Magazine article Radical Teacher

Teaching Note: Mad at History

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Teaching Note: Mad at History

Article excerpt

I was unsure what to expect from Lehman College's Freshman Year Initiative (FYI) Program. FYI was designed to bridge the transition from high school to college by providing reinforced academic support, mentorship opportunities, and integrated courses. While many described it as a very rewarding experience, others warned that classroom dynamics could be challenging and student evaluations were often low.

My course (African American Heritage) hit a major bump in the road by the third week of the semester. The catalyst was Hakim *, a student whom I had noticed on the first day of class due to his buoyant personality and who had become a disruptive force. At first I didn't understand why. When I spoke to him individually he was respectful in a way that let me know that I was one of the few black teachers he'd ever encountered. Although his work had structural issues, the content was thoughtful and sincere. I didn't "get it" until the day he raised his hand and asked: "Now that 'we' have the chance should Obama enslave white people?"

I'd like to think that I have an unflappable demeanor but his provocative question threw me for a loop. I can only imagine my facial expression. I asked how his question was related to the discussion topic: the Stono Rebellion. His response was blunt: "All that slavery stuff just makes me mad." Hands immediately shot up. Hakim's initial question was summarily dismissed by his peers and the conversation turned to the real issue--managing the emotions involved in learning about brutal episodes in history. Most students started their comments with President Obama. To them, Obama's victory was a text to be read backwards. It was a salve on the deep and gaping wounds of the past--it was hope in its most raw form. They believed that although African Americans had suffered brutality and injustice, the present was filled with possibility.

Although the question had resulted in a teachable moment, I made a mental note to ask Hakim to stay after class. I could now connect the dots between his loudly whispered comments during lectures, his extended bathroom breaks during videos, and his passive attempts to derail discussions during group work. What I initially thought of as immaturity and lack of discipline was actually resistance. He was resisting the knowledge about the sheer horror of everything that people of African descent had suffered. He didn't want to see the black bodies kidnapped and shackled naked during the Middle Passage. He was outraged at what happened to John Punch, the black indentured servant sentenced to lifetime indenture in 1640 for running away while his two white co-conspirators simply received longer sentences. He was disgusted at the bitter injustice of 17-year-old Frances Driggus, brought to court twice by her master/rapist--once for fornication and the other for having a child outside of wedlock. Her punishment was 30 lashes and more time added on to her work contract. This bloody history, albeit carefully packaged in a narrative of agency, survival, and resistance, was drowning him. Hakim was stuck somewhere between horror, anger, and a desire for revenge. And we hadn't even gotten to the American Revolution yet.

After class the first thing he did was apologize for the disruption. …

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