Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Teaching Black: An Educator’s Library from the Black Power Era

February 21, 2017 Innovation Impact
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The civil unrest in Detroit, along with violent uprisings in other cities across America during the “long hot summer” of 1967, demonstrated that urban African Americans were angry and frustrated by the lack of progress that had been made in achieving basic rights and equality. Despite the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such issues as substandard housing, unemployment, low-quality education, lack of access to medical facilities, police brutality, mistreatment by white merchants, shortage of city services, and white indifference to these problems were all cited as root causes of these uprisings. A combination of hopelessness and rage led many African Americans to believe that the only way to effect change was to take things into their own hands “by any means necessary.” This new sense of empowerment formed the basis of what came to be called the Black Power movement.

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Life
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What history tends to remember about the Black Power movement is its more militant aspects—the symbol of the raised fist, the militaristic berets and leather jackets of the Black Panthers, the protesting athletes at the 1968 Olympics. But Black Power was actually an extensive, multi-faceted array of smaller movements and grass-roots attempts to improve quality of life, raise consciousness, and change mindsets.

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Pride
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Educators, specifically, felt that the key to effecting change within African-American communities was through the re-education of its youth—a reshaping of curriculum that would have a long-term impact on reducing racism, instilling pride, and encouraging the kind of self-confidence and self-respect that would equip young African Americans to make a difference in society in ways in which their parents and grandparents could only dream.

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The Henry Ford has in its collection the papers and personal library of one such educator. James Buntin, born in 1921, came to Ann Arbor in 1969, as a middle school social studies and civics teacher, and soon also became the Director of Personnel Administration at the Ann Arbor Public Schools, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, and an Adjunct Professor at Wayne State University teaching in the College Program at Jackson Prison. Throughout his teaching career, Dr. Buntin was an active proponent of desegregation, a prominent advocate of a multi-ethnic curriculum, and a staunch defender of the need to hire more African Americans in the Ann Arbor school system.

The personal library that he accumulated not only reflects his own passions as an African-American educator but also provides a unique window into the issues, topics, and debates of the Black Power era during the late 1960s and early 1970s—issues that still deeply resonate today. The following is an annotated selection of books from Dr. Buntin’s library, revealing insights into an era that is often overshadowed by the wider attention paid to the earlier Civil Rights movement.

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Manchild in the Promised Land
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The late 1960s brought a new appreciation for black memoirs and autobiographies, some of which were newly published, others—like this book—were reissued as out-of-print classics. These works offered a gritty, sometimes shocking, realism that did not make concessions to white readers or convey stereotypical African-American roles. 

Originally published in 1965, this autobiographical narrative recounts Claude Brown’s coming-of-age in 1940s-1950s Harlem, against the starkness of poverty and an astonishing culture of violence. Brown recounts the hopes, dreams, and struggles of the first generation of Northern urban African Americans to establish their place in the “promised land” of both New York City and America itself.

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The Me Nobody Knows
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This collection of accounts of nearly 200 primary- and secondary-school children provides a rare child’s-eye-view into ghetto life. The children were asked to “think about themselves, their painfully limiting surroundings, and the broader world which they often know of only by hearsay.” The intent of the editor, a New York City educator, was to diminish the stigma of the words “ghetto” and “slums” among the broader public. 

The writings in this book reveal that, when given the chance and encouragement to write, these children had a tremendous amount to say. Their writings were, indeed, often at odds with wider perceptions of disillusionment and hopelessness in ghetto neighborhoods, as themes of hope and renewal often emerged. 

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Why We Can’t Wait
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By the late 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s long-running campaign of nonviolent direct action was falling out of favor with those who believed that more militant action was necessary. Then, in April 1968, King’s assassination sent shock waves of grief, fear, and anger throughout African-American communities, leading to rioting and looting in more than 100 cities. 

This 1963 book, considered King’s most incisive and eloquent work, was reprinted after his assassination with the editor’s hope that its distribution would “help preserve the memory of this wise and courageous America, so that his words may continue to guide the way toward human dignity for all.”  The prophetic quote on the front cover of this edition comes from King’s speech to Memphis sanitation workers the night before he was assassinated.

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Black Power
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At a freedom march in 1966, Stokely Carmichael (then Chairman of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) set a new tone for the black freedom movement by leading marchers in the chant, “We Want Black Power.” Drawing upon long traditions of racial pride and Black Nationalism, Black Power advocates believed that African Americans could no longer afford to believe their “liberation” would come through non-violent action or traditional political processes. As the authors of this seminal book argued, the poverty and powerlessness of this country’s black population had made it imperative to organize their own political structure and take control over their own communities and lives. 

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Africa in History
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Balancing the more militant aspects of the Black Power era was the doctrine of Black Pride, which including being proud of one’s heritage. Until this time, social studies textbooks had depicted African Americans as either coming from a state of barbarism and savagery or transplanted from a place that simply had no history at all.

Books like this one both helped to remedy this situation as well as contribute to an emerging movement called “Pan-Africanism”—the recognition that the destinies of all people living in or having come from Africa were intertwined. African Americans eagerly shared pride in the recent gains made by African countries to win their independence.  

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To Be a Slave
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Renewed interest in black heritage brought about a growing nationwide effort to develop Black Studies programs, curricula, and textbooks that presented a different and more equal treatment of African Americans. 

James Buntin was a passionate advocate of implementing what was then called a multi-ethnic curriculum in schools—which sought to challenge prevailing Eurocentric curricula by recovering and reconstructing the stories of Americans whom history had traditionally neglected. To Be a Slave, considered a groundbreaking work of the time, included personal accounts of ex-slaves, “described in vivid and often painful detail.”  Some of these oral history accounts had been published before, others were drawn from sources long forgotten.

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The Vanguard
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This book, part of Dr. Buntin’s multi-ethnic curriculum collection, presented a graphic portrait of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The photographs were originally compiled for an exhibit at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum—a show that proved to be both controversial and highly popular. 

The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 in West Oakland, California, was one of the more militant groups to emerge out of the Black Power movement. Black Panthers both participated in armed patrols to protect local citizens from police brutality and organized myriad community service programs. At its peak, the Black Panther Party maintained chapters in 48 states in North America and support groups in other countries.

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Black Students
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Amidst the student demonstrations, protests, and disruptions on college campuses during the late 1960s-early 1970s, African-American students demanded a greater voice in administrative policy. Referred to collectively as the Black Student or Black Action movement, these demands sometimes turned into bitter confrontations, including a student protest and strike in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March 1970. The results of these confrontations varied, but many universities created Black, or Afro-American, Studies programs or departments in the 1970s.

In this book, author Harry Edward, a Sociology Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, places black student movements within the larger contexts of the human rights struggle and the Black Power movement.

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We Walk the Way of the World
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During this era, a blossoming Black Arts movement advocated a “black aesthetic,” meaning artistic expression rooted in African cultural heritage, incorporating the contemporary black experience, and aimed at black audiences. 

Poetry as a literary form flourished, as it was intended to be read aloud and often incorporated the direct “call and response” style of black churches.  Don Lee, the author of this book of poems and a prominent figure in the Black Arts movement, was instrumental in reinforcing Black-spoken language, the language of familiar experience, in his poems. 

The Black Arts movement helped lay the foundation for modern-day authors such as Maya Angelou, hip-hop music and culture, and other later black cultural expressions.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

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