What’s Past is Present: Teaching Black Student Protest at Duke

As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wrote in his recent post on black student protest, the Black Campus Movement of the 1960s was large in scale, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and was a key component of the Black Power movement. One of the biggest challenges for those of us who teach about Black Power is to not only convey the importance of previous campus activism, but also to guide students in thinking about the usefulness of this history within the current climate of student uprisings.

For the final project in my Spring 2015 course, Women, Gender, and Black Power, a freshman class at Duke University, my students curated an exhibit about Black Power on campus. The assignment required them to explore the archives, research historical race relations at Duke, and consider how public narratives about student activism and Black Power shape current day perceptions of these events.

Students curated the exhibit in four phases. First, they explored the archives and brainstormed possible topics and approaches to showcasing African American women and Black Power on campus. Some of their ideas included focusing on a single female activist or addressing an event like the Allen Building takeover, when black students occupied Duke’s main administrative building in February of 1969. The goal of this phase of the assignment was to introduce students to the archive and to the history of black student activism at Duke.

Once the students decided to focus on the transition of Duke’s Afro American Society (AAS) to the Black Student Alliance (BSU) they narrowed their archival research. In the second phase of the assignment, they collectively curated nine images about the evolution of the AAS to the BSU with particular attention to the presence or absence of African American women in the historical record on black student activism on campus. The limited number of images meant that they had to consider which ones would be legible to those who had not studied Black Power and how to use images to convey their narrative about the evolution of student protest for their viewers.

The images included the Afro-American Society’s “Ten-Point Program” and flyers featuring Angela Davis and Ella Baker.

Duke AAS Demands              Baker on Davis

Duke University Black Student Alliance Records, 1969-2006, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library,  Duke University

While I reproduced the images on large foam board, class participants worked together on the third phase of the assignment: framing the exhibit and writing for the public. My students worked together to write an introduction to the exhibit, to write captions for each of the images, and to think about the spatial and organizational arrangement of their images. The goal of this phase of the assignment was to ask them to think about how images or photos convey different messages than the written word and how they could control and manipulate the narrative about campus activism by rearranging the order of their images.

My students titled their final project: “Not Just Race: The Influence of Black Power on Gender Equality at Duke,” and argued that it “showcase[d] how the political transformation of the Afro-American Society (AAS) was a catalyst for redefining black women’s roles on Duke’s campus in the late 1960s into the mid 1970s.” We put the exhibit up in the hallway of the History Department and asked viewers to leave commentary about their thoughts on the exhibit.

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Images from Student Exhibit

Finally, each student was responsible for writing a reflection paper. I asked students to think about how the readings from the class on women and Black Power informed their image and narrative choices, the rationale behind the image order that they selected, and what new ideas, concepts, or ways of thinking about history did they learn from curating a visual text instead of writing a paper. I also asked each student to write about how they will use their knowledge about black student activism at Duke to inform their own activities and affiliations.

By asking students to delve into the history of Black Power on campus, my goal was to make Black Power ideology, student protest, and gender constructs tangible and applicable. As I guided them through the assignment I waited to see if they understood how student activism was a key part of the longer black freedom struggle and how they were a part of this history. I wondered,  as they weave in and out of buildings on campus, pass by the Allen administration building, and sign up for African American Studies classes, if they realize that this history of black representation at Duke is all around them. As they poured over the archives, I wondered if they realized that they didn’t have to reinvent the proverbial student activist wheel. And, as they arranged and rearranged the images in their exhibit, debated how they would craft the story that they told, I hoped that they saw the potential and possibility of rearranging black life on campus and leaving a legacy for the next generation of students.

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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.