African-American history films for extra credit

You may watch up to three of these films for class credit; be sure the films you pick work for the class you are in, and don't watch a film that I'm showing anyway in class--that would be a makeup rather than an extra credit. (Just check with me.) All films should be available at the Gavilan library. Please write me a couple paragraphs answering the questions that follow. I will apply the credit to your homework or participation grade, whichever needs help more.

Note: descriptions are from the website of California Newsreel, which distributes these videos and many other excellent films and videos.


Black Athena


Black Athena examines Cornell Professor Martin Bernal's iconoclastic study of the African origins of Greek civilization and the explosive academic debate it provoked. This film offers a balanced, scholarly introduction to the disputes on multi-culturalism, "political correctness" and Afrocentric curricula sweeping college campuses today.

In Black Athena, Prof. Bernal convincingly indicts 19th century scholars for constructing a racist "cult of Greece" as a purely Aryan origin for Western culture. He accuses these classicists of suppressing the numerous connections between African and Near Eastern cultures and early Greek myth and art.

Leading classical scholars, on the other hand, contend that Bernal, like the 19th century classicists he attacks, uses evidence selectively, uncritically and ahistorically to support his own "Afrocentric" agenda. They argue that cultural diffusion alone can't account for the distinctive achievements of the Greeks during the Classical Period.

Black Athena can help students begin to distinguish between sound scholarship and cultural bias - whether inherited from the past or imposed by the present.

What is Bernal's academic field, and how did he get interested in this work?

How do African-American colleges receive his book?

What did you learn from this video? What still makes you wonder?


Family Across the Sea/The Language You Cry In


The Language You Cry In tells an amazing scholarly detective story reaching across hundreds of years and thousands of miles from 18th century Sierra Leone to the Gullah people of present-day Georgia. It recounts the even more remarkable saga of how African-Americans have retained links with their African past through the horrors of the middle passage, slavery and segregation. The film dramatically demonstrates the contribution of contemporary scholarship to restoring what narrator Vertamae Grosvenor calls the "non-history" imposed on African Americans: "This is a story of memory, how the memory of a family was pieced together through a song with legendary powers to connect those who sang it with their roots."

The story begins in the early 1930s with Lorenzo Turner, an African American linguist who cataloged more than 3000 names and words of African origin among the Gullah of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. He discovered that some Gullah could recite texts in African languages, including almost certainly the longest, a five-line song he learned from a woman living in a remote Georgia fishing village, Amelia Dawley. Although Amelia did not know the meaning of the syllables in the song, a Sierra Leonean graduate student in the U.S. recognized it as Mende, his native tongue.

These dramatic clues were taken up again in the l980s by Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist at Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College. Studying Bunce Island, an 18th century British slave castle, Opala discovered that it sent many of its captives to Georgia and South Carolina where American rice planters paid a premium for experienced slaves from Africa's "Rice Coast." The comparative coherence of this slave community may account for the high degree of African cultural retention among the Gullah. In 1989 Opala helped organize a gala homecoming for a Gullah delegation to their long-lost African sisters and brothers documented in an earlier

Opala joined with ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt and Sierra Leonean linguist Tazieff Koroma in an arduous search to see if Amelia Dawley's song was still remembered anywhere in Sierra Leone. Although the Mende are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, Koroma recognized one word as unique to a dialect spoken only in southern Sierra Leone. On their last day in the area, Cynthia Schmidt discovered a woman, Baindu Jabati, living in the remote interior village of Senehum Ngola, who had preserved a song with strikingly similar lyrics, a dirge performed during a graveside ceremony called Tenjami or "crossing the river." Her grandmother taught her the song because birth and death rites are women's responsibilities in Mende culture. At the same time she made the uncanny prediction that there would be a return of lost kinsman and that Baindu would recognize them through this song.

Schmidt and Opala then went to Georgia, where they found Amelia Dawley's daughter, Mary Moran, age 69, who remembered her mother singing the song. Thoughtransformed in plantation culture to a children's rhyme, there was also continuity since the song was passed down by women on both sides. A reunion between Mary and Baindu had to be postponed because of a devastating rebel war in Sierra Leone which left millions homeless, including Baindu herself. Finally in 1997, Mary Moran and her family could travel and, after a painful visit to Bunce Island, were received with jubilation in Senehum Ngola. The village's blind, 90 year old chief, Nabi Jah, organizeda teijami ceremony for Mary, even though it had been in desuetude since the introduction of Christianity and Islam earlier in the century. Thus Mary's homecoming became a catalyst for Mende people to rediscover a part of their own past. When Opala asked Nabi Jah why a Mende woman exiled two hundred years ago would have preserved this particular song, he replied that the answer was obvious. "That song would be the most valuable thing she could take. It could connect her to all her ancestors and to their continued blessings." Then he quoted a Mende proverb, "You know who a person really is by the language they cry in."

What similarities are there between the Sea Islands and Sierra Leon?

Why did one of the women begin to sing and dance after seeing the slave prison island?

What did you learn from this? What makes you wonder still?




Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay yah lee luh lay tambay

Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay yah lee luh lay kah.

Ha suh wileego seehai yuh gbangah lilly

Ha suh wileego dwelin duh kwen

Ha suh wileego seehi uh kwendaiyah.


Everyone come together, let us work hard;

the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be perfectly at peace.

Everyone come together, let us work hard:

the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be at peace at once.

Sudden death commands everyone's attention,

like a firing gun.

Sudden death commands everyone's attention,

oh elders, oh heads of family

Sudden death commands everyone's attention,

like a distant drum beat.


(translated by Tazieff Koroma, Edward Benya and Joseph Opala)


HISTORY 1, 2, 10

A Son of Africa: The Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano


The Interesting Narration of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,or Gustavus Vassa the African was the first influential slave autobiography. It caused a sensation when published in 1789, fueling a growing anti-slavery movement in the U.S. and England. This BBC production employs dramatic reconstruction, archival material and interviews with scholars such as Stuart Hall and Ian Duffield to provide the social and economic context of the 18th century slave trade.

Equiano's narrative begins in the West African villagewhere he was kidnapped into slavery in 1756. He vividly recalls the pestilence and horror of the Middle Passage: "I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me."

Eventually the young Equiano was shipped to a Virginia plantation where he witnessed slaves tortured with thumbscrews and the iron muzzle. Slavery, he would write, brutalizes everyone - the slaves, their overseers, plantation wives, the whole of society. Sold again to a British naval officer, he learned to read and write, became a skilled trader, and eventually managed to buy his freedom.

Equiano's adventures eventually brought him to London where he married into English society and became a leading abolitionist. His exposé of the infamous slaver Zong -- who threw 133 slaves overboard in mid-ocean for the insurance money -- shook the nation. But it was Equiano's book that would prove his most lasting contribution to the abolitionist movement, a book which vividly demonstrated the humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery.


Who did Equiano marry?

What problem came up when Equiano tried to purchase himself?

What did you learn from this video? What makes you still wonder?


Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle


Miles of Smiles chronicles the organizing of the first black trade union - the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This inspiring story of the Pullman porters provides one of the few accounts of African American working life between the Civil War and World War II.


Miles of Smiles describes the harsh discrimination which lay behind the porters' smiling service. Narrator Rosina Tucker, a 100 year-old union organizer and porter's widow, describes how after a 12 year struggle led by A. Philip Randolph, the porters won the first contract ever negotiated with blackworkers. Miles of Smiles both recovers an important chapter in the emergence of black America and reveals a key source of the Civil Rights movement.

How did Paul Robeson depict a sleeping car porter, and why?

What role did women play in the union movement?

What did you learn from this video, and what do you still wonder about?




Homecoming is the first film to explore the rural roots of African-American life. It chronicles the generation-old struggle of African-Americans for land of their own which pitted them against both the Southern white power structure and the federal agencies responsible for helping them. Director Charlene Gilbert weaves this history together with a fond portrait of her own Georgia farming family into what she calls, "a story of land and love."

Like so much African-American history, the Black farmers' story is one of perseverance in the face of prejudice and perjured promises. As part of Radical Reconstruction, Congress allotted 45 million acres of land to former slaves but he rapid reimposition of white supremacy meant that little land was ever actually distributed. Despite formidable obstacles, one million African-Americans, mostly former sharecroppers, managed to purchase over 15,000,000 acres of land by 1910.

This achievement was threatened by the agricultural crisis of the '20s and '30s which led to a raft of farm foreclosures and, eventually, to the system of federal farm loans and subsidies on which all farmers depend today. But the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture was a white man's club, often working hand in glove with local bankers and big landowners to dispossess Black farmers of their land. For example, during the Thirties the Southern Tenant Farmers Union had to force the Farm Security Administration to include African-American farmers in their tenant purchase program. It was through this program that the filmmaker's grandfather purchased his land, the farm her cousin now owns.

Homecoming, is also a mediation on the unfinished work of redeeming the land African-Americans worked as slaves for hundreds of years. August Wilson asserts that African -Americans are a rural people who after the Great Migration found themselves in an alien urban milieu. This film argues that Black farms, though small in number today, can continue to provide African-Americans with a sense of cultural stability andfamily unity in the 1990s. In a country which has never tried to make African Americans feel at home, this film, like the farming families it celebrates, offers a real "homecoming."

What does Warren farm, and what are the risks?

Why do Black farmers have trouble getting government loans?

What did you learn from this video, and what do you still wonder about?

HISTORY 2,6, 10

Wild Women Don't Have the Blues


Wild Women Don't Have the Blues shows how the blues were born out of the economic and social transformation of African American life early in this century. It recaptures the lives and times of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters and the other legendary women who made the blues a vital part of American culture. The film brings together for the first time dozens of rare, classic renditions of the early blues

What we call the blues can be traced back to the work songs of generations of Black fieldhands. Ma Rainey, "Mother of the Blues," first put this folk idiom on stage in 1902. Others, like Ida Cox and Bessie Smith, took songs like "Downhearted Blues" and "Jailhouse Blues" on the road with traveling vaudeville and minstrel shows.

The Blues performers provided cultural continuity for millions of blacks who migrated from the rural South to the industrial cities of the North during World War I. Mamie Smith broke new ground in the 1920s when she shouted out "Crazy Blues"-- the first blues recording by a a black woman and one that opened up the recording industry to black artists. Bessie Smith brought black music to a national audience in the groundbreaking early "talkie" St. Louis Blues.

Survivors of the blues era remind us that celebrity status offered little protection against segregation and economic exploitation. Few of these women received much financial reward from their popularity.

With the Depression, American musical taste shifted towards the upbeat sounds of swing, and the classic blues died out. Yet as contemporary Chicago blues artist Koko Taylor reminds us, the blues and their legacy continue. "You get up in the morning and go to work and your boss tells you you been laid off. You got the blues. Believe it or not, even the President's got the blues."

Why did one of these singers roll a dead man for $500?

Why did no one believe this music would ever be popular?

What did you learn from this video, and what do you still wonder about?


Strange Fruit


Strange Fruit is the first documentary exploring the history and legacy of the Billie Holiday classic. This history of the song's evolution tells a dramatic story of America's radical past using one of the most influential protest songs ever written as its epicenter. The saga brings viewers face- to- face with the terror of lynching even as it spotlights the courage and heroism of those who fought for racial justice when to do so was to risk ostracism and livelihood if white--and death if Black. It examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor and the left, and popular culture as forces that would give rise to the Civil Rights Movement.

While many people assume "Strange Fruit "was written by Billie Holiday herself, it actually began as a poem by a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set it to music. Disturbed by a photograph of a lynching, the teacher wrote the stark verse and brooding melody about the horror of lynching under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in 1938. It was first performed at a New York teachers' union rally and was brought to the attention of the manager of Cafe Society, a popular Greenwich Village nightclub, who introduced Billy Holiday to the writer.

Holiday's record label refused to record the song. Holiday persisted and recorded it on a specialty label instead. The song was quickly adopted as the anthem for the anti-lynching movement. The haunting lyric and melody made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to ignore any more the Southern campaign of racist terror.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African-Americans.

The documentary includes a moving recitation of the lyric by Abbey Lincoln and a powerful musical performance by Cassandra Wilson. But it's the footage of Lady Day herself performing her bitter and heart-wrenching signature song that stands at the center of the film. Holiday sang it until her death in 1959.

Folk singer Pete Seeger, playwright and critic Amiri Baraka, veteran Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, and Milt Gabler of Commodore Records, which first recorded Strange Fruit with Billie Holiday in 1939, add their voices to the story.

The schoolteacher who penned "Strange Fruit" under the pseudonym Lewis Allen was named Abel Meeropol, the same Abe Meeropol who adopted the two sons of "atom bomb spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their 1953 execution. The boys, now middle-aged, help relate the tale, illuminating the fevered world of art and politics in which they grew up.

Who first sang this song?

How did Meeropol react when B. Holiday misrepresented who wrote the song?

What did you learn from this video, and what makes you still wonder?















--Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan, copyright 1940


Trouble Behind


Trouble Behind shows how present and past are tied in a fearful knot as it searches for the origins of today's racism in the past brutality and present-day denial of a seemingly typical American town -- Corbin, Kentucky, home of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Like many industrial centers, Corbin attracted African-American sharecroppers looking for better paying jobs during World War I. But when white veterans returned from the War, the found their close-knit community changed and economic competition heated up. One October night in 1919, an armed white mob rounded up 200 black railroad workers, locked them into box cars, beat many of them, and then literally railroaded them out of town.

Interviews with eyewitnesses, scholars, newsreel clips and photos reconstruct events in Corbin and place that night in the national context of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, the triumph of Jim Crow and 28 major race riots.

Only one black family lives in Corbin today. Corbin's present residents deny the town's "whites only" reputation and evade the town's past in a haunting ritual of selective memory and forgetting. Blacks, says one white, "have chosen to live elsewhere."

Trouble Behind evokes attitudes commonly found today in many all-white towns and suburbs and how racism is passed down from generation to generation. Most of all, it demonstrates that our refusal to confront the past cripples our ability to build an inclusive future.

How were Black football players treated in Corbin?

What role did the Cummings family play in the town?

What did you learn from this video, and what makes you still wonder?


W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices

The long and remarkable life of Dr. William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B) Du Bois (1868-1963) offers unique insights into an eventful century in African American history. Born three years after the end of the Civil War,

Du Bois witnessed the imposition of Jim Crow, its defeat by the Civil Rights Movement and the triumph of African independence struggles.

Du Bois was the consummate scholar-activist whose path-breaking works remain among the most significant and articulate ever produced on the subject of race. His contributions and legacy have been so far-reaching, that this, his first film biography, required the collaboration of four prominent African American writers.

Wesley Brown, Thulani Davis, Toni Cade Bambara and Amiri Baraka narrate successive periods of Du Bois' life and discuss its impact on their work.

Program One: Black Folk and the New Century (1895-1915)

Du Bois' first sociological work, The Philadelphia Negro, and, even more, The Souls of Black Folk, examined the cultural and political psychology of the American African Diaspora. During the same period, racism was institutionalized under the Jim Crow system. Du Bois emerged as the most outspoken critic of Booker T. Washington's advocacy of accommodation to segregation. He co-founded the Niagara Movement and then the NAACP to agitate for full equality between blacks and whites.

Program Two: The Crisis and the New Negro (1919-1929)

Du Bois created the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, which became a vital organ in the burgeoning African American cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance. Du Bois also was a founder of the Pan African movement, organizing the first international congresses of leaders from Africa and the Diaspora.

Program Three: A Second Reconstruction? (1934-1948)

Dismissed from the editorship of The Crisis for his radical views, Du Bois was forced to resume his academic career at age 68. It was now the Depression and he became more open to leftist ideology as reflected in his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction.

Program Four: Color, Democracy, Colonies and Peace (1949-1963)

Du Bois' continuing anti-racist activism and growing leftist sympathies made him a target during the McCarthy years. He was indicted and for a time his passport was revoked. In 1961, Kwame Nkrumah, the president of the newly independent African state of Ghana, invited him to participate in that country's development; Du Bois accepted, living there for the remainder of his life.

How did his son's illness impact DuBois's racial consciousness?

Why was DuBois indicted?

What did you learn from this film,a nd what do you still wonder about?



The Road to Brown

This video tells of the rights granted by the 14th and 15th Amendments. Under the "separate but equal" doctrine of the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision, black citizens were denied the right to vote, to attend white schools, to get sick in white hospitals or to be buried in white cemeteries. Those who objected were liable to be lynched.

Charles Houston, the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, dean of Howard University Law School and chief counsel to the NAACP, launched a number of precedent-setting cases which targeted segregated education as the key to undermining the entire Jim Crow system. We see clips from a devastating film Houston himself shot in 1934 documenting separate but unequal schooling.

Interviews with his associates recount how Houston, eschewing the limelight himself, energized a generation of black jurists including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marsall - to wage the struggle against segregation. He taught: "A lawyer is either a social engineer or he is a parasite on society."

Moving from slavery to civil rights, The Road to Brown provides a concise history of how African-Americans finally won full legal equality under the Constitution. Its depiction of the interplay between race, law and history adds a crucial dimension to courses in U.S. History, Black Studies, Constitutional Law, Law & Society, Social Movements and Government. The example of Charles Houston's determination will inspire today's students to take America further down the long road to social justice.

The precedent-setting cases Houston waged during the 1930s, to the final posthumous 1954 triumph of Brown v. Board of Education. In so doing, this film provides a concise history of how African Americans struggled for full legal equality under the constitution.

What were two of the precedent cases leading up to Brown?

Why was Houston not able to enjoy the Brown victory?

What did you learn from this, and what do you still wonder about?

HISTORY 2, 10, 14

Black Panther/San Francisco State: On Strike

2 titles on one cassette --watch both to count as one video for extra credit

Black Panther

This is the film the Black Panthers used to explain their program. Shot in Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento in 1969, this exemplar of Sixties activist filmmaking traces the development of the Black Panther organization. Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton describes the origins of the Panthers in an interview from jail, Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver explains the Panthers appeal to the black community, and Chairman Bobby Seale enumerates the Panther 10 Point Program as Panthers march and demonstrate.

What is the final of the ten points?

What did you learn from this, and what makes you still wonder?


San Francisco State: On Strike

Ethnic studies courses are ubiquitous today, but it wasn't always the case. In many ways, multicultural education can be traced back to San Francisco in 1968-69. There, students at San Francisco State University went on strike, shutting down the campus for six months, in one of the most high profile student actions of the '60s. College president S.I. Hayakawa called in the police, who busted heads and arrested hundreds in an attempt to restore control of the campus to the conservative administration and regents. But the strike finally ended when the school acceded to the students' demands and created the first ethnic studies department at an American university. This film, shot by the students and their allies, is a classic primary source document of the Sixties.

What methods did students use?

What did you learn from this, and what makes you still wonder?