Tag Archives: religion

Movies for the Classroom: A Christmas Carol (1971)

The holidays are never complete without Charles Dickens‘ immortal Victorian morality tale–and now you can show among the best versions of the story.

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was not only a wildly popular bestseller.  In so many words, Dickens defined the modern definition of Christmas in Britain and especially in America.   Practically overnight, A Christmas Carol re-introduced the English-speaking world to a holiday that had been largely forgotten for almost two centuries.

Ever since the ban on Christmas during the Cromwellian era, the holiday was looked down upon as an idolatrous Catholic vice.  Even in America, only Anglican Virginia and outlying German Lutheran and Catholic settlements on the frontier really celebrated it.

Dickens’ work practically re-oriented the holiday from its more religious underpinnings to a secular, family-based celebration of comraderie and goodwill.  Even the most dour Calvinist couldn’t argue with those sentiments.  As the novel became popular, the markings of the celebration as noted on the pages–gift-giving, trees, pine wreaths, holly, carols, food, etc.–started to sprout in Britain and the United States (Puritan New England was slower in adopting it: many parts of the region wouldn’t allow Christmas celebrations until the 1870s.)

Thus, the holiday we see today comes almost directly from this 1843 novel.

Like any popular story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.  The version attached today is among the best.  This 1971 animated film won the Academy Award for best animated short film: the only version of the story to be honored with an Oscar.  Directed by Richard Williams and produced by legendary animator Chuck Jones, the film’s style is lifted almost directly from 19th century illustrations, as well as 1930s illustrations of a popular reprint.  The tone is sufficiently dark to suit the somber Dickensian world of mid-19th century London: you can smell the smog and misery.

I think its among the best adaptations of the story around.  The mood of the story is sufficiently dark and upbeat to satisfy all audiences–but particularly older students.  This definitely lends itself to discussions of Victorian society, values, social welfare and government policies to the less fortunate.

Or it just could be a great Christmas yarn (which it is).  You can decide.  Enjoy.

 

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Review of Part 1 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Haiti/Dominican Republic

A Tale of Two Countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic

In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.

One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition.  All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them.  From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.

Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility.  “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.

(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)

Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America.  Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences.  The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity.  On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.

The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade.  Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching.  On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.

Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices.   Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness.  It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.

This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor.  Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population.  Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior.  When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting.  Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.

Haiti seems almost the exact opposite.  Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black.  Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents.  Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.

Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence.  Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas.   One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.

This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States.  Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans.  Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence.  Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.

The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants.  While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World.  Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.

Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States.  Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors.  Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.

Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized.  As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more.  As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.

There is no shame in being of African descent.

Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.

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Eggs, Bunnies and a Dude on a Cross: The Problem with Easter

The Easter story is the central tenet of Christianity. It also reads like a nightmarish B-grade horror film.

A poor, disheveled mystic–who claims to be descended from the divine–attracts a following with feats of power and thoughtful wisdom. He runs into problems with local authorities that fear his ministry will “rock the boat” with both the local priests and the powers that actually run the joint.

After a meal where he makes his followers consume his “flesh” and “blood”, he is arrested and beaten within an inch of his life. The mystic then carries a wooden beam through town, amongst jeering crowds and impatient soldiers to a hill where his is stripped and nailed to this hunk of wood. Hanging in horrific agony, he calls on everyone but the kitchen sink before he finally tunes out—only to “rise again” like a beatific zombie a few days later.

If the movies are to be believed, his hair is perfect.

In a nice addendum, the same dude rises to heaven, promising to come back and go medieval on all the fools who wronged him: a divine Charles Bronson, if you will.

Of course, this is a crude, even blasphemic retelling of what is considered the “Passion” of Jesus Christ, the story of his torture, death and resurrection as told through the Gospels of the New Testament. It is impossible to understand Christianity without this story—gory and fantastic as it may be.

Yet the Easter story can be very troublesome in a classroom, particularly in the elementary setting. That said, it’s probably best to avoid it altogether.

“Not so fast!”, you say, “What about Christmas? That’s a religious holiday that’s at least given lip service in most American classrooms!”

If you think Easter has been made tame by bunnies, chocolate and hard-boiled eggs with paint on them…you better look again, because Big J’s horror story will always reel its thorn-laden head.

Here are a few reasons to bypass the Easter story in your class:

1. The Religion is still Center Stage. – the bunny just won’t cut it. There’s no Santa Claus, Frosty or tits at Mardi Gras to drown out the Bible here. Jesus really IS the reason for this season, and the minute you talk about him is the moment the First Amendment and the ACLU come to whip you in the ass with an organically-grown hickory switch.

2. There’s too little secular material to tie in. – You can even date when Christmas was stripped of its Christianity: 1843. This was the year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. It became a best-seller, and completely remade Christmas as a secular family gift-giving holiday. To date, no such transformation has occurred with the opposite end of Jesus’ life.

3. The story is gruesome. – There’s no way to candy coat torture and crucifixion. It was a painful, agonizing death that was suffered by thousands during Roman rule. In fact, Jesus had it easy: his loincloth was kept on for modesty, and only his limbs were nailed down. Scholars have discovered remains of naked victims nailed in some bizarre areas: the armpits, the neck, even the genitals. Makes you feel sorry for the Roman legionary who drew the short straw for nail-in-the-junk duty.

4. Competition from another important religious holiday. – As much as it galls the religious right, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover seder, as he was an observant Jew. Passover and Easter are forever tied together, both by Scripture and history. Passover, the celebration of the beginning of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, is not the most important Jewish holiday religiously, yet the most influential historically. The Passover story reverberates throughout Jewish history, as the dispersal of God’s Chosen People harkens back to those first movements from Egypt. Furthermore, in places with large Jewish populations, like New York City, a long spring recess has more to do with Jewish than Christian religious tradition. Easter can’t exist without Passover, and both stories need a lot of context to be explained.

5. No good secular entertainment. – Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown aren’t exactly kosher on Easter (no pun intended). All the movies associated with the season have to do with the season literally. There are plenty of Jesus movies—and Moses movies, for that matter—to fill an afternoon, but they come dangerously close to evangelizing. Even Monty Python’s Life of Brian won’t cut it, although I would love to meet the high school teacher with the balls to show it in class.

6. The whole story is such a downer. – When Christians celebrate Easter, they rejoice in the very end of the story. Most of the narrative of Jesus’ last days on Earth is tragic, violent, gruesome, blood-curdling and altogether depressing. It only gets good at the very end (the “zombie” phase). Hence the pastel suits and chiffon dresses: wearing that on Good Friday is akin to showing up at the funeral in a red dress.

I’ve seen decent, God-fearing teachers make a point to sneak in Easter activities like egg-dying, Easter bunny-coloring and the like. It’s cute, I know, but the minute one kid asks why they are doing this, the teacher plays with fire.

That fire—from constitutional law and the courtroom—is far more painful than any conjectured netherworld. You can avoid Hell. You can’t get out of a subpoena.

In high school classes, this shouldn’t be an issue. Jesus is a historical figure, and his death should be treated as such—you can even go nuts on the crucifixion thing. The scripture complicates things, but teenagers should figure out what is history and what isn’t.

With little kids, however, the scripture is the history. It’s the only narrative that a kid will understand at that level, and in a public school that’s construed as religious instruction. Avoid Easter, avoid Jesus, heck avoid the bunnies and eggs (they bring about too many questions).

Leave that for a later time when the gruesomeness of the Passion has a slightly cool quality. You gotta love teenagers.

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