When I applied for a summer job with Duke University's Talent Identification Program -- a camp for academically gifted middle and high school students -- someone in hiring thought my few years' study of American history and religion qualified me to serve as a teaching assistant for American Government: Practical Politics. A few weeks after receiving my college diploma, I arrived in Durham, N.C., armed with notebooks, The Federalist Papers, and all the youthful optimism and energy we 20-year-olds are supposed to possess.
I was munching on a hot dog at the faculty and staff get-to-know-you barbecue when a young Black woman grabbed my arm and introduced herself as Sarah, the instructor for the government course. (All names have been changed.)
"I'm so glad you're here," Sarah said. "I have a syllabus for you, and I've just received the student roster. I think we need to pray about what to do with this bunch!"
Twelve of our 15 students were boys. All hailed from the South: Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas. All sharp as a whip. All White. (Not coincidentally, it is a minimum score on the SAT test, taken in the 7th grade, that identifies participants for the Talent Identification Program.) An admixture of private and public school kids. All from privileged backgrounds.
In fact, we began the class by discussing what power and privilege are, concluding that power is something that must be accessed, while privilege can be enjoyed unawares. We drew up a list of different privileges in American society -- gender privilege, class privilege, race privilege, age privilege. Sarah said that in the Black community, she -- very fair-skinned -- enjoyed complexion privilege, and that she and her boyfriend also enjoyed heterosexual privilege.
"James and I can walk down the street, all lovey-dovey, holding hands and kissing, and people croon, 'Oh, how cute -- two folks in love,' but if two men tried to do that, people would say, 'How disgusting.'"
Our students grasped age privilege and volunteered myriad examples of being followed in stores because proprietors suspected all teens of shoplifting. However, Sarah and I realized we had failed to communicate something essential when a 13-year-old from Texas raised his hand and asked, "Is welfare a class privilege? Only people from one class can get it. I mean, my mom can't just walk down to the welfare office and pick up a check."
That was the first clue that something was wrong.
Our class spent a portion of its six-hour day covering current events. Each student read a newspaper and selected one story to write about in his or her journal; then we discussed the events of the day as a group. Once, Brad wrote about an article that described various congressional approaches to tax reform. In discussion that evening, we deliberated the proposal to abolish income taxes in favor of a national sales tax.
"How would this affect taxpayers?" I asked and was gratified when Walter immediately shot up his hand and explained how substituting sales tax for income tax would shift the burden of payment onto people in a low-income tax bracket. But 14 of my 15 students said that would be fine with them. I saw the opportunity for a brief history lesson (I was squeezing them in wherever I could) and burst into an impromptu lecture on the Populists and the development of graduated income taxes in America. In five minutes, we surveyed inheritance taxes and the lottery, too.
Except for my 10th grader from Atlanta, who explained that paying a flat 30 percent income tax would mean nothing to Bill Gates but that for a family "earning $10,000 a year, that 30 percent might mean the difference between homelessness and survival," all of my students erupted into calls for a flat tax and abolishment of inheritance taxes.
"No random poor person is gonna get my father's money when he dies," said the son of a Florida factory owner.
"Yeah, I deserve that money, and I don't think it should go to the government in taxes," echoed Walter. "It's not fair."
Other history lessons came later. When Sarah lectured on the presidency, she mentioned Lyndon B. Johnson, observing that his Texas origins made his pushing civil rights all the more interesting.
In my classroom, I witnessed the formation of a historical consciousness. As English historian Eric Hobsbawm once noted, forgetting is as intrinsic to historical memory as remembering.
Jeffrey, a Texan himself, raised his hand and said, "I don't see what him being from Texas has got to do with anything because this Civil Rights Act that you just mentioned, you said it was passed in 1964 -- which was a century after the Civil War ended -- so there hadn't been racism or slavery or any of that for a hundred years, and the South and the North weren't opposed any more, so I don't see why him being from Texas is such a big deal."
"Well, Texas was a Jim Crow state," said Sarah.
"Who's Jim Crow?" asked another student, Roy.
Sarah and I glanced at each other, unsure whether he was being serious. I asked how many people knew what Jim Crow was, and two students raised their hands. All but one of these kids had Southern parents who had attended Jim Crow schools. When I asked them how many could tell me something about segregation other than "Rosa Parks," three kids added something about water fountains and "Driving Miss Daisy." That night we had another history lecture, beginning with emancipation and Reconstruction.
It was, to be sure, a moment of "taking stock."
Just what, exactly, had my students learned about the past? What was the point of teaching these kids David Mayhew's theory that congressmen are single-minded seekers of re-election or Richard Neustadt's argument that presidents try to serve five different constituencies, if they knew nothing of the long history of segregation in the South? These kids observed Martin Luther King Day every year, but who did they think King was? What did they think the activists of the Civil Rights Movement were moving against? Did they accept some ancestral view that civil rights workers were just "uppity niggers" making a fuss at lunch counters?
We had taken the class to the state legislature, and Dan Blue, former Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, had spoken to them for an hour. I don't know what they thought it meant when I told them that Speaker Blue was the highest-ranking African American political official in the state since Reconstruction.
I do understand, however, why most of my students were vociferously opposed to affirmative action. If I thought racism had ended 130 years ago with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, I might look askance at affirmative action myself. When we debated affirmative action in class, the students -- understandably -- mostly wanted to talk about college admissions. Their consensus was that special admission standards were ok for athletes, state residents and children of alumni, but not for women or Black people.
One student wrote that affirmative action is a "racist, sexist system aimed at giving some underqualified individuals advantages they do not deserve." (Like many Americans, my students cast much of their political discussion in terms of who is deserving: I doubt that any of them would advocate abolishing free-lunch programs in grammar schools because 5th graders are "undeserving.")
The same student opined that "this racist and sexist system goes directly against the American ideals of equality. … Affirmative action is a social cancer that needs to be destroyed before its evil seed can spread." Beneath the purple prose of an impassioned 8th grader stands a perspective that should not be dismissed as mere child's play.
When I told the camp director about my students' ignorance of segregation, he (a teacher of advanced placement U.S. history at a private school in Tulsa) replied cavalierly, "Well, yeah, what did you expect?" I reckon I expected these kids -- supposedly our best and brightest, who attend the finest schools and have, as my mother would say, "every advantage" -- to know about segregation. Naive on my part, apparently.
If asked on a test, my students could now spit out two-sentence descriptions of Reconstruction and segregation. But they still failed to grasp the meaning of the Civil Rights Movement or of any protest movement at all. A constant refrain in class was that people ought not criticize America. "These people shouldn't sit around complaining about things while they're busy enjoying all the privileges of living in America. If they don't like it, they should just leave," said Jason.
"What about those citizens who don't enjoy all the privileges of being an American?" I queried.
"Who would that be?" asked one student. "Everybody gets to use the roads and stuff."
'Wonderful,' I thought. 'While you're attending your posh private school and swimming at your country club and living in an eight-bedroom house, the rest of the folks get to use the roads.'
There was more than a bit of cognitive dissonance in it all. Our class devoted one day to politics and popular culture. We watched clips of Jungle Fever, Glory and The Grapes of Wrath, and the students brought in stacks of CDs so we could dissect the political messages in their favorite music. These kids, who knew nothing about segregation, appeared in class armed with highly nationalist Black rap.
One student played NAS' "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)": "I'll open every cell in Attica/ and send them all to Africa."
Walter chose a song by Goodie Mob:
Yeah, it's true, Uncle Sam wants you to be a devil too
See, he's jealous 'cause his skin is a curse but what's worse
Is if I put it in a verse y'all will listen to some bullshit first
We ain't natural born killas, we are a spiritual people
God's chosen few...
Goodie Mob means, 'The Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit'
You take away the 'O' and it will let you know,
'God is Every Man of Blackness.'
As I had wondered what the students thought Martin Luther King Day was about, so, too, I wondered what they thought these lyrics meant, and why they chose these particular tunes to accompany them in their cars as they used "the roads and stuff."
In my classroom, I witnessed the formation of a historical consciousness. As English historian Eric Hobsbawm once noted, forgetting is as intrinsic to historical memory as remembering—and it was the forgetting that was outlined in clear relief last summer.
Reprinted with permission from Southern Cultures, Vol. 4, No. 2. For subscriptions or a sample copy, write to Journals Dept., University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-2288.