HistoricLee Relevant

An Education in History Education

Black Power in AP US History Classrooms

At every AP reading (see here for a general description of the event and here for the 2011 reading specifically), history professors and APUSH teachers collectively bemoan the sad state of students’ knowledge of the past, and this year is no different.  Our groaning as teachers does not stem from a failed attempt to recapture a “golden age” long past wherein students mastered all relevant historical minutia.  Instead, it comes from our failure to teach and their failure to learn.

Nevertheless, the minutia matters because it serves as the building blocks of historical memory.  While some students’ mistakes on the AP US History essays are trivial and even understandable (confusing John Quincy Adams with his father, for example), others are more alarming.  These mistakes are less about the factoids themselves and more about interpretation and analysis thereof.  Worse still, these misguided interpretations and analyses often lead to injustices of memory.

Question #5 at the 2011 AP US History reading proved to be a prime example of an injustice of historical memory, specifically with regard to the black power movement.  The following essay question (which I was assigned to grade for four and a half days) generated a litany of incorrect historical facts, inaccurate interpretations and analyses, and injustices of historical memory:

“African American leaders have responded to racial discrimination in the United States in a variety of ways.  Compare and contrast the goals and strategies of African American leaders in the 1890s-1920s with the goals and strategies of African American leaders in the 1950s-1960s.”

The following is a small sample of quotes that I gathered from student essays highlighting the injustices to memory perpetrated in this year’s APUSH classrooms:

MALCOLM X
“Malcolm X urged his followers to use violence and weapons when necessary.”
“Malcolm X…advocated violent protest of making the white people pay for their discrimination.”
“Malcolm originally sought to use violence against whites…”
“Malcolm X felt that violence was the answer…”
“Malcolm X used violence to try and earn his freedom.”
“Malcolm X…believed in Black Power and violence.”
“Malcolm X inspired violence towards the cause.”
“…Malcolm X emphasized the use of terrorist tactics…”
“Malcolm X, an educated man, who saw violence…as the best means to achieve reform.”
“Malcolm X used violent protests…to try to fight the discrimination that African Americans were facing.”
“One leader who still had the goals of violent reform was Malcolm X.”
“Malcolm X…believed the answer to desegregation and equal rights was through violence and force.”
“It was people like Malcolm X who didn’t see the change he wanted and began protesting in violent ways…”
“Leaders such as Malcolm X led riots and promoted violence as a means to earn their rights.”
“Malcolm X was a strong believer in these means [violence] of gaining equality…”
“Malcolm X…advocated black supremacy and even violence.”

BLACK PANTHERS
“The Black Panther Party formed as a black terrorist group to enforce equality.”
“The [the Black Panthers] openly took part in violence to gain attention.”
“There was also the…black panthers which also called for violence against whites…”
“The Black Panters…decided that the only way to get that point across was violence, they killed hundreds of people and got into race riots…”
“Their tactics ranged from organized violence (like that of the Black Panthers)…”
“The Panthers infamously started the Watts and LA riots…”
“…the Black Panthers, openly willing to use violence to protect their rights.”
“…the Black Panthers…committed violent acts to try and convince legislation to give African American people their rights.”
“…the Black Panther Party a violent organization.”

MALCOLM X & BLACK PANTHERS
“Malcolm X and the Black Panthers even took up violence as being the only way for their freedom.”
“…the Black Panthers who violently protested and burned many buildings to get his (Malcolm X’s) point across…”
“Malcolm X led a violent protest group, the Black Panthers.”
“[Malcolm X’s] teachings helped spark the emergence of the Black Panthers, who utilized violence…to gain equality.”
“Malcolm X…establish[ed] the group, Black Panthers, as they would lynch white men.”
“Others like Malcolm X and…the Black Panthers, saw violence as the only way to reach these goals for the African American community.”

OTHER
“Malcolm X and the Nation on Islam called for blacks to violently rally against whites.”
“As King was doing that [following Ghandi’s example], other Blacks were pretty much starting gangs, and killing people to ge their message out.”
“The Black Muslims were a violent group…”
“Violent responses [to racist segregation] were led by Carmichael and the Black Panthers.”
“Black Power leaders were responsible for a number of riots including the Los Angeles riots.”

These quotes come from one of five places: the teacher, the textbook, the students’ pre-class knowledge, the students’ unique interpretation of the previous three, or some combination thereof.  If we are to correct this injustice to historical memory, all five of these areas must be evaluated in relation to their contribution to students’ responses.

Please feel free to comment.  I have more to say about this issue, but I feel it would be best to do so in dialogue with others.

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2 responses to “Black Power in AP US History Classrooms

  1. Michael Ellery July 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    There are all sort of evils associated with our adherence to the dominant narrative of high school history. When dealing with AP students who cannot differentiate between communist Cuba, Berlin, Korea, and Vietnam, teachers frequently sacrifice historical accuracy by adhering to a flawed dominant narrative. It seems this is particularly true when dealing with the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerges as the sole figure in the southern movement, Rosa Parks is an accidental hero, and Malcolm X becomes the violent yin to Martin’s yang. The Black Panthers and Carmichael and the Black Power movement suffer the same fate. I cannot tell you how often I begin attempting to convey the complexity of the situation to my freshmen high school students only to be pleased as punch when the confused student declares, “Malcolm was the violent one, right?”. True, these are freshmen – most of whom will never sniff an AP exam. Still, these bad habits take root in the minds of potential AP students and likely emerge on the exam.

    • CDL August 2, 2011 at 1:42 am

      Well said, Michael. But I think you are letting the textbooks and teachers off too easily on this one.

      The reason this is such a big deal is not that the labels are inaccurate (which they are). Instead, these inaccuracies are an injustice to a group of people who, throughout most of our history, were oppressed. To sully the most forceful advocates of black advancement as “violent” and “terrorist” belies a deeper reality: that we ourselves have not internalized the importance of the black power movement on both the black consciousness and the American consciousness enough to convey it to our charges. Our responsibility, at bare minimum, is to engage students with the reality of the past (albeit contested). Our higher calling as teachers, as social studies and history teachers, should be to foster a sense of civic duty and a democratic sensibility. Part of this involves inculcating our students with a deep pluralism, one that is threatened when historical advocates of equality and advancement are merely characterized in gross, inaccurate generalities.

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