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Teaching Fannie Lou Hamer, Past and Present

What we don’t know about the real life of the civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer could fill a book. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America provides a fresh perspective on an exhaustive body of literature about Hamer’s spectacular role in the civil rights movement. Academic approaches to this civil rights icon have not paid sufficient attention to Hamer as a Black woman, who suffered the consequences of her convictions, yet still mustered the courage to be true to them no matter the personal cost. The content of this deficiency can and should be taught in the university classroom. Dr. Blain’s latest book provides a compelling road map to these teachable moments. What gives her book such pedagogical strength is its ability to make coherent connections between significant movements and issues of the present and the struggles and events of the past. For example, in addition to the book’s poignant analysis of the state of voting rights in America since the 1960s, Blain examines the ever-looming threat of white violence against Black bodies, the state of Black leadership, and the scourge of Black Southern poverty. Carefully chosen sources expose the connections between these issues in Hamer’s day and ours. They also serve as teaching tools – here’s how to use them. 

This excerpt from a New York Times article entitled “Mississippi ‘Black Home’: A Sweet and Bitter Bluesong” by June Jordan, is an excellent way to begin a seminar on reproductive rights for many reasons. Written in 1970, it offers the historical grounding for a discussion on reproductive freedom. Historically,  Black women’s struggle with forced sterilization has been sidelined to the concerns of mainstream reproductive rights agenda, particularly concerning abortion rights. Black reproductive autonomy has been denied in favor of economic interests in times of slavery through Black female sterilization policy during the 1960s and 1970s and state-run sterilization programs throughout the 20th century and across the United States, that resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations of those with mental disorders, physical disabilities, and in Black and Brown women considered to be “feeble-minded.” Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty views the violation of Black women’s reproductive autonomy as an iteration of white supremacy. I would use this secondary source to make larger claims about sterilization and race in America.

Additionally, the above excerpt made by Fannie Lou Hamer herself, speaks to the real struggles of the woman behind the myth, her very personal experience of medical violence, and her courage in refusing to be silent about it. I would have my students read an extract from Blain’s book, specifically “Why Had He Done That To Me” (pp 34 – 39), which gives an in depth account of her forced sterilization. Finally, using a more recent New York Times article: “You Just Feel Like Nothing’: California to Pay Sterilization Victims,” by Amanda Morris (July 11, 2021), I would lead a discussion about Hamer’s experience compared to the recent reparations victory for 20,000 disabled, poor, and people of color who were sterilized in California as a result of a statewide eugenics program that lasted for decades throughout the 20th century.

This excerpt from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2020 New York Times op-ed article “The End of Black Politics,” speaks to the generational conflict that plagued the national civil rights movement in American history. Its central thesis that “[b]lack leaders regularly fail to rise to the challenges that confront young people,” has recently played out in the nationwide protest movement in reaction to George Floyd’s murder. According to Taylor, this protest revealed two generations of protestors within the Black community: young people who took to the streets and engaged in more confrontational grassroots tactics versus the older generations of Black leadership who lethargically fumbled through their old playbooks looking for more bureaucratic and institutional solutions to 21st century problems. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives