Thursday, August 25, 2011

Newsflash: Your High School History Book Might Have Left Out Women, Gays

History is full of untold stories, which is probably what I love most about it, and why I want to study it for a living. And often, stories that are told are told from a certain privileged vantage point. On Tuesday, when I met my undergrads for the first time, we talked about how there is a lot of information out there for those interested in the stories of middle to upper-class white Protestant straight men. I try to spend as little time as possible on those stories, because there are so many others to talk about.

One thing that happens a lot is that history is sanitized and co-opted to fit into a conservative message. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, has been used by conservatives to oppose gay marriage and promote a kind of color-blind ideology that deliberately obscures the fact that the wealth gap between white people and people of color is widening. His anti-war messages are swept under the rug, and the fact that he was working on an anti-poverty campaign because he could see that poor people regardless of color needed to band together to work against the inhumane functions of US capitalism was so terrifying to people at the time that many historians suspect it led to his assassination.

This week, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial opened on the National Mall in Washington, DC. This is significant in that it is the first memorial that isn't to a white man or a war. He is the first black person to be honored on the National Mall. Teachers are using this as an opportunity to talk about Dr. King in a time outside of Black History Month and to try to drive home his anti-racism messages.

The story of Dr. King has become almost iconographic, but there are other people whose stories are just as important. Ella Baker, for instance, who differed from King in many important ways. She was a grassroots organizer, not an orator, and she thought that putting so much of the power of the movement in one person's hands was troubling. She wanted power more evenly disbursed, and she believed in radical pedagogy. She wanted to empower dispossessed black people and believed that they could interpret and navigate the world without formal education. The tensions between Baker and King - its most effective grassroots organizer and its most charismatic spokesperson - revealed fundamental disagreements over the roles of leadership, the importance of democracy, and the pathways toward social change.

Fannie Lou Hamer and Josephine Baker are two important women that my students have typically never heard of in the context of the civil rights movement. Hamer (that's her pictured above) was actually quite the engaging speaker, and was crucial to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the supremacy of the whites-only Democratic Party. She in particular so enraged candidate Lyndon B. Johnson that he referred to her as "illiterate" and planned a speech to air on television at the same time as her speech to the Democratic Party's Credentials Committee meeting. Fortunately for America, most news programs ran her speech unedited later in the evening. She made a difference in gaining political attention for black people. She worked for Head Start, Dr. King's Poor Peoples' Campaign, and sat as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Hamer is a hero.

Josephine Baker, as the link above discusses, was part of the Million Man March and gave a moving 20 minute speech at the rally - the only woman to do so. She was a performer, which is the role most people seem to know her in, and she used her platform to oppose segregation. She wouldn't perform in segregated clubs, and she was an active member of the NAACP.

Bayard Rustin
is another overlooked member of the civil rights movement, though he was the organizer of the Million Man March, keeping track of even the smallest details. He was important to Dr. King and to the movement in general thanks to his capacity to organize. He was also openly gay. John D'Emilio wrote a really great biography of Rustin if you want to know more about him. But some people wrote him off at the time, and used his homosexuality to threaten the movement.

So, I think Dr. King should be memorialized on the Mall, and I'm looking forward to seeing the monument for myself the next time I'm in DC. But these other people should not just be footnotes in the story - they were just as important as King, if not as famous. But they weren't straight men, and therefore had a lower public profile and are left out of history curricula that barely include black people at all. It's important to talk about them, though, because they represent the diversity necessary to any movement: diversity of gender, sexuality, class, literacy, region, and focus. Without this representation, it's too easy to think that the civil rights movement happened because of one man - a characterization even Dr. King himself would surely have disagreed with.


  1. As a former educator, I was also looking for minorities to serve as role models for my students, and to make sure that important parts of American history were not overlooked. Unfortunately, in 1996 the school board in my mother's school district actually rejected the AP History textbook that was RECOMMENDED by the AP powers-that-be on the grounds that it was TOO MULTICULTURAL and didn't spend enough time talking about the founding fathers. You can read about some of the scandal here:

    Taken from Curriculum Development in the Postmodern Era, by Patrick Slattery, pp.44-46.

    My mother was a music teacher and would also assign students an essay about a certain composer. A student pointed out that the composer was gay, and should that be put in the report? My mother said that if the student thought it was relevant, than it was fine. I mean, heaven forbid kids learn about a GAY composer! The music itself might, you know, INFLUENCE the kids! Let's keep them away from show tunes for their own safety!

  2. Haha! Well, I hear "Book of Mormon" has been causing spontaneous combustion, so.

    I hear both sides of "should we talk about the fact that X person was gay." On the one hand, eh. It's not the only, or most important, thing about a person, necessarily, and it's often irrelevant to the topic at hand. But on the other hand, I think it's vitally important to include it because gay people are still seen as different or weird or an invention of the free love era. Showing that there have always been gay people and that they've done some cool stuff is important to historical inclusion.

    And if the music DID influence the kids to think about whether they might be gay... that can only be a good thing, of course. :)

    Anyway, I'll definitely check out that book! Thanks for the tip, love those.

  3. Haven't visited your site in a bit. This, of course made my heart beat roses. Thanks

    P.S. Karen, what's a minority? I think you mean African American, Black or people of color here...