Monday, March 22, 2010

American History X - a Success

Right or wrong, there are still places and people who look to the printed word - for its teachings of the past, for its stimulus of important discussions, as a source and impetus for thought and consideration.

American History X

“class, we are going to watch a movie together; this movie happens to be very violent and graphic, it’s got a bit of nudity and sexual content, but that is not what it’s about. It is about something that you do not know a lot about since your experience of America has been mostly confined to post-Giuliani liberal progressive, almost suburban, New York. There was a time when you could not walk down certain streets if you were of a certain color, and after a particular hour your chances of being robbed, kidnapped, raped, beaten up or murdered increased exponentially by every passing minute. The fact that this is not longer the case is good, however it has put a warming and diffusing filter on the reality of American race relations in the rest of the country.”

“Lincoln may have “freed” the slaves 140 years ago, but Blacks were not truly free and equal citizens until well into the 1960’s. This transitional period of 100 years has created an atmosphere of distrust, hatred, violence, inequality and prejudice; elsewhere in the world those hundred years gave birth to a number of leaders who made Nationalism a government supported and executed concept. These leaders, particularly Hitler, I hope you remember reading about him with your History teacher, right? Please say yes.”

“yes Mr. T”

“praise the lord! So this particular leader has spawned a movement across the world; white supremacy got itself an idol. You may have heard of skinheads, neo-Nazi’s, the KKK… these are all people who don’t think you have any business being here – you are a drag on our society, you are the cause of your own poverty, you bring disease, unemployment and violence, you pollute the pristine wombs of white women and you stand in the way of the progression of the white race. Did you know that about yourselves? This movie certainly represents the extreme manifestation of these sentiments, certainly not all “white supremacists” or racist would ever act to such a degree or even say such things as you will hear here, but they do represent a real and living sentiment shared by millions in this country, and the second you step out of New York, whether for college or work, you will discover just how real it is, and it is very possible someone may call you a nigger, not hire you, exclude you from a club or try to beat the crap out of you.”

This was the introduction I gave to the movie. We then proceeded to watch as the America flag was associated with exclusion, racism and inequality, as well as justification for all these things including murder. We saw the swastika; we heard kike, nigger, spic…; we saw everyone but the "poor victimized lower-class uneducated protestant scared" person accused of all things wrong with this country – we saw this done in very convincing Rhetoric.

What followed was an amazing discussion, filled with analysis and discovery, synthesis and problem solving. Brains were working, engaged, interested, scared, confused… My students (who are, for those who don't know, are all Black and/or are immigrants) own hatreds and prejudices were, not directly, brought to light; there was recognition and realization. What is important is that in light of all this there was no surrender to the difficulty of a situation, nor complaints about the need to engage a greater than unusual amount of their brains in order to really understand what is going on, as well as how and why the film was shot in that particular style.

After many failures and false starts we, as a class, found success. We had to employ a familiar medium, though not ADD inspiring as other movies, but a moving picture non-the-less. The class was fantastic, it was everything I envisioned an English class should be like… but it was not stimulated by reading a book, and that deflates me to no end.

Am I wrong? Are we coming to the end of the printed word, its importance, its use as a source for RELIABLE information? Can I not engage them sans violence, sexuality and “strong” language? Do the classics really no longer hold any of the valuable lessons they did in the past? Can Dickens tell us nothing? Nor Tolstoy nor Hemingway nor Byron nor Wilde nor Fitzgerald nor Shakespeare?

I hope you guys have some answers!

Is there a book with which you, other educators, have found success in the aforementioned degree? Even if you are not a teacher, is there a book you would recommend? Something that has meaning, something that can teach us about life… something that can stimulate good discussion and engagement.

I can’t wait for your ideas!!

Thanks for checking in!


  1. I think that the trick is to find books that are super engaging reads, with themes that your students can relate to in some way, grounding your discussions in those themes and taking off from there. There are SO many wonderful books that fit the bill. For example, "Kindred" by Octavia E. Butler is exciting to read--the main character is a young, African American woman randomly, repeatedly "summoned" via time travel from present-day California to the Antebellum South to save the life of a white plantation owner's son, who it turns out is her ancestor. It's a great starting place for a discussion of the history of race relations in the U.S., and because the main character literally travels back and forth through time it beautifully connects our country's past to the present.
    You write in your blog that many of your students are immigrants, or children of immigrants, and I have to tell you that some of my favorite books as a high schooler and college student were stories about immigration. "Dreaming in Cuban" by Cristina Garcia was something I read in my 9th grade English class, and it has stuck with me. I had the most incredible English teacher that year, and our discussions and analysis of that book were fundamental in how I learned to do close readings of literature. Dreaming in Cuban tells the stories of three generations of women in a single family, and moves through time as well as from third person to first person and even letters written by one character, making it a perfect vehicle for discussions of narrative voice. The novel's many themes include issues of family, political struggle, exile, belonging, and memory, and although it is fiction it is filled with true historical events. (continued)

  2. Another book that I have re-read many times, which also deals with immigration and, like Dreaming in Cuban, is narrated by different voices, is How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. I couldn't recommend a book more strongly for adolescent readers, especially young women. It's an incredible novel about four sisters who emigrate from the Dominican Republic to New York City, told through short stories that focus on each sister and sometimes the entire family. This is a book that I bet many students who moved to New York in their childhood will relate to; it touches on very complicated topics surrounding immigration, from identity and displacement to acculturation and family ties. Also, it deals with the true recent political history of the Dominican Republic-- the family has to leave DR because of Trujillo's dictatorship. To this day it is one of my favorite books (as is everything else by Julia Alvarez! There is a sequel to this as well, called "Yo!" which focuses on just one sister, if your kids really like it, and for your more mature students her book "In the Time of the Butterflies" could be wonderful). Given that so many of your students are from Haiti, I think that the fact that these last two books deal with some of the Caribbean's political history as well as the complex networks created by Caribbean immigration. Lastly, of course, I would like to suggest the incredible author Edwidge Danticat. She is a Haitian immigrant who moved to New York City as a child, went to high school in Brooklyn, and has written extensively about her experiences. I read her book "Breath, Eyes, Memory" in college, and it is really heavy and graphic at times, but if you are showing "American History X" to your students I think that it would be ok. Dealing with mostly female characters, but also men, like "Dreaming in Cuban" and "Garcia Girls," there are issues of gender, family, displacement, violence, politics and identity. I also know that Danticat has written other books and stories/essays, including a story called "A New World Full of Strangers" for a youth magazine about her experience of immigration, and that it eventually inspired "Breath, Eyes, Memory."

    These are just a few books that I recommend--- with the last three there are so many overlapping and interconnected themes, you could do an entire unit with those books alone.
    If you want any more suggestions, or if you do decide to teach any of these books please let me know! I hope this helps!