"[N]o teacher had ever told him that he was smart before. I was horrified. After twelve years of school, this was his first experience of validation."


Anthony A. Lee, Ph. D.
UCLA & West Los Angeles College

leeAbout the Poet: Anthony A. Lee teaches African American
history at UCLA and at West Los Angeles College. He was
awarded the 2003 Nat Turner Poetry Prize (Cross Keys Press)
and the 2005 Naomi Long Madgett Award for poetry (Lotus Press).


Other Work:

“I Ain’t Gonna Read No Book!”:
The Use of Autobiography and Biography in Teaching African American History to Community College Students

I teach history at a community college in the Los Angeles area. The college has a majority enrollment of African American and Latino students from inner-city areas. For my African American history courses, the students are almost invariably all black. There may be a few Latino students and an occasional Anglo student who take the course. But they are very much the exceptions. It is African American students who are eager to study African American history. Well, not always eager—but at least tentatively willing.

Most of the students are academically unprepared for any college course. That is to be expected at any community college. It is not their fault. They are the products of an inner-city public education system in Los Angeles that has failed notoriously. Many of my students have never read a book from cover to cover on any subject—and they have never been asked to read a book in their previous years of high-school education. They have been asked to read a chapter of the textbook and answer the questions at the end, take multiple choice exams, and perhaps write short answers. Their composition skills are minimal. They have usually had bad experiences with school, meaning failing grades, indifferent teachers, racial exclusion, name calling, and various forms of humiliation. It is not uncommon to learn stories about a teacher who told someone he was stupid and would never succeed. I teach the students who did not get into UCLA, after all1.

Many of the students enter my classroom with a great deal of resentment and hostility toward school, and they are not shy about letting me know it. They sit sullen in the back row of the class. They glare at me with anger and disgust. They skip class or make an ostentatious display of arriving late. I vividly remember having assigned a book on the first day of class. A student raised her hand gingerly and asked, “The whole thing?” I answered, “Yes,” to a room full of stunned faces. When class was dismissed a few minutes later, another student said when leaving, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear but to no one in particular: “I ain’t gonna read no book!”

It would be easy to return this kind of hostility in kind. But I find an intellectual challenge in finding ways to engage such students in the study of history. How can I convince these students, by eloquence or artifice, that history is something they want to learn? It is possible, and it is not hard to achieve. But it requires that I discard some old notions of college instruction and place the student at the center of the learning experience—not the lectures, not the texts, not even the facts of history. The student. That is the intellectual challenge.

This means abandoning notions of African American history as dates, important persons, and important events, and re-conceptualizing it in terms of the power of historical narratives to engage and fascinate oppressed and disenfranchised students. It means rediscovering the personal aspects of history and invoking the power of the record of human experience to engross and humble all of us. As such, I have found that the use of the biographies and autobiographies of African Americans to be the most successful approach. Normally, I assign these texts in lieu of a standard textbook. Or I use the textbook only as a point of reference, and not the focus of attention.

These texts are personal testimonies, and I encourage the students to respond to them personally, at first. Even those who begin skeptically can quickly identify with the authors they are reading. They learn to engage with the human predicaments of African Americans in the past—slaves in the antebellum period, objects of other kinds of oppression later on. They immediately feel the tragic aspects of African American history and relate to that tragedy at the level of narrative. They take it personally.

It is narrative that captures the student’s attention, in the lectures as well as in the texts. But inquiry does not end there. Every story raises questions and those questions demand explanations and answers, even in the minds of students. They quickly realize that those answers require knowledge beyond the personal narrative: an understanding of social circumstances, politics, economic conditions, law, family life, racial attitudes, and so forth. Soon we are discussing social history. As we read even the first chapters of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, for example, students are captured by the narrative of slave mistreatment and injustice. But, beyond the initial outrage, they have questions to ask. Why did Frederick’s grandmother drop him at the plantation house when he was eight years old and disappear without saying goodbye to him? Why was he chosen to be a house slave in the Baltimore home of his master’s brother? What made him determined to learn to read? How did he resist his bondage, and how did he accept it and accommodate to it? In his fight with Edward Covey, why did he never strike him? And was this resistance or accommodation, or both? Why didn’t Frederick mourn when his mother died?

Each of these questions can engage students and spark lively, and even heated, discussions in the classroom. Such discussions of narrative allow me to ask my own questions. Can we see a difference between urban slavery and plantation slavery here? What were the laws that constrained and/or protected the slave? Why and how did the master attack the slave family? Why is Douglass as author presenting slavery as a rational system, rather than just evil? What are the elements of that system? What was the value of literacy and how many slaves could read? And on and on. The questions are endless, of course. It is my greatest success when the students gradually realize that. “No matter what you answer, he is going to ask another question,” they complain. (Hurray! The triumph of the Socratic Method.)

Class sessions are usually given over to a discussion of the most recent reading assignment. I will occasionally lecture. But I find that most learning takes place when I can engage the students in a conversation about what they have just read. But reading is not enough. The experience of organizing one’s thoughts on the page is another essential aspect of learning. All of my exams are essay exams. But to prepare the students for these, they are required to turn in a least one page of critical response and comment on the reading at the end of each week. I collect these one-page journal entries, read them over the weekend, and return them to the students with short comments. My comments are either questions—Wrong word? What does this mean? Is that true?—or encouraging remarks—Good question! Excellent point! Good thinking! Soon, the one-page comments can become two or three pages, and I have a problem of time management on my hands. But the responses to the reading gradually become deeper, more serious, and more critical. The writing assignments can just be personal reflections at first. But eventually, I insist on critical responses that evaluate the texts. Who is the author writing for? Do you agree with him? What are his biases? What is he not telling us here? Can there be another point of view?

I tell my students that the process of education means reading, thinking about what you have read, writing down your thoughts, coming to class and discussing your ideas and listening to others in conversation. Then you start the process all over again and do it for the rest of your life. They moan.

In the first semester of the year-long African American history course, we read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography—probably the best of the slave narratives. Then we move on to the story of a slave woman, reading the riveting biography Celia, A Slave. I actually argue against this book, suggesting that the historian got the story all wrong. But the narrative is about a fourteen-year-old slave girl who is repeatedly raped by her master, bears him two children, and eventually murders him. The students give themselves over to the story. I insist that they read the text critically.

We move on to other biographies and fragmentary autobiographies. The male students especially like John Parker’s swashbuckling autobiography. I challenge them to evaluate how much of it is real. We move on to the terrible collection of WPA Depression interviews in My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery compiled by Belinda Hermence. I attack the assumptions of the book with a healthy relish. Most of the students follow my arguments and understand the problems involved

For the semester on the post-Civil War period, I begin the reading with The Autobiography of Malcolm X and then I work backwards through history. From the Civil Rights Era, back to understanding the system of racial segregation that sparked it. Then back further to Reconstruction. I have provided a bibliography of reading below. They all rely on the narrative of biography and autobiography. Although I am appalled by Booker T. Washington’s attitudes in his autobiography, Up From Slavery, and I argue against them, his narrative is hugely compelling. I begin the students’ approach to DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk with Chapter 13, the fictional “Of the Story of John.” Then we move on to the autobiographical Chapter 4, “Of the Meaning of Progress.” We depart from narrative briefly to examine DuBois’s devastating arguments against Washington’s program of accommodation in Chapter 3, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Then away from DuBois and back to narrative with selections from Richard Wright and readings on peonage and chain gangs.

The effect of these intellectual exercises is transformative. If the student hangs in for only three or four weeks, I can observe surprising changes in critical skills. Students encounter the past, and the lives of those they find there become important to them. They find the lives of these individuals to be like their own in important ways. They imagine their dilemmas, they feel their suffering, they celebrate their little victories. Sometimes, they cry. History takes on meaning. The black experience finds depth and students begin to question themselves and their assumptions about life. The effects can be quite startling. The annoying jokester who sat in the back of the class finds that he is now deeply concerned about the relationship that Malcolm X had with his mother, for example. He is struck by the amount of violence in Malcolm’s family and wants to know how this may have affected his later relationships with women. This leads to a discussion of the black family and the ravaging effects of Jim Crow and the Great Depression. An older woman, a returning student, wants to know why Malcolm as a teenager in Boston rebelled against his sister’s authority. This leads to a discussion of drugs and male criminality, the legal system, the justice system, and so forth.

The effect of all this is particularly pronounced on young black men. I can often observe a transformation from mocking indifference or hostility to engagement and serious concern. Many, if not most, of the men are taking the class to fulfill a requirement. That’s it. They have no clear idea of why they are in the class, and they may not want to be there at all. A large number have had experiences within the justice system and may have spent time in jail. Some are in school as a requirement of probation—or at least because their parents force them to be there. They are often unemployed. All this is the subtext of their alienation from academic study. Of course they are dissatisfied and want more. But their career plans usually are vague and unrealistic.

For years, I used to take an informal survey in my African American history classes, asking every student about his or her career choices. Almost all black, the students were usually optimistic. The women always displayed a variety of aspirations and career choices—nursing, medicine, teaching, child development, accounting, or careers in business and corporate management. The black men, however, invariably had aspirations to go into the entertainment industry—singing, rapping, acting, dancing, starting a record company—or into sports—usually, football or basketball. The men always answered in one of these two categories, without fail, for years. Finally, I found the survey too depressing and gave up asking.

No, the men never gave up their fantasy careers because of my class. But I doubt that any of them ever found the fame and fortune they expected in either show business or professional sports. No NBA stars. No record companies. I hope that I gave them an inkling of an intellectual life beyond either of these two fields. The intellect, once awakened, can be powerful. Malcolm X tells us that when he became fascinated with reading and turned into a prison scholar and a student of religion, he even forgot that he was in prison because he was so absorbed in his intellectual quest.

Of course, classes move on and students seldom return. One black man (a success story) found me on campus after having graduated to say that he had gone on to major in African American history and was now in graduate school. He suddenly had realized that he was alone in an all-white world and wanted to know if I could help him deal with this somehow. I couldn’t. But I hugged him hard and confessed that I felt alone too.

There was one student I remember. He was just out of high school and about eighteen. He had taken the first mid-term exam, and his essay was simply incoherent. I never fail any student’s essay, so I returned his blue book for a rewrite. (I will do this over and over again until the student either writes an acceptable essay or drops the class.) When he returned his second attempt, I was really shocked. Not only did the essay make sense, it was original and interesting. No grammar. No punctuation. I don’t even think he used paragraphs. But his ideas were smart. The student was obviously intelligent, and very intelligent.

Realizing he had potential, I asked him to write a paper instead of taking the next in-class mid-term. He agreed. Two or three weeks later, the day before the paper was due, I received an e-mail from his counselor at the college. She asked if he could have an extension on the deadline for his paper, that he was having trouble finishing on time. I shared with the counselor that I thought that the student had a brilliant mind, that he obviously was the victim of a very bad education, but that his ideas were excellent. I thought he was extremely bright. Of course he could have an extension. I asked her to tell him that I knew he would do a great job on the paper and to tell him that I respected him.

She showed him my e-mail. She told me later that he broke down and cried. Apparently, no teacher had ever told him that he was smart before. I was horrified. After twelve years of school, this was his first experience of validation. I took that as proof positive of the utter bankruptcy of our local education system, at least for minority students.

As it turned out, this student was homeless. The counselor had taken him into her own home and was trying to get him through the semester. He passed my class with a B. But I don’t know what happened to him after that. I hope he made it, despite his bad luck and inferior education. But the odds weren’t good.

I know that if he had any chance at all to find acceptance and success in his adult life it was going to be through higher education. That places an awesome responsibility on teachers and professors who encounter black and Latino students under trying and imperfect circumstances. The challenge for us—it is a moral challenge and a professional challenge, but I find it most engaging as an intellectual challenge—is to find a way to engage and educate our students despite such circumstances, even despite their unwillingness to learn. My solution has been to introduce my students to African American lives in history through biography and autobiography, to use the compelling narrative as my weapon and my defense. This approach has been rewarding and effective.

Bibliographic References

Naturally, there are many other volumes of biography and autobiography that may be suitable for classroom assignments in courses of African American history. This is a list of some of the books that I have used with success in the classroom. The reader will note that some of these books I have assigned deliberately because they are highly flawed. Such flawed books provide the instructor with an opportunity to “teach against the text” in order to develop critical thinking skills in students.

before the Civil War:

  • Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. by L. Maria Child. San Diego: Harcourt
    Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1973. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/jacobs/hj-site-index.htm
  • Frederick Douglass. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, 1855 (1969). http://www.fdbond.com/US01/Documents/1855-My-Bondage-and-Freedom-Fredrick-Douglas.pdf
  • Belinda Hermence. My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery. Winston-Salem:
    John F. Blair, 1984. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6At65JyKnUIC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=%22My+folks+don%27t+want+me+to+talk+about+slavery%22+&ots=RdcssxQgOv&sig=afnZqVIJpKEZKri5sLNCfucFx-k
  • Melton A. McLaurin. Celia, A Slave. New York: Avon Books, 1991. http://books.google.com/books?id=4Vg4wdimWBkC&dq=Celia+A+slave
  • John P. Parker. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave
    and Conductor on the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
    Excerpts: http://people.duke.edu/~njb2/history391/parker/excerpts.html
  • Margaret Washington, ed. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/truth/1850/1850.html

Also, chapters from monographs, such as:

  • Edward D.C. Campbell, Jr., ed. Before Freedom Came: African American Life in the
    Antebellum South. Richmond, VA: Museum of the Confederacy, 1991. Especially Chapter 3,
    “The World of the Plantation Slaves.”
  • Drew Gilpin Faust. James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery.
    Louisiana State University Press, 1982. Chapter 5, “In Search of Despotic Sway,”
    pp. 69-75, 92-96, 103-104, and passim. http://books.google.com/books?id=NAFhUuC3oSYC&pg=PA80&lpg=PA69&ots=iNogUEEQ4h&dq=%22in+search+of+despotic+sway%22
  • J. William Harris. Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery
    in Augusta’s Hinterlands. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985. Chapter 2,
    “The Underlife of Slavery.” http://books.google.com/books?id=VgL6T1TkG9IC&pg=PA41&dq=%22the+underlife+of+slavery%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yqC_UNahHo-MigKI9ICgDQ&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22the%20underlife%20of%20slavery%22&f=false
  • Nell Irvin Painter. Southern History Across the Color Line. Chapel Hill: University of North
    Carolina Press, 2002. Chapter 2,”Soul Murder and Slavery.”
  • Gustavus Vassa. The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.
    London, 1789 and in numerous editions. Chapter 2, the narrative of capture and the Middle Passage.

for after the Civil War:

  • W. E. B. DuBois. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Books, 1903 (1989 Edition).
    (Only a few chapters, such as Chapters 3, 4, 7, 13.) http://manybooks.net/titles/boiswebdetext96soulb10.html
  • James West Davidson. ‘They Say”: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. Oxford
    University Press, 2007.
  • Leon F. Litwack. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.
    New York: Vintage Books, 1998. (Some chapters, and especially Chapter 6 on the
    history of lynching.)
  • Booker T. Washington. Up From Slavery. New York: Penguin Books, 1901 (1986 Edition).
  • Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. With the assistance of Alex
    Haley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1964.

and chapters such as:

  • W.E.B. DuBois, ed. The Crisis. (1916) “The Waco Horror.” An account of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, TX. Anthologized many times. http://dl.lib.brown.edu/pdfs/1292363091648500.pdf
  • ________. The Crisis. (1914) “A Lynching in Mississippi.” An account of the lynching of Samuel Petty. See, for example: http://www.ahsd.org/social_studies/williamsm/A%20Lynching%20in%20MississippiThe%20Causes%20of%20Lynching.pdf
  • Hamilton Holt, ed. The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as told by themselves. New York: James Pott and Company, 1906. Chapter 11: “The Life Story of a Negro Peon.” http://www.archive.org/stream/lifestoriesundis00holtrich/lifestoriesundis00holtrich_djvu.txt
  • Richard Wright. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Anthologized many times. http://newdeal.feri.org/fwp/fwp03.htm

1I have also taught African American history as a lecturer at UCLA. But that presents an entirely different set of challenges.

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