Tag Archives: Black History

Video for the Classroom: “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man”

It’s almost criminal that over a week has passed in Black History Month, and the Neighborhood has no posts about important African Americans.

Today’s post is a more fun aspect of history, but important nonetheless.  It can be argued that more musical tributes were written about Joe Louis than any other athlete in American history–a Black athlete accepted by both whites and Blacks.

The longest-running heavyweight boxing champion in history, from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was among the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.  A hero to African Americans beaten down by the Depression, discrimination and Klan violence, Louis would also become the first Black athlete widely accepted by whites as well.

The culminating moment of Louis’ career was the second fight between Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938.  Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was immediately cast as the villain (despite his own antipathy towards Hitler).  Louis, incredibly, became an American hero overnight. 

His defeat of Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds sent Black neighborhoods across America into wild celebrations, and create something of a mythic hero in Joe Louis.  It would be a heroism belied by the still-rampant discrimination in American life through World War II.

Today’s video is a montage of Joe’s greatest hits.  Yet it’s the audio that’s most important.  Listen to the great blues ballad “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man” and you can get a glimpse of how much Joe Louis meant to people.

It’s also a pretty good tune.  Enjoy.

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Summer Reading for Teachers: Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed Race America

Frederick Douglass, himself of mixed race, with his second wife Helen Pitt Douglass, and their neice Eva.

The strength and flaw of an immigrant society is its heterogeneity.

The societies that sprouted across the American continent were not one-note masses of people, but rather a chorus of different voices that, for good or ill, must learn to live together.  For the most part, this mix of people has been a boon to the economic, social and cultural progress of our country.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the concept of races—and their “inherent” differences—has led to an uneasy existence.  Different people can work together, live side-by-side, play together.  Yet romantic relationships and racial “mixing” was far too often considered taboo.

Yet according to Gary Nash, history professor at UCLA and a friend here at the Neighborhood, mixed-race relationships have a long history in America—and just as long a history of fighting for acceptance in a society preoccupied with racial purity.

Like a previous book of his I reviewed, Professor Nash’s Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed-Race America offers a window into a world most Americans know little about.  In this case, it is the often submerged undercurrent of multiracial family relationships.  Nash paints a wide swath, starting with Pocohantas and ending in the multiracial heritage of our current President.  Along the way, by identifying the lives of extraordinary mixed-race Americans, he shows the currents of race and racial identity that have prevailed in this country.

Nash writes that the early history of the United States showed great promise for an interracial society, or at least one where race was less relevant than it would become centuries later.  Yet due to the settler nature of North America—as opposed to the conquistador/exploitation model of Central and South America—the United States would populate itself with whole families who saw survival, especially ethnic/racial purity, as paramount to their existence.

This obsession with racial purity would prevail well into the first half of the 20th century.  It dictated how white America would deal with millions of Africans, once enslaved and later as free persons.  It also determined the relationship between European settlement and Native Americans who predated them on this continent.  Finally, the need for racial purity would affect how America received millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Nash’s choice of subjects covers many ethnic groups and various periods of American history.  He starts with Pocohantas’ marriage to the Virginia planter John Rolfe, and also includes maritime entrepreneur Paul Cuffe, the Healy family (also discussed in a previous post), Elizabeth Hulme, Peggy Rusk, and of course Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.  In each, their lives are juxtaposed with the rising and ebbing tide of racial rigidity and consciousness in this country, culminating in the election of a multiracial President in 2008.

One particular area that Nash sheds light on is the 18th century Mexican paintings known as “casta” paintings, and how they reflect racial mixture and hierarchy in Spanish America.  These didactic paintings demonstrate the nomenclature of the union of persons of different racial makeup, i.e. a Spaniard and a black woman make a mulatto; a Spaniard and a native woman make a mestizo, etc.  I remember seeing something similar in a textbook on a visit to Ecuador, yet I was astonished at the bewildering permutations—and labels—that categorized the racial makeup of colonial Mexico.

However, this open demonstration of racial mingling did not mean racial equality.  The lack of Spanish females, larger populations of native and black persons, coupled with a Catholic Church that had a more permissive view of interracial marriage meant a more fluid mixing of peoples.  Yet according to Nash, this mixing would not mean the end of racism:

“The offspring of mixed-race marriages could expect a life of discrimination and thwarted ambition.  And those with African ancestry faced more limited chances than those with Indian bloodlines.  Above all, Spanish blood counted the most.” ~ Gary Nash, in Forbidden Love, Revised Edition, page 48.

Unlike his last book we reviewed, The Unknown American Revolution, Forbidden Love makes a remarkably seamless addition to a high school classroom syllabus.  This is largely due to its imprimatur, the National Center for History in the Schools, of which Professor Nash is director.  NCHS works to connect academic scholarship in history with classroom instruction at all grade levels. 

In the case of Forbidden Love, the book was revised from its original 1999 version to both add a modern prospective and to make it more suitable for the classroom.  Although the book bursts with the hefty research worthy of an academic tome, its tone, vocabulary and short length make this material easily accessible to high schoolers.  Even more impressive are the discussion questions located near the end.  Each chapter contains these useful questions to continue discussion and to offer differentiation for various student groups. 

In the multi-racial populations of students in America, research and biographies like those found in Forbidden Love are more crucial than ever.  Many cities have populations where racial intermingling has been the norm for centuries, and are now coming into contact with American populations where interracial acceptance has been halting, at best. 

People like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, etc. are demystifying what it means to be multiracial in America.  As Professor Nash shows, Americans have been mixing together long before they gained acceptance in the wider society.  Race, says Nash, is an artificial categorization that has no basis in science.  It should, therefore, be natural for humans to accept when races mix and procreate.

It’s a shame it took so long to reach that acceptance.

NOTE: Any teachers and students wishing to read the newest edition of Forbidden Love can order a copy by contacting Marian Olivas, Program Coordinator at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA — molivas@ucla.edu

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The Complexities of the “Dream” — Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When a person becomes famous, or important, he/she often ceases to have any humanity.

 That person becomes marble, a statue, a painting, an inanimate idol to be worshipped and adored like a vacant pagan god.

Yet it is in their complexity that people truly arise as great.  Such is the case with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Much too often, classrooms distill Dr. King’s legacy into a neat little narrative: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Nobel Peace Prize (and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, if that teacher’s adventurous) and his assassination.  For must students, King is frozen in time at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, giving his now-ubiquitous “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Yet the King from 1964 to 1968 is even more fascinating.  The civil rights movement shifted towards more militancy, with Black Power and the Black Panthers.  The Vietnam War moved the focus of many young people towards more radical peace initiatives.  Even Dr. King’s rhetoric had shifted, from one primarily of fighting for civil rights for Blacks to one of social justice and anti-war advocacy.

What follows are a collection of quotes by Dr. King from 1964 to about 1968.  Many of the 1967 quotes come from his “Where Do We Go From Here?” address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wherein the group is re-assessing their mission in the wake of the tumultuous decade.  Notice how Dr. King addresses subjects such as poverty, war, science, black nationalism, and global affairs. 

To our ears, these words may seem disconcerting, even radical.  Yet they are important in understanding the path King was to take if he had not met his end by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”   – 1967

“Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness — justice.” – 1967

“I endorse it (banning prayer in public schools). I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in god. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.” – 1965

“If a city has a 30% Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30% of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.” – 1968

“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.” – 1963

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” – 1967

“As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abegnation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history.’” – 1967

“Don’t let anybody make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world.” – 1967

“The problem (of poverty) indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.” – 1967

“Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” – 1967

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” – 1968

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Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 4: Kwanzaa

In Barack Obama’s America, is Kwanzaa relevant anymore?  At least in the South Bronx, Kwanzaa is dying, if not dead already.

If you want a good gauge as to the state of a community, poll a classroom to see if any families still celebrate this holiday.  Before the recess, I polled some students.  In a room where, despite the majority Hispanic status, almost everyone has some African ancestry in them, only one family celebrated Kwanzaa. 

The Latino families obviously had Christmas as the higher priority—it also had the better haul of presents.  First-generation African immigrants, understandably, were confused about celebrating a heritage they took as a given.  Yet even among black American families, Kwanzaa has diminished in importance.

The decline can be felt everywhere, as seen in a recent Associated Press article.  According to Keith Mayes, an assistant professor of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota, Kwanzaa participation has leveled off.  In a population of almost 40 million identified as Black by the US Census—including multiracial Americans—only about half a million to 2 million people celebrate the holiday. 

Even the President, Barack Obama, doesn’t celebrate Kwanzaa—and it’s hard to get more African than him. 

Why the decline?  And if Kwanzaa is in such decline, do African-Americans find any relevance in the holiday anymore? 

If you’re not African-American—and I’m not—Kwanzaa is often too quickly dismissed as a “pseudo-holiday.”  I’ve looked at these false-festivals when it comes to education.  Kwanzaa, at least on the surface, bears all the unfortunate markings of a pseudo-holiday:

(1)    It has a definite founding date and founder – no mystery like in Christmas, no fudging with lunar calendars as in Chanukah.  Ron Karenga, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, founded Kwanzaa in 1966 to celebrate African heritage and culture.

(2)    The underpinnings are dubious – Karenga based his holiday on a Pan-African philosophy combined with 1960’s Marxism, a philosophy not entirely African.  He also used Swahili as the base language for ritual: a language from East Africa that almost none of the original descendants of African Americans probably spoke at all.

(3)    The rituals seem too much like existing rituals – the kinara, the seven-candled candlestick that symbolizes Kwanzaa, is a ritual that borrows much (a little too much) from Chanukah. 

(4)    It was founded in reaction to established holidays – although not so much the case today, Kwanzaa was founded, according to Karenga, as a direct assault on Christmas, which was seen as a white holiday.  Karenga even alleged Jesus was “psychotic.”  Today, most Kwanzaa celebrants participate in the holiday in addition to established winter holidays such as Christmas. 

(5)    It is not a legal holiday, at least in the United States – nor is there any attempt to even make it a holiday.  If Barack Obama isn’t lifting a finger for Kwanzaa, then forget it.

So Kwanzaa has a pretty spotty record as a holiday.  This doesn’t really concern me much.  Christmas wasn’t exactly a hoot in the first century, when raping a bull for Jupiter and bathing in ox semen was considered a religious rite.  Let’s not get started on Chanukah again, or its constant gamesmanship with Christmas.   If Wall Street had its way, Thanksgiving would be moved to December 26, to create an extra-long shopping season.

However, the “pseudo” aspect of the holiday can account for its decline.  The holiday was created at the height of the 1960s, when identity politics first came to the fore.  The slow progress of the civil rights movement frustrated many groups, pushing them to radicalize their politics into a more self-conscious and empowering framework.  It was Crayola politics at its best: African-Americans drifted towards Black Power and Pan-Africanism.  Chicanos and other Hispanics turned to Brown Power.  Native Americans started radical groups like the American Indian Movement (AIM). 

These movements, for the most part, combined a racial or ethnic consciousness with a Marxist economic and social agenda.  The principles of Kwanzaa were framed thus, and so racial empowerment were somehow tied to loopy economic theory.  It’s unfortunate because most of the Kwanzaa principles are ideals all people should hold, such as Unity, Self-Determination, Responsibility, and so forth.

The real Achilles’ heel for Kwanzaa  is among two of these principles.  One is Self-Determination, or Kujichagulia in Swahili.  According to Karenga, Self-Determination means “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”  In it of itself, this is not that controversial—in fact it is almost liberating.  However, does Karenga really mean for Blacks in America to define themselves, or accept the definition that others see fit?   Many African Americans, while embracing and celebrating their African heritage, do not necessarily identify as such, but rather as Americans first. 

African immigrants are even more blunt: why should they espouse an identity they know better than their distant American cousins?  After all, unlike African Americans, African immigrants left the continent of their own choice, for their own reasons. 

If that wasn’t problematic, consider the most blatantly Marxist of the ideals: Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics.”  This means “To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.”  The building of Black businesses and the cultivation of Black entrepreneurs is vital to their community.  However, the “profiting together” seems out of touch with business today, especially with that great capitalist mantra that the purpose of business is to make money for you.  Looking at successful Blacks in this country, there is little in the way of “profiting together.”  Nor is it always the best path to create businesses that are entirely owned and operated by one race.  Wall Street banks, for the most part, were all-white affairs, and look how that turned out.

In the past 40 years, the world changed, America changed, racial groups have evolved and prospered in numerous ways.  Does Kwanzaa still fit?  If the statistics are correct, Karenga’s celebration has abutted a consumerist and globalized culture that sees identity politics as less of a barrier and more of a point of entry.  The point is to build bridges, not walls, and Kwanzaa grew as a walled fortress of African self-definition in a white world.

For Kwanzaa’s sake, the walls should come down.  It should evolve into a celebration of identity and heritage, but in a larger, non-alienating framework.   Otherwise, many families will choose to leave the dashiki in the closet.

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Videos for the Classroom: African American Training During WWII


Recently, the good folks at the Social Studies and History Teachers blog presented a great video from the Office of War Information about the war effort in black colleges during World War II.  I posted the video, along with a video of a Bugs Bunny cartoon advertising war bonds.  The juxtaposition between an “official” view of blacks in the war effort and the blatent racist stereotypes in the cartoon is too juicy to resist–especially for students.

Let me know how they work in your classroom.

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Spoofing History: MadTV and African-American History

Who wouldn’t want Flavor Flav as their history teacher!   One of the few instances when MadTV is actually funny.  Enjoy.

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