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Sable Mensah '11
black studies major, minor in history
The SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference removed me from my physical separation from history. It removed the bookshelves, the lectures, the discussions, the will power to believe what was, the imagination. I didn't need any of it. It just was. It was there and it was present. It was embodied by the griots, walking all around me. And their determined effort to leave evidence meant that, when I left North Carolina, their histories were now embodied in me.
With each panel, each spotlight, each welcoming smile, there was a hurried rush to tell their own stories. The spotlight and history books that had captured what became the mainstream historical narrative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee got it wrong. The gap between what was and what was written was painful for these former activists and evident to me and my peers as students of revisionist histories.
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Sylvia Boateng '11
political science and educational studies major, minor in black studies
I get on the bus to go to Shaw University. Anxious, nervous, curious, excited. Ashia and I sit next to each other because we are not ready to be historians quite yet. I see my mom join the crowd - yes, my mom. My family has always been a part of the struggle. As major players in the Philadelphia Civil Rights Movement, I grew up around talk of SNCC, MLK Jr., and Bernice Johnson Reagon H'93 as long as I can remember. This was an aspect of my life that I greatly resented when my mom came into my fourth grade class to sing freedom songs. I found out the importance of all of this history just recently. Only minutes after the Swarthmore crew gets on the bus, I hear a man begin to sing "Freedom on My Mind." I look to my left only to find my mom become the second person to join in, my fourth grade resentments coming alive. Only this time, it's different. One by one, two by two, people join in. The whole bus sang together. This put me simultaneously back in what I imagine the 1960s to be like... and today, this moment. After this, I felt as though the conference would be perfect; a perfect marriage of the past, present, and future.
By the end of the conference, the vision I had on the bus to Shaw University had changed; not necessarily for the better or worse, just different. I am still trying to find a balanced way of looking at the Freedom Singers and other SNCC people as role models, and full human beings with flaws. I continue to idolize them, despite their flaws. But I take their flaws as learning moments. When I become a teacher, I will incorporate these ideas into the curriculum. The whole, relevant story will be told.
Through her research, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies and Black Studies Cheryl Jones-Walker traces the development of identities of students and teachers through interactions in order to understand how identities are formed and reformed in classroom spaces. She argues that educators must begin to uncover how the construction of self informs the act of teaching and the process of learning. Write to her at email@example.com
While I knew that this gathering (a reunion of sorts) was history in the making, I was not prepared for the grandness in scale, the number of activists, historians, organizers, and youth who gathered to learn the history and to think about what it means for the current political moment. The range of experiences and energy was made more powerful because of the fact that at least three generations of committed scholars and activists were gathered for a shared purpose.
After several days of celebration punctuated by song, there was a sobering reminder when Harry Belafonte took the stage regarding how much work lay ahead and the danger of romanticizing what had been accomplished during the Civil Rights Movement. He was not there to celebrate. His message registered disappointment about the focus on the accomplishments of SNCC, how things should be documented and remembered and who deserved credit for strategies, actions and leadership. This is a tendency he had observed in recent years and as a result he now looks towards youth to role up their sleeves and to continue the fight for justice.
Mr. Belafonte urged each of us to consider "what are you going to do with your zone of power?" At Swarthmore, and in Educational Studies in particular, when we talk about educating students and preparing them for their futures, we often talk about using various modes of learning in our intellectually rigorous curricula to create socially engaged individuals. I see these as worthy goals, ones that directly align with a number of key questions Mr. Belafonte also encouraged us to consider:
- Where are we now?
- What has happened to us?
- Who is our audience?
- What are we talking about?
- What is at stake?
- What is the context and how is it informing what people do?
For me, these are not simply questions for our students to contemplate upon graduation as they plan their careers. They should be part and parcel of the learning experience in our classrooms and beyond. The questions posed above are very much in the vein of inquiry critical pedagogues would advocate for in studies of history, education, politics, and other social sciences. This methodology forces personal growth and development to take place alongside the mastery of content. It also means that we are more likely to apply what we learn to ourselves and to the world. If we effectively carry out this challenging emotional work in the classroom, then our students will be positioned to take up leadership roles, engage in social movements, educate future generations in this fashion and continually think about issues of equity and access that our movement elders forced to the center of the nation's consciousness over 50 years ago.
More than a dozen activists made space to be interviewed by our students; they carved out time for meals, introductions, and informal conversations. Over the course of the conference, students from Swarthmore made an impression beyond those they had formally contacted because one or two students were present at nearly every session (students strategically divided themselves with a commitment to share their learning). Students were moved by the graciousness and humanity shown to them as they came to learn that their heroes were real people with the same questions, vulnerabilities, and fears that occupy their minds. This type of learning experience is indelible and I believe that it has forever changed these students' lives.
I feel so privileged to have accompanied nine young women from Swarthmore College and to have learned beside them. This event will continue to inform my teaching, their educational experiences and hopefully how we think about organizing and social change.
A former researcher at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford, Professor of History Allison Dorsey is the author of Building Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906 (2004). She is currently researching a history of black freedmen along the Georgia seacoast. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The teaching and the learning that occurred around the 50th anniversary of SNCC conference was only possible because all eleven of us were outside the box of our normal academic relationship. Intergenerational conversations between women who were not performing the normal role of student and professor were more honest and free. I saw my students with new eyes and heard truths and tales which would not have been forth coming in the presence of men, or inside Trotter 203. This was a glimpse, almost a flash back of the 1960s feminist consciousness raising work, a taste of SNCC meetings that went on for days at a time. Yes, there was some blurring of boundaries and some holdover from that experience. I know I think and worry about them far too much. At the same time I think they are too familiar—silver sequined tennis shoes or no—I am not their peer, not one of "the girls." Having caught lightning in the bottle once, we can not go back to that moment and we are stumbling as we try to restore the old order of things as new people.
Years ago, a senior colleague at another college offered this bit of wisdom about teaching American History: "You should understand that 25 years from now, those students will not remember a single thing they read in your class. They will not recall the details of the 14th amendment nor the year the Civil War ended. They will, however, remember the relationship they had with you." As a new teacher, I rejected his analysis and quickly disregarded his advice, which seemed to be suggesting personality and human interaction was more important than historical knowledge. From my point of view, good teaching was rooted in challenging reading lists, firm but fair grading standards (including marking in red ink), Socratic Method, and maintaining a respectful, formal, and emotional distance between teacher and student.
My teaching has evolved over the years (red ink has given way to pencil), though my core beliefs about distance, formality, and rigor have remained the same. I was unprepared for the ways the SNCC trip challenged my vision and practice. Pedagogically, I am not sure where this process is going. This amazing teaching and learning experience required an extraordinary investment of time, energy, and self. In the past, my best teaching has been an outcome of my scholarly research and study. I am unresolved and hesitant about a new model of teaching which also requires a hefty investment of emotion and connectedness.
Yet and still, I am quite confident about the outcome of the process as it relates to the Swarthmore nine.Return to page 1