No one could have prepared me for the lackluster attitude regarding Civil Rights and Black History that I have faced amongst students attending an HBCU. Some (& way too many) of my students believe King is an overrated, trite icon whose non-violent philosophy created a stagnant Movement. Students have claimed (loudly & proudly) that they have neither read nor heard the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety, that they did not know that King won the Nobel Peace Prize, helped to secure the Voting Rights Act, and led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Oh, but they did know, Dr. Bryant, that King led the Million Man March (or was it Malcolm X?).
I hated them for their ignorance, but I hated them more for not wanting to know. “I’m so tired of hearing about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. How do they relate to me?” one of my students asked. Another one, while giving a presentation on the images regarding the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, and African Apartheid (which one student admitted he thought meant “apartment”), said–at the start of her presentation to the entire class–“I’m so tired of talking about civil rights.” & then another “student,” who wanted to talk to me about Martin Luther King for an argumentative essay she was writing, claimed Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” approach to civil rights were more realistic than King’s non-violent approach. But she hadn’t read anything about King or any of King’s work. So, I gave her a book. & most recently, I required each of my four writing classes to attend Ava Duvernay’s #SELMA movie–& without fail, in each class, at least 2-3 students moaned & groaned about it. Even one student asked for an alternative assignment.
Why don’t Black students (& yes, I am overgeneralizing) want to know Martin Luther King? & why am I so adamant that they do?
But first, some background:
While I was teaching high school in 2004, I came across that one high school student who claimed to have never heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. before. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I felt embarrassed for this student, sad, & disappointed in the public school system, in mass media, and in her. In that moment, while listening to her classmates laugh and poke fun at her, I knew I needed to do more with King in my English classrooms. After all, most of those jokers who teased her didn’t know King beyond the King Holiday. & so, for the 13 years that I’ve been teaching English, Martin Luther King, Jr. has been part of my curriculum. He is as mandatory as Shakespeare & as necessary as the eight parts of speech.
Therefore, in between FCAT drills, I drilled students on King’s contributions to America. Required bell ringers included journal entries on various King quotes. & practice AP writing tasks required students to compare the rhetorical devices in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with Aaron McGruder’s “Return of the King Speech.” While George Bush was concerned with leaving no child behind via uniformed assessments, I was concerned with ensuring that no student left my high school English class without having a tighter grip on King than they had before. That was my small contribution to social activism, if you will–my nod to American patriotism and Black genius.
However, when I left the high school classroom and began a teaching career in post secondary education, I learned–surprisingly–that many of my university students didn’t give a shit about social activism, didn’t believe that Black people were genius, and didn’t view Martin Luther King an American patriot. Some of my white university students appreciated insights I offered them on King, while others viewed me a Black nationalist and an ethnocentric teacher. I hadn’t realized that requiring my White students to analyze the rhetorical language in King’s “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” would make me a “racist” teacher.
While I was aware that more often than not, White students will define their Black teacher racist should she teach anything from her Black perspective, I had not considered my teaching King a threat to anyone’s identity. I didn’t realize that I was challenging my White students’ preconceived knowledge about King. They understood him to be the Negro preacher who marched for human rights, particularly those of Black people. Yet, here I was, barely 30 years old, situating King in an academic space that required students to acknowledge his intellectual capacity–to understand his writing prowess and know him as a genius. Shoulder shrug. Nevertheless, despite student discomfort and occasional complaints to my supervisor, I continued to teach King, & the more I taught him, the more personal I began to feel about students’ ignorance and resistance to my King curriculum. But the resistance from my White students didn’t bother me as much as the push back I receive from the Black students I currently teach.
Every time I show King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in class, I well up with tears. When I play Nina Simone’s “Why? The King of Love Is Dead,” a knot enters my throat. & when I explicate King’s “The Power of Nonviolence,” “An Experiment in Love,” and “Where Do We Go from Here?”–speeches that define King’s agape love concept and non-violent approach–I feel, as I imagine the preacher does when he explicates the “Sermon on the Mount,” the Holy Ghost rising in me. So, one can imagine how angry I am when a Black student sleeps through the “Dream,” is texting through Simone’s queries, & has failed to read any of the assigned speeches. Why don’t Black students, especially these ones who are currently taking classes at a historically Black college & university, witnessing Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, & Eric Garner cases, & participating in #blacklivesmatter, #Icantbreathe, #dontshoot campaigns resisting academic discussions and tasks regarding Martin Luther King, & why do I care? & I mean, I be bout to lose my mind care.
This morning, my mentor friend freed my mind. She helped me to understand what I knew but had not known.
For about 13 years I thought I was frustrated with students’ lack of abecedarian knowledge regarding Martin Luther King, Jr. With all of this free access to information via the Internet, how in the world can any (Black) student not be familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr.–at least with his “Dream” speech? How does anyone in this 21st century America whose citizens actively engage in racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and the like, not be familiar with the Civil Rights Movement? I thought that that negligent behavior annoyed me. However, my mentor friend explained to me that those tidbits of information are all abecedarian; it’s a rudimentary understanding of things, which really, are not that important.
What is most important about King are not the marches, the speeches, and the awards, but it’s the spirit–the creative genius–that moved through him that you want your students to know so that they, too, can carry the King inside of them, she said. & she is absolutely right. My teaching King is primarily an effort at reminding students of their humanity & of their responsibility to ensuring peace & love. She is right. Many people will not know King, or Gandhi, or Leo Tolstoy, but if we each can be acquainted with their spirits, the Movement will keep moving; for, Spirit never dies.
& so, I will continue to use King as a primary source for instruction regarding rhetoric & composition practice, ’cause I believe King is a rhetorical genius. However, I am okay with my students–Black or White–not being able to recall any of his contributions to America and the Civil Rights Movement. No, King didn’t lead the Million Man March, but the spirit with which the Million Man March was organized is definitely a reflection of Martin Luther King.
Great piece. Please stay in the fight!