Writing History that Focuses on Race

On the wall of my home office hangs a letter that I have framed. The letter, dated August 15th, 1964, is from Langston Hughes, a multi-talented writer and activist during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the civil rights movement during the 1960s. He authored novels, created poems, wrote plays, and contributed pieces for decades to the Chicago Defender, a top Black newspaper of the mid-20th century. Hughes was one of the first Black writers to earn his living entirely from writing (see video here).

The letter is brief.

Dear Mr. Cuban:

Your NEGRO IN AMERICA seems to me an excellent book, and I am delighted to be included therein. Thank you!

Sincerely yours,

Langston Hughes

In the first book I had written, The Negro in America (Scott, Foresman 1964), I had included three excerpts from Hughes’ work (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a short section from his novel, Not Without Laughter, and a prose poem “Song to a Negro Wash-Woman.”

While teaching history at Glenville High School (Cleveland, Ohio) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s I had used Hughes work often in my lessons so when I had an opportunity to write this book in 1962, I included those selections. But to do so, I had to write Hughes’ publishers for permission to use the material. I paid the publishers hundreds of dollars and a portion of those payments went to him. He generously wrote me the above letter. Hughes died in 1967.

I write about this prized letter in 2021 during a spate of media accounts and state legislation seeking bans on teaching “critical race theory” and historical content about slavery and racism injected in the nation’s classrooms (see here). Because I began teaching at the age of 20 in 1956 as the civil rights movement unfolded, I am reminded again that what happens in a person’s life occurs often by chance, not planning. Sure, talent is important. And, yes, hard work is a factor. But events, the times, both of which I had no control over, accounts, in part, for Langston Hughes writing a letter to a young history teacher.

The civil rights movement fueled by an idealism anchored in the American Creed (and a strong economy) brought Blacks and whites together–a quarter of a million marchers in August 1963 at the Lincoln Monument–to press the U.S. Congress and President to ensure that Blacks got jobs and became first-class citizens. The movement lasting into the early-1970s restored hope and helped enact legislation that altered American life and expanded democracy: The Civil Rights Act (1964) and The Voting Rights Act (1965).

As in all school reform periods, larger social movements (e.g., Progressivism in the early 20th century), the civil rights movement spurred, in part, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) swept slowly across Southern schools and spread into northern, midwestern, and western states through the 1960s and 1970s. The nation’s school districts were caught up in desegregating their schools, adding racial content to curricula, and hiring Blacks and other minorities as teachers, principals, and district administrators. Publishers also jumped on that train as it left the station.

Those were the years in which The Negro in America and the five paperback series Promise of America (1971) filled with multi-ethnic and racial content that I and Phil Roden authored, entered public schools. With no civil rights movement, few of these and myriad other history books containing racial content would have seen the light of day.

But events occurred that moved the nation away from civil rights. The Vietnam War, an over-heated economy, and business-driven fears of about a future workforce unequipped to cope with the changes in industry and businesses switching over to computerized workplaces (recall A Nation at Risk report issued in 1983). Another wave of school reform led by civic and corporate leaders steered state and district public schools toward tougher curriculum standards, increased testing, and coercive accountability measures for both white and Black segregated schools (see here)

Now decades later, another incarnation of civil rights protests sparked by deaths of Black men and women when police used lethal force in Ferguson (MO), Minneapolis (MN), and Louisvile (KY), has yet again, even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic brought Blacks and whites together to push for full voting rights, better health care, well-paying jobs, and wrongs that were not righted a half-century ago. But the nation is far more politically divided than it was over a half-century ago.

The pandemic, with former President Trump calling the virus “the China flu” or “kung flu” weaponized Covid-19 and loosed anti-Asian American acts across the nation. After Donald Trump’s loss in 2020–in the middle of the pandemic–the GOP has become the party where wearing masks during the pandemic and then getting vaccinated against the virus became political acts–Republican controlled “red” states opened up earlier in the pandemic, went mask-less and resisted getting vaccinated as Covid-19 and its variants surged anew in those very states (see here)

Thus, the renewed civil rights struggle over making holding police accountable for their actions in the Black community, resisting voting restrictions, and expanding employment and housing for the poor and homeless, comes during a severely polarized moment in the history of the nation.

As in the earlier civil rights movement, better schools, teachers, and curriculum were on activists’ agenda but within a bitter moment of American history. So no surprise that in many Republican controlled states after former President Trump had called out the teaching of U.S. history as unpatriotic when focusing on events in the past that showed racism and white supremacist actions such as the New York Times 1619 Project and the 1921 Tulsa massacre and destruction of the Black community, school curriculum and classroom lessons were scrutinized closely. And the phantom of “critical race theory” was discovered in American classrooms and turned into another cultural war but now located in teacher lessons. No such phantom ever existed in the nation’s classrooms but facts hardly mattered (see here and here).

So at two different times in the past six decades, a civil rights movement has swept across the nation and, as expected, touched public school curriculum and classroom practice.

As a teacher and writer, what I and many others wrote in the 1960s and 1970s was published, read, and used in classrooms as waves of idealism swept across the nation. Not today. In the current moment, attacks from the political right about “critical race theory” being taught in the nation’s classrooms is bandied about as a bogeyman used to frighten both parents and teachers.

Moral of the story: what one writes and gets published depends greatly on when one writes. Nonetheless, every time I look at the framed letter on my wall that Langston Hughes wrote to me in 1964, I am grateful that I taught during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.


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5 responses to “Writing History that Focuses on Race

  1. What a great story. Good point, too.

  2. David F

    Hi Larry–thanks for this. An interesting thing to look at and which I use in my history classes is the CSPAN presidential rankings. These have been done since 2000 and the latest iteration just came out. What I find very interesting and something to spur discussion with the students is how the rankings shift. For example, Wilson dropped from 6 to 13 and Andrew Jackson from 13 to 22—both due to greater awareness of their racial issues. Meanwhile, Ulysses Grant has benefitted from several major new works on his life and a greater understanding of his efforts during Reconstruction–he has jumped from 33 to 20. These shifts aren’t just for the ivory towers–they find their way into our classrooms and become the accepted narrative–sometimes through documentaries shown to students or other media reflecting this scholarship.

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, David. Hadn’t thought of presidential rankings and their shifts in connection to race. Wonder where Obama is in most recent ranking. Thanks for commenting.

      • David F

        Hi Larry–looking at the last 5 presidents:

        George HW Bush: 20th in 2000, 21st in 2021
        Bill Clinton: 21st in 2000, up to 14th in 2009, back to 19th in 2021 (probably due to the reevaluation of his records when HRC ran)
        George W Bush: 36th in 2009, 29th in 2021
        Barack Obama: 12th in 2017, 10th in 2021
        Donald Trump: 41st in 2021

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