, Cone enlisted the lyrics of the song "Strange Fruit," made famous by Billie Holiday, to start a conversation about the cross (the site and symbol of the death of Jesus Christ) and the lynching tree; his explicit goal was to "break our silence about race and Christianity in American history." Cone (2006) stressed the need to begin a dialogue about the ways "the cross and the lynching tree interpret each other" because "both were public spectacles, usually reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves, and rebels against the Roman state and falsely accused militant blacks who were often called black beasts and monsters in human form."

Now let's move from the hallowed halls of Harvard to an event in an elementary school classroom several years before James Cone's lecture. A fifth-grade teacher is leading her racially diverse students in a discussion of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road (Lester, 1998), a picturebook that chronicles atrocities committed against enslaved Africans. In response to an image in the book that depicts a Black man being lynched, an African American boy in class responds:

Danin: That. . . that how in the Bible it says that Jesus got whupped, I mean beat with those cords they got. The only difference [between Jesus and the Black man being lynched] was ... he [Jesus] was nailed to the cross.

This response represents the mature, earnest attempt of a ten-year-old boy (pseudonyms used for all students) to understand the relationship of religion to racism and suffering. In this article, we strive to make sense of what happened during this literature discussion when Darrin interpreted the experience of enslaved Blacks through "the cross," and then what happened a few weeks later when Darrin and a classmate created a digital video about riots that ensued in Cincinnati after an unarmed African American teenager was killed by a White police officer.

We begin with a framework that integrates culturally responsive teaching with Critical Race Theory (CRT). We then explain how we needed to include another perspective, Black liberation theology, to more richly frame, understand, and make explicit links among religion, racism, and suffering. What we might learn from Darrin, his classmates, and teacher connects to curriculum, teaching, and learning-especially the spaces that might be cultivated in classrooms when the topics of religion and the history of enslaved peoples intersect. This examination may also influence the ways teachers guide students to begin approximating, if not doing, the sophisticated sense-making that rivals the theologians and historians James Cone was addressing in his lecture at Harvard Divinity School.

Guiding Framework

Our efforts to interpret and understand events in this classroom led us, as teachers and researchers, to three specific questions about the students and the context(s) of this class: Who are the learners? What resources do they bring to their meaning making in class? What do we need to know about the historical and sociopolitical context to better understand learning experiences in this classroom? To begin answering these questions, we turned to two different perspectives: culturally responsive pedagogy and Critical Race Theory.

Culturally responsive pedagogy affirms the " cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students" (Gay, 2000, p. 29). Teachers committed to a culturally responsive approach ensure that students have opportunities to access their familial and cultural resources and knowledge to enrich their learning and academic performance (Gay, 2000; LadsonBillings, 1994, 2001; Nieto, 2002). African American students, for example, can draw from myriad forms of family and cultural knowledge to engage successfully as readers and writers inside and outside of school (Hull & Schultz, 2002; Kinloch, 2010; Kirkland, 2011; Mahiri, 1998, 2005; Morrell & DuncanAndrade, 2002; Murrell, 2002; Tatum, 2005, 2009). …

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