Category Archives: US History

Emmett Till, Forgotten

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Many of my students know the song “Karate Chop” in which Lil Wayne brings out the name of Emmett Till — and laughs — in a reference too vulgar to repeat here.   I’m wondering, however, how many know who Emmett Till was.  Some may identify him as “someone involved in civil rights”, which would be an acceptable test answer.  They may not realize that he was an unwilling civil rights symbol, as he died at age 14 after being attacked by a white group of adults in the summer of 1955.   What did he do?  He may have whistled at a white woman.  Maybe.  He was from Chicago and was visiting Mississippi, and his “northern attitude” may have provided motivation.   The men beat him, gouged out an eye, shot him in the head and threw his body the river.

J.W. Milam, one of those men who was acquitted in court but later confessed to the murder,   was quoted a year later in Look magazine:

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”

He killed Emmett Till, and ended up dying in the 1980s, perfectly content and with no regrets.

So, as we look at the future of education and focus more on job preparedness and test scores, we miss some of history’s most disturbing and resonating stories.  Emmett Till died decades ago, but there have been many Emmett Tills since his death.  We have learned nothing.  It was a case which shocked the North, but no one remembers today.  It is not a part of the new standardized, test driven curriculum championed by Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.

No one remembers, and when no one remembers, nothing will change.

Note:   J.W. Milam had a ninth grade education, and left rural Mississippi only to fight in World War II.  His critical thinking skills were clearly lacking.  Lil Wayne dropped out of school when he was 14.   Emmett Till would have been a ninth grader at age 14.

Django Unchained as Education

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Django Unchained has received a lot of commentary this year, and deservedly so.   Spike Lee condemned it, historians criticized some of its details, and film critics lauded it.  Can such a movie teach us about American history, and if so, in what ways?

-The obvious:  slavery was brutal.   The violence in the film may be too much for my younger students, but Americans can never dismiss the violence and dehumanization of slavery.   The image shown here of Gordon, a real former slave from the same Mississippi featured in the film, makes a statement in its own right, and it may have been what Quentin Tarantino was thinking about when he visualized the whippings and scars.   Also, female and male slaves experienced the dehumanization quite differently.  Tarantino is famous for all of the blood, but he restrains himself from depicting what most female slaves, especially those as beautiful as Brunhilda,  faced.  Surprisingly, our history books still don’t stress any of this brutality.

-Slavery was also PSYCHOLOGICALLY brutal.  Hence, the vicious character of Stephen, or the diabolical Calvin Candie.   Why, during one whipping scene, were slaves on swings, apparently relaxing on a hot summer’s day?

-The History of Racism is complicated.  Tarantino offers a disturbing soliloquy delivered by Candie on phrenology and servitude, which frames a great deal of the American arguments about race, found both in the South AND North.   The addition of King Schultz provides the German perspective on American slavery and racism.  What were non-Americans writing and discussing at the time when looking at America and slavery?  Why, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did Eliza want to escape to Canada and NOT the North?

– The mistakes:  the Klu Klux Klan came later (but there were earlier groups similar to the Klan) and there is no strong evidence for Mandingo fighting.  Are these mistakes?  Can a filmmaker take liberties with history in the spirit of creativity?

– The History of Film.  Tarantino pulls from the “Spaghetti Western” and “Blaxploitation” genres.   We need not forget that one of the first great commercial successes in Hollywood was the 1915 Birth of a Nation, which, in many ways, is far more disturbing than even the most violent scenes of Django Unchained.

-History inspires creativity.  Django is not from history directly, but he is inspired by history.  What other films, novels, or artworks use history as a base for creative expression?

We can also think of Django many other educational ways, with the “Hero’s Journey” (from Joseph Campbell)  being one which I’d love to explore more, as a sort of Odysseus-Django comparison.  In religious studies and philosophy, the idea of “ultimate concern” (from Paul Tillich) would make an interesting paper, as would using Django’s ethics alongside Aristotle, Plato, and Arjuna’s in the Bhagavada Gita.    While I would not hesitate to show this film in a college classroom, I feel more comfortable leaving it up to homeschooling families to decide if it is appropriate for their children – or perhaps focusing on scenes, when it is released on DVD.

But one of the strongest questions relating to Django Unchained and education came for me at the end of the film, when my daughter asked me, “What would happen next?”.  What WOULD happen next for Django, riding off into the sunset…in Mississippi…just before the Civil War?   Think about it, and be grateful that Quentin Tarantino left it open for us to contemplate creatively.