Monday, June 30, 2014

Watching "Freedom Summer" Twice

So already, I've now watched American Experience's Freedom Summer twice: once by myself, once with my parents. 

Eight years old during the summer of 1964, I recall nothing of that summer's events, so I was curious about what my mother and father--eighty-six and eighty-eight years old respectively--recalled and knew. In 1964, we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. But my father and his older brother co-owned two small businesses, one in Roxbury and one in Mattapan, predominantly African-American sections of Boston that had had large Jewish populations when my parents lived in them during the 1930's and 1940's. As a businessman in these neighborhoods in the 1950's and 1960's, my father in particular had some understandings of the consequences of institutionalized racial inequality.

The Context for Watching "Freedom Summer" Twice
Allegedly, I have a first-rate education. But the lesson of the past year is that I have always had a very limited and superficial understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement--the issues, the events, the circumstances, the heroes. It's not that I would have expected my entering-fourth-grade self to have paid attention to the events unfolding on the evening news during the summer of 1964.  It's that I had no real opportunities (or didn't take advantage of the ones I did have?) to explore and come to understand any of these events widely or deeply--certainly not in the required U.S. history course I took at Needham High School* in 1972, even though we had a brand new history textbook that asked us to understand history by exploring primary source documents. Truthfully, by the time my adolescent radar detected Lyndon Johnson on a regular basis, he was the president who was sending more and more troops into Vietnam.

But it's not just the commemorations of the fiftieth anniversaries of the March on Washington and Freedom Summer that have made me conscious of my own substandard understandings; it's also been the inspirational and enlightening experiences of the first group of Kimbrough Scholars, those Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) students who, this past spring, simultaneously participated in a intense CRLS-based Civil Rights history seminar and worked closely with Northeastern University Law School's Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) which, according to its web site, "conducts research and supports policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence in the United States and other miscarriages of justice of that period." 

Not only did the Kimbrough Scholars develop the requisite skills and knowledge to research a cold case using national archives housed in the Cambridge/Boston area, but they visited McComb, Mississippi to do further research and to speak with and listen to the relatives, neighbors, and friends of the victim.  Given that the perpetrators of the crime are dead, criminal justice is not possible. But restorative justice is. And a major goal of the Northeastern project is to bring healing and closure to the families of victims who have received no justice from the courts. Through their persistence in seeking the truth, their respectful attention to the stories and feelings of those most affected by the crimes, and their explicit gratitude to those willing to share with them, CRRJ Project associates acknowledge, dignify, elevate, even enshrine experiences and emotions of people who have been forgotten, unheeded, ignored, and/or dismissed.

The Kimbrough Scholars program is one of the initiatives of the Leslie H. Kimbrough Memorial Committee.** When Les Kimbrough, a former CRLS teacher and administrator, died suddenly two years ago, a group of us banded together to preserve and extend his important legacy. As the memorial plaque in a central CRLS first-floor hallway explains, Kimbrough, ever mindful of "the specific challenges of African-American and other students historically denied full educational opportunity," "believed in the power of education to transform the lives of individuals and our society." Civil Rights was part of the history curriculum he taught.

Just days before Kimbrough died, he and I had a serious conversation about the under-representation of African-American students in my AP English Literature & Composition class: only two among more than twenty students. We were both concerned that the apparent resegregation of the high school was being fueled by the combination of a nearly ten-year-old course-leveling system and an administrative emphasis on particular kinds of quantitative student achievement data.  We feared that in a punitive national "accountability" climate, CRLS was choosing the less courageous path of identifying and measuring "kids who already could" and "kids who already believed they could" rather than encouraging "kids who could with the right kinds of initial supports" or "kids who could come to believe they could through some initial authentic experiences of themselves as achieving and progressing."

Frankly, I feel Kimbrough's final gift to me has been the Kimbrough Scholars. His long history of providing me with opportunities to think from important perspectives that I didn't always perceive has continued through their experiences. Without the updates from the members of the Kimbrough Committee who worked with the students regularly, and without the formal presentation the students made in late May, I wouldn't know what I didn't know, wouldn't know what I needed to pay attention to.

And so now I'm paying attention, paying lots of attention. That's why I've watched Freedom Summer twice. And that's why I can't wait to hear about the experiences of the two Kimbrough Scholars and their chaperones who have spent the last week in Mississippi at the Freedom Summer fiftieth anniversary conference.

Watching "Freedom Summer"
Freedom Summer is on again; I'm listening to it as I write the second half of this blog post.

I watched Freedom Summer for the first time last Tuesday night--and knew immediately that I wanted to watch it again. Educationally speaking, the film helped me to revise misunderstandings and misinformation I'd accumulated and constructed on the basis of my piecemeal Civil Rights education, which, fortunately, had already begun to be reshaped and enlarged by the Kimbrough Scholars' work.  Prior to this year, my Civil Rights' knowledge was largely the product of the combination of various Hollywood films, television mini-series, and public television documentaries; assorted books, newspapers, and magazines, encountered randomly; research done by former students on events, figures, and speeches from the Civil Rights Movement; and social conversations. This past fall, I made some new connections among some seemingly disparate understandings I had by going to see All the Way, the play about the early part of LBJ's presidency. And even more recently, at Radcliffe Day 2014, a panel discussion entitled "From Civil War To Civil Rights: The Unending Battle To Vote,"*** gave me a new appreciation of how embattled the history of voting rights has been, how and why the voting rights of many Americans continue to be extremely vulnerable, and why there is reason for hope.

My parents and I watched Freedom Summer on Saturday afternoon with rapt attention--even though they (and I!) often fall asleep while watching television. While they had always known about hostile resistance to African-American voter registration in many Southern states, they hadn't known that Mississippi made registering to vote particularly difficult and dangerous. They did recall various events and stories the film featured--particularly surrounding the disappearances and deaths of the James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman--but there was much that was new to them, or simply not recalled by them.

As we watched, they kept remarking on courage of people--particularly of the Mississippians who tried to register to vote**** and who housed the student volunteers. They were touched by the stalwart older people who determined to register to vote after too many years of oppression and powerlessness. Their hearts went out to the parents of Miss Mississippi, ostracized by their neighbors for inviting several student volunteers for
tea. They were mesmerized by Fannie Lou Hamer's intensity and conviction, and were moved by the photos of Mississippi children relishing their experiences in the Freedom Schools: until they watched Freedom Summer, my parents hadn't known about the Freedom Schools.***** And while they had been aware  of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's existence, they had never particularly linked that organization to the efforts and events they had seen reported on the news.

Without the still images, the film footage, and the remembrances of those who had been there spoken in their own voices, I doubt that my parents and I would have been so deeply engaged in this two-hour film. It seemed extraordinarily important to see the mothers****** of the three murdered Civil Rights workers, and to see the evidence that a strong relationship had formed among them. It was important to see the newly formed group
of student volunteers in their training sessions and to see the faces of those who chose to board them, those who tried to register to vote, and those who could not be persuaded to attempt to register. Putting faces on people minimizes the abstraction that frequently makes "historical progress" seem inevitable rather than hard-won. Only when people sufficiently understand not only that the attainment of the rights they assume and cherish was more improbable than inevitable, but also that others are still actively engaged in trying to deprive them or others of those rights, do people act strategically to protect those rights.

Educational Challenges Related to Teaching with "Freedom Summer"
But our current students are barraged by photos, video clips, and recorded voices everywhere and everyday. So Freedom Summer won't necessarily engage or teach them, unless we are very deliberate and creative about what we ask of them while and after they watch it. Always, the challenge is to get students to think beyond their previous understandings, especially those "understandings" that they think their teachers want them to have. This film gives students a good shot at doing that. First of all, it presents the efforts of many people whom the students may not already know by name and whom they may not have already studied because the local schools they attend are not named for them. Furthermore, many of the student activists in the film are just a few years older than the high school students who will encounter them in the film. In addition, the events in the film raise great adolescent-appropriate questions. Some might relate more to their evolving values and identities:  "Would you have gone?" and "Would you have been chosen to participate?" But others might be more analytical and evaluative: "To what degree do Freedom Summer and Mississippi Burning concur about (a) what happened in Mississippi, (b) what Freedom Summer was all about, and (c) why what happened in Mississippi is important?" 

And finally, given how compelling the film's images and the voices are, students might be asked the following: "If you were trying to help someone understand what Freedom Summer was, what its purpose was, and what happened during it, what 3-6 images and voices would you share?  And what 3-6 images******* and voices would share to help them understand what was really important about Freedom Summer?" Students would require significant discussion time to make their choices, and teachers would need to provide individual and small group opportunities for re-viewing segments of the film--and for working on each major question separately.

In a few weeks, I do my annual stint as a faculty member of Project Zero's Future of Learning summer institute, always an intense, enlarging, provocative teaching-and-learning experience. One of the overarching themes of the institute is global competence:  educating students to live meaningfully, responsibly, and productively as citizens of a globalized world. But my connections to the Kimbrough Scholars, my attendance at the Radcliffe voting rights panel, and my very recent experiences watching Freedom Summer have me focused on the challenge of what I'll call "national competence." 

"National competence" is a monumental challenge, given America's great size, distinct states and regions, and significant diversity--geographic, demographic, cultural, linguistic, religious, political--within as well as across its various subdivisions. What present-day students perceive most often is an America that regularly and rigidly devolves into camps, parties, and special interest groups that struggle to work together, if they try at all. So how can we help students understand, value, and appreciate the promise of American unity, given the tensions and conflicts that are bound to arise among Americans of widely divergent life experiences and interests even in the most cooperative of times? National competence must consist of a combination of civics, cultural studies, and history--and it must equip students with the same interdisciplinary skill sets that this graphic******** specifies globally competent students must have in order to do the following effectively:  Investigate the World (or, in this case, the Nation), Recognize Perspectives, Communicate Ideas, and Take Action.

What I'm grappling with presently is the question of how to provide education that is effective for both global and American citizenship, given the finite hours in the school year. As politicians remind me repeatedly, this "one nation, under God" is a work-in-progress, so it needs our students' understanding, attention, and eventual shepherding--their national competence. But America's interconnectedness with the rest of the world--hence, our students' needs for global competence--can't be denied or ignored either. 

Still, if asked to choose what to share with American students at this moment, I'd choose Freedom Summer. Americans' rights aren't "safe," but there's reason for hope: as Darlene Clark Hine, a professor of African-American studies and history from Northwestern University, explained on the Radcliffe panel********* when she expressed her confidence that "we're going to do whatever it takes to make this democracy work," "Every fifty years we have an upheaval" and "we advance and open up the franchise." To capitalize on the upheaval, among the things we do is "We educate," she further explained. Freedom Summer can indeed educate, or at least begin to educate--about what we have now that we didn't always have, about how we got it, about what we have that we may lose if we're not careful, about who can learn to work with whom, about why people take tremendous risks.

The idea of America is alive and well in Freedom Summer because the Civil Rights activists took America at her word. If today's American kids can understand what America's "word" is, if they can become the next generation that insists that America walk her talk and fulfill her expressed principles, there's a better chance of justice for all Americans. Perhaps empowered Americans who experience themselves as competent citizens of a just nation that they have helped to realize her democratic potential will be well equipped and inclined to become excellent advocates for and participants in a just, peaceful globalized world. But if all they achieve is a better America**********, that's great progress.
* We moved to Needham in 1966.  
*(2) I joined the Kimbrough Memorial Committee because of the easy, serious, always helpful, always congenial professional relationship Kimbrough and I shared for almost 35 years.  We met in 1978 when, my Brown University M.A.T. just earned, I became part of the summer faculty of the M.I.T./Wellesley Upward Bound Program--my first real teaching job. We were among the CRLS staff members who became advisors to S.A.V.E. (Students Against Violence and for Equality), an organization students formed in response to increasing youth violence in the city of Cambridge.  I taught both of Kimbrough's sons, and was especially honored to perform the wedding of his younger son and another one of my former students a few years ago.
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*(8) Graphic from Mansilla, Veronica Boix., and Anthony Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society, 2011. Print.
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Monday, June 23, 2014

ReTour to France with the 1976 Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum

So already, I'm back. Summer has officially begun.  And I am wondering how best to talk about the extraordinary experiences I've had in France in the last few weeks. 

How many people are lucky enough to return to the site of a significant, formative, multi-faceted late-adolescent experience in the company of the very people with whom they shared that experience in the first place? That's what I got to do earlier this month: to return with many other alumni members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum (HRCM) to Paris, one of the places we performed during our 1976 eight-week European Tour.  We went on the ReTour to reconnect as both singers and old friends. After two days of rehearsal, we sang two concerts featuring pieces from our old tour repertoire by Thomas Morley, Josquin des Prez, Johannes Brahms, Williiam Billings, Virgil Thomson, and Randall Thompson. Around our rehearsals and concerts, we ate, drank, and caught up; remembered fellow tour group members who weren't with us, some of whom couldn't make it to Paris this time around, and others of whom will never be able to join us; met one another's loved ones; visited new and favorite old Parisian attractions; and walked and walked and walked.

In a nutshell, it was wonderful.  

It's never easy to write about the emotionally extraordinary--and I believe the ReTour was an extraordinary experience for all of us. There's so much to say that's probably true for all or many of us, but that's also potentially very personal, given the separate lives we've lived since college. Over the last few days, I circled around this topic, looked for the right entry point, and went round and round in my mind so much that I was reminded of the countless roundabouts* in Alsace, where my husband Scott and I traveled after the ReTour. Scott and I had to drive around many of them multiple times before choosing which exit to take.

Most roundabouts offer at least three possible exits, so I am expecting to write at least three blog entries related to the HRCM ReTour and my time in France. Today's blog post takes the exit that leads onto Île de France, where the HRCM ReTour Ensemble's activities centered; the subject matter of other blog posts will take their cues from Paris beyond Île de France and France east of Paris. It's possible that my blog posts may capture the group's experience from time to time, but I won't presume to speak for the group. Frankly, I'm as interested in the personal and individual, and the historical and cultural, as I am in the collective and communal. There's plenty to try to understand and synthesize.

Perhaps what was most gratifying and reassuring about taking that Île de France exit for me personally, especially as someone who has been wrestling with the disorientation and unsettledness associated with my recent "retirement," was feeling so authentically connected simultaneously to the group--and also to the self I have become since I graduated from college.** While my adult self, my identity, my life have all been shaped most directly by the professional decisions I have made since college, the HRCM ReTour let me experience the subtle and not so subtle ways they reflect the sensibilities, interests, values and friendships I developed long ago, especially through intense experiences
that offered people and purpose--such as singing and traveling with the HRCM. However different the members of the HRCM were as people thirty-eight years ago, we collectively and enthusiastically embraced the challenge of becoming an ensemble that could routinely make beautiful, meaningful music together. We loved the privilege of being able to sing great music for others, and we collectively and joyfully took that privilege seriously.  About what else should be embraced with seriousness and enthusiasm, we differed greatly. But we had lots of long bus rides during which to recognize our differences--and sometimes even to appreciate them.

So I've come away from our ReTour weekend with a profound sense of affirmation and integration (a feeling I haven't had often in the last few years); with so much gratitude for old, renewed friendships and musical relationships; and with the dull, sweet heartache of saying good-bye without the knowledge of when we will next say hello.

And I've come away from France wondering about the relationships between the old and the new, the past and the present, the past and the future, the visible and the invisible, culture and justice, culture and change--and how these relationships differ in France and the USA. So I leave you with this last photo.Yes, that is a replica of the Statue of Liberty: in Colmar, France, the "Mother of Exiles"*** keeps her torch raised to guide all those navigating a major roundabout. There's so much that seems incongruous here, at least to me. But maybe a lot is possible, too. Stay tuned!

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***The Statue of Liberty is referred to as "Mother of Exiles" by Emma Lazarus in "The New Colossus."