The high-school guidance counselor leaned forward at her desk, her eyes closely scanning the paper that she held in her hand. “Yes, I see here on your transcript that you’re doing well in your classesÉstraight A’sÉvery brightÉ” Mrs. Ward peered over the rims of her glasses. “You know, you’re quite a credit to your race. I don’t often see one of you people doing so wellÉI’m sure your mother’s proud.”
Helen, a slightly built brown-skinned girl in her senior year at William Penn High School, gave an embarrassed smile and nodded. Sitting in the small office before Mrs. Ward’s imposing desk, the girl felt somewhat trapped between her anxiety over the request she’d just made to be allowed to take certain classes, and her desire to be accommodating. Her gaze was hopeful as she looked at the gray haired woman.
“Now Helen,” Mrs. Ward began in a patronizing tone, “I know you’d
to take typing and maybe you would enjoy calculusÉ”, her voice trailed off ending in a sigh. Helen’s eyes quickly averted themselves and became fixed on the older woman’s pale hands lying on the desk.
“But what can I tell you?” Mrs. Ward went on quickly, impatience creeping into her voice. “How can I recommend that you take classes you’ll never use? I have to be honest. It makes sense for you people to study home economics. You’re a
for goodness sakes! And a smart one at that. Its important for you to learn about taking care of a home—you understand—cooking and the like.” There was a pause as the guidance counselor looked away. “I’m sorry. I’m only trying to help you be realistic. You know the kind of jobs you people get. Listen, I didn’t make this world. Its just the way it is.”
Helen walked stiffly through the school corridors as she returned to class. Biting her lip, she blinked back her tears.
Years later, as a college student I thought of this true story that my mother, Helen, had shared with me when I was a child. As I selected my courses for the semester I was well aware of my responsibility to make my choices count. The many experiences my mother spoke of in her stories have made me more appreciative of the opportunities that have come my way. Such is the nature of story. Stories have within them the power to guide, direct, and sustain. The insights one finds in story, though sometimes painful, are often the motivation to overcome obstacles.
Working with middle school students in an arts magnet school for seven years provided me with many opportunities to use storytelling as a teaching tool in my theater classes. In fact, my most successful teaching experiences involved integrating the arts into the curriculum. Activities such as role-play, movement, creative writing, visual arts and crafts, and of course, storytelling all offered a variety of learning experiences to my students. Teaching various concepts, problem solving skills, and history under the inclusive umbrella of theater and creative dramatics became much more lively and enjoyable when students were actively engaged!
My goal in teaching is to make learning a holistic and interactive experience for both instructor and student. With this in mind I am always looking for creative and innovative methods to involve my students on a variety of levels. I find the strategies described in Thomas Armstrong’s book,
Multiple Intellegences in the Classroom
, to be particularly helpful in this area. Based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Armstrong presents a wealth of ideas and suggestions for applying Gardner’s theory to a classroom setting. He includes teaching strategies, examples of lessons and programs, assessment, curriculum development, and suggestions for classroom management, all within the realm of a multiple intelligences philosophy.
My involvement with storytelling has greatly impacted the manner in which I teach. I have found that students of all ages respond enthusiastically to stories and when they feel comfortable they often share wonderful and insightful tales of their own. Storytelling has awakened within me a continuous desire to know more about everything! It has been a window through which I’ve been able to explore and experience my own African American heritage, as well as the cultures of others, in a unique and exciting way. There is a certain deliberateness involved in telling a story. In the book,
Keepers of the Earth
, N. Scott Momaday’s apt description of story is quoted.
“Stories are formedÉThe formation of the story is particular and perceptible. The storyteller proceeds according top a plan, a design, a sense of proportion and orderÉStories are true to human experienceÉtend to support and confirm our perceptions of the world.”
(Micheal Caduto and Joseph Bruchac,
Keepers of the Earth
, p. xvii)
Story permeates the very fabric of our existence. Through it we communicate our deepest joys and fears. We validate our experiences and bring order to our world. In his foreword to William J. Faulkner’s distinguished book,
The Days When the Animals Talked
, Spencer G. Shaw eloquently shares his feelings about the power of story.
“They have been the bridge over which listeners and tellers have crossed from the world of reality into realms of imagination and fantasy. Seeking enchantment that would extend their deepest experiences, eager followers of every age have responded, timelessly, to the demanding call of the ageless art of storytelling.”
(William J. Faulkner,
In the Days When the Animals Talked
Each person brings to any given situation a host of pre-conceived ideas, expectations and frames of reference. This personal perspective functions as a kind of filter, through which we receive and project ideas. Our own biases, interests, and goals play an active role in these preconceptions. They determine how a story is or isn’t told as well as how it is heard. This personal slant becomes problematic when it influences the way that ‘factual’ information is presented. Actual events and characters have been grossly distorted and manipulated depending upon the subjective interpretation they’ve been given.
For example, most traditional accounts of the history of our nation are told from the perspective of the English colonizers. However, when we take a closer, more objective look, we must acknowledge the role played by the diverse European presence in the colonies. By the mid 1700s only half of the colonists in the thirteen original colonies were of English descent.
The other ‘half’ of the population included Native Americans, Africans, poor Europeans; among whom were Dutch, Spanish, German, French, and Irish settlers. Still, the most wealthy, prosperous and influential group was undoubtedly the English and it is from their view point that most historical accounts of the development of this country have been seen.
In our contemporary world however, this is beginning to change. It is no longer possible to ignore the diverse nature of this country’s population. In fact, there is much concern about how we will adjust to the changing face of America as the numbers of citizens of non European descent continue to grow. It has become one of the pressing challenges of these times, demanding the attention of countless educators, sociologists, historians and the like. All seek to devise a new approach that is more workable within our present ‘multi’ reality. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2050, half of the population within the United States will be made up of Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans. Our idea of majority and minority may fall by the wayside.
With so many kinds of people, so many different languages, customs, religious practices, expectations, and needs, there are bound to be conflicts of interest and misunderstandings. A quick look at the history of the United States reveals that this is nothing new. Conflicts around employment opportunities, land, education, and wages, of course, are part of an old tradition within our country. The Native Americans and English struggled with conflict resolution and were soon joined by African captives. In addition, there were many other settlers of other European lineage. Later the multicultural ranks swelled with the influx of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, and countless others. Ronald Takaki, renown scholar of multicultural studies, make a good point when he states,
“America does not belong to one race or one groupÉAmericans have been constantly redefining their national identity from the moment of first contact on the Virginia shore.”
(Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror, p. 17)
The Eye Behind the Camera; The Voice Behind the Story,
Slavery-Fact, Fiction, and Myth
is, in its most general sense, an exploration of the function of story, be it oral, literal, or visual. In this unit we will examine how film has been used as a storyteller, focusing on its treatment of the African American presence in this country, particularly their role during the period of slavery. This unit also emphasizes the collecting, recording, and sharing of family stories, folktales, and other oral histories in an effort to empower students and to ‘counter’ the negative influences of the cinema and the media as well.
Using storytelling in the classroom provides a way of presenting information within a context that is more meaningful to students. Film can be used in much the same way. Like storytelling, film is based on images. Images are the vehicles through which we interpret and understand our world. Through the moving images in film, stories are told.
In our technologically advanced world, film has become perhaps the most frequently used means of communicating story to a mass audience. It exerts a formidable influence over how we define ourselves, our respective histories, and our world. The power of persuasion has found its strongest ally in film. Like written literature, film is a permanent document. Its ideas are ‘frozen’ in time. They are meant to stay as they are within their original context.
This element of permanence carries with it much authority and can be very powerful and influential. Once images are imprinted onto film they are in a sense, sealed within a time capsule. The reaction and perception of their audience may change, but the images remain forever the same, testimonies of visions and perceptions of another time. But here we have a valuable learning tool. We have the opportunity to examine and re-examine the Eye behind the camera as many times as we choose and to look closely at someone else’s interpretation of an event and of the roles played by the characters involved. These encapsulated versions give us the advantage of being able to explore the technical and artistic methods used to evoke certain reactions and feelings on behalf of the spectator. We will see that the contents of these presentations can be taken neither lightly nor innocently. The eye is deliberate; the images projected are intentional. This ‘eye’
the storyteller, seeking to immerse its listener in world of its own creation and to evoke feelings that serve its own goal.
As we consider how story functions within cinematography, it is important to remember that the Hollywood film industry has been deliberate and calculating in its selection of stories and representations to be shown on film. The eyes and voices through which these images have been presented have been Eurocentric in nature, generally seeking to justify the improprieties created by slavery and colonialism. Film executives and directors have consciously and/or unconsciously used this medium as a tool to maintain and impose certain basic beliefs held by the masses. Authors Shohat and Stam ascertain,
“Beliefs about the origins and evolution of nations often crystallize in the form of storiesÉThe cinema, as the world’s storyteller
, was ideally suited to relay the projected narratives of nations and empires.”
(Ella Shohat, Robert Stam,
Film is perhaps the most significant window through which we can examine the collective perceptions and commonly held beliefs projected onto our society at large. It has played has played a pivotal role in the international community, reflecting the views and interests of those countries wielding the most power. They have collectively supported and reinforced the notion that Europe reigns supreme. The ‘expansion’ by certain nations such as Britain, France, Germany, and later, the U.S. signaled,
“the colonial domination of indigenous peoples, the scientific and esthetic disciplining of natureÉthe capitalist appropriation of resources, and the imperialist ordering of the globeÉ”
(Shohat & Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, p. 100)
But theirs is not the only story. Takaki refers to Frederick Douglas’s account on the role of African Americans serving in the Union army when he states,
“Like these black soldiers, the people in our study have been actors in history, not merely victims of discrimination and exploitation. They are entitled to be viewed as subjects Ð as men and women with minds, wills and voices.” (Ibid., p.14)
Despite the significant multicultural presence in the population, America maintained an identity that was essentially White, Anglo Saxon. This was the accepted and acceptable prototype. It is against this backdrop that the slanted and oftentimes insidious depiction of African Americans before, during, and after the infamous era of slavery, emerged.
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Hollywood’s treatment of slavery. Even during the age of the silent film Blacks were depicted as lazy, stupid, clownish, inefficient and incapable—in a word—inferior. On the flip side however was the implication that Blacks were bestial, savage-like and brutal. So prevalent was this attitude that African Americans were deemed incapable of portraying themselves. Their characters were played by White actors in blackface, a tradition popularized during the minstrel shows.
Incredibly, this trend continued until after the World War I. Up until this time, Black characters were typically played by Whites in American fiction pictures. Gary Null cites this blatant racism,
“In film after film, the same Negro stereotypes appear—the foolish and irresponsible citizen, the grinning bellhop, or flapjack cook, the hymn-singing churchgoer, the song-and-dance man, the devoted servant or contented slave, the barefoot watermelon eater, the corrupt politician, the hardened criminal, and the African savageÉtwo broad categories—the clown and the black brute”
, p. 8)
For the purpose of this unit we will focus primarily on Hollywood’s portrayal of Blacks and Whites during the period of slavery in this country. Filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies, distorted characterizations, and romanticized portrayals of plantation life, films such as
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
(1903), and the infamous
The Birth of a Nation
(1915), directed by D.W. Griffith, were nevertheless received enthusiastically by overwhelmingly White audiences. The film
The Birth of a Nation
is particularly interesting for several reasons: first, in spite, or perhaps
of the controversial content of this film, it was the first feature film to be shown in the White House. Second, in this film we see the roles of subservient Negroes (i.e. field-hands) being played by Blacks while White actors in blackface portrayed those characters regarded as more aggressive and threatening. Also, in response to the film’s overt support of terrorist groups such as the KKK as well as its encouragement of unwarranted hatred, condescension, and fear directed towards Blacks, the NAACP mobilized, organizing wide spread protest throughout the African American community nationwide. Shortly thereafter, films made by independent Black film makers commonly known as ‘race films’, made their cinematic debut in an attempt to counteract the negative images of Blacks in American film.
Although the protests and films were somewhat effective, the course for the portrayal of Blacks in American cinema was essentially set. Echoes of the caricatures appearing in
The Birth of a Nation
would continue to be heardÉ
With the dawn of the talking film these echoes became even more insidious and damaging. Now, in addition to being caricatured by blackfaced Whites, Black characters in film were also expected to speak in a slurred, unintelligible approximation of what Whites wanted their audiences to believe was a plantation dialect. Black actors fortunate enough to secure roles in mainstream film now found themselves trapped, both visually
verbally, in a portrayal that had little or nothing to do with reality.
Other films that depict the slavery era include
Gone With the Wind
The Littlest Rebel
. In all of these films we see clear examples of some of our
stereotypes: the devoted, sassy, desexualized mammy; the ignorant and garish maid; the subservient butler who can dance up a storm.
All is set against a majestic and classic picture, complete with a Big House, gallant, upstanding, slave-holding Southern gentleman and delicate, elegantly dressed, assertive Southern belles.
In the face of such powerful myths and fantasies, it is important to be armed with a realistic understanding of the ante-bellum period in our country. For this reason I suggest that students first be shown films that portray the African American experience during slavery in a objective and sympathetic manner. These films are:
, and parts of the television mini-series,
(1977). Later in the unit students will view the movie,
You Must Remember This
(1992). While fictitious, the film is based on the study of the history of independent Black film makers and will help students to achieve a better understanding of the plight of the Black film maker. They will also see why it has been crucial for African American film artists to find the means to represent themselves, to have their stories heard, and their self-defined images seen.
Viewing clips from the films;
of a Nation
The Little Colonel
(1935), as well as William Greaves’s
That’s Black Entertainment
(1989), will certainly increase the student’s awareness of the extent to which stereotyped and distorted images of African Americans have been incorporated into mainstream American film. They will also help to clarify how historical events have been manipulated to justify the oppression of one group by another.
Finally, I have included Robert Townsend’s
(1987) and Julie Dash’s
Daughters of the Dust
(1991) as examples of work produced by independent Black film makers. After students have viewed selected segments of these films there might be a class discussion focusing on the manner in which characters of were portrayed. Do the characters seem realistic? What messages do the films seem to communicate? To what audience are the films directed? Both of these films illustrate the significance and necessity of self definition. Within them we see Black characters treated with dignity and humanity. We can enjoy personalities that display a wide range of emotions and actions. Films such as these offer us hope that African Americans are that much closer to having their voices heard, to see themselves and to be seen through eyes that are affirming and empowering.