Black Rebellion and the Political Imaginations of African American Teachers

Nat Turner became an impromptu topic of discussion in my third grade classroom. Ms. Todman had a way of getting her point across that seared it into your mind. She was an older Black woman from North Carolina, teaching at a Black parochial school in Compton, California during the 1990s. We were not taking our task seriously as we prepared for our school’s annual Black history month program. The assignment was to memorize Eloise Greenfield’s poem about Harriet Tubman running in the dead of night to escape bondage, and then returning time and time again to guide others on their path to freedom. The performance included one of my classmates dressing up as Tubman and performing a dramatization of the words we spoke in unison. Ms. Todman explained there was a world so hateful toward Black people that many who came before us gave their life to fight for even the smallest joys we have today. We had to remember these people, to honor their bravery and put some part of it into practice in our lives. Nat Turner wasn’t just killed after his revolt, she stressed. They even took parts of his body as trophies, made clothing accessories from his skin. I remember thinking she must have exaggerated this story. But even if only a fraction of it was true, her point was well taken.

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