Originally posted at Capturing the Spark on EdWeek Teacher, 1/13/16.
I’m a part-time teacher, and I live across the street from an elementary school. The school bells, announcements, and the playground noise are part of my daily soundtrack when I’m working at home for the day. Recently, however, I heard something new, something unfamiliar: piano chords. I paused for a moment until I recognized the song. It was “We Shall Overcome.”
With the approaching observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday it seems appropriate that elementary school children should learn that song. But what are they learning along with the song?
Learning the song as a part of history, as an acknowledgment of other people’s struggles, might have some value. Checking my own assumptions about the song, I uncovered an interesting backstory. I knew of the song’s role in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s in particular. In this interview, Pete Seeger traces his understanding of the song’s secular history up to his own part in popularizing it. “We Shall Overcome” also has spiritual roots, and a melody tracing as far back as Beethoven, according to this David A. Graham article. So, if students are learning about the song’s history, I hope it’s a complex and accurate version. I hope they learn that it’s more than “a civil rights song” and appreciate on some (age-appropriate) level that it represents an intersection of spiritual, political, and economic aspirations.
Yet, as interesting as the history might be, maybe we can go a step further: maybe teachers and students singing “We Shall Overcome” this month will strive for a contemporary application of the song, rather than a mere historical appreciation. Let’s speak and sing with a broadly inclusive “we” and the hope of overcoming still in the future, rather than relegating the song to people and struggles in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Proceed with caution though – or at least with careful attention. As I’m listening to the strains of the song coming from across the street, more questions arise: if students sing “we” and mean it, are there appropriate limits to the word, or is it universal? Are we, the mostly white teachers and children of suburbia, ensconced in economic and political privilege, sharing in the struggle to overcome? Inserting ourselves into “we” without understanding what we’re doing could be not only naïve, but insulting. And yet, if we do share the values and believe in the struggles, if we want equality, justice, and freedoms for all, then we do have a role to play.
So, if “we” is going to be broadly inclusive, let’s make sure we understand the rest of song’s title. “Overcome” is a verb with both intransitive and transitive usage. If intransitive, “overcome” is something that happens – a status change, no longer being inferior. The grammar of the song might even suggest the intransitive use, because it doesn’t specify an object. However, “we” might be better off thinking of the song using the transitive form of the verb. We need an object: what exactly will be overcome? The possibility of many implied objects may be what made the song work in a variety of settings. Union workers sang the song believing they’d overcome unfair wages and unsafe working conditions. Anti-segrationists imagined our country might overcome Jim Crow, and antiwar singers envisioned the day we’d overcome militarism.
If we can’t name our grammatical object, and talk about the problems we face, then we’re merely believing – even if deep in our hearts – that change will happen. I prefer to interpret the song as a call to identify a problem and actively overcome it.
As we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we could start by acknowledging that his greatness was in service to a movement, one with many leaders and brave activists, and the ideals they pursued still elude us as a society; despite progress, the work remains to be completed. Some of the most overt manifestations of systemic racism have been dismantled, but our political, economic and educational systems perpetuate racism nonetheless. It’s hard to say we shall overcome any time soon when it’s taboo in many cases to talk about or teach about systemic racism, when the establishment passively waits for teachers of color to raise issues of race, when ethnic studies courses are considered marginal, even threatening. Dr. King was also fighting economic injustice. We haven’t overcome that; we’ve crafted policies that exacerbate and maintain poverty instead.
Our job as educators is not to make students or peers feel guilty about the existence of racism or inequity – but discomfort isn’t out of the question. Even though it’s difficult, because it’s difficult, we need honest conversations, dialogue and perspectives that aren’t likely to start in board rooms or be found in corporate textbooks. We must also make sure that these uncomfortable conversations can occur in safe spaces. Safety doesn’t mean a guarantee of comfort, but rather a promise that we value and every member of our community. Safe classrooms depend on teachers who are safe in their jobs as well, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, and with the necessary degree of academic freedom to overcome the inadequacies of a curriculum that favors tradition at the expense of progress.
If you’re singing “We Shall Overcome” and the system that must be overcome has already handed you many advantages in life, make sure you have some clear ideas about why you’re singing. If it’s for historical reflection and observance, be sure to understand and teach the complexity of that history. If you actually believe in the unfulfilled promise and the hope for the future, give some serious thought to the pronoun we and the implied object of overcome. At the broadest level, I hope we all want to overcome the same general problems, but for me, for educators and people in schools and communities like mine, there are some other goals we need to address along the way. Can we overcome our collective indifference, timidity, or passivity? Our credulity, equivocation, and rationalizations? Our defensiveness, our cynicism, and other distancing behaviors?
Unless we’re also going to have those conversations – face-to-face and online, socially and professionally – and then act upon them in some way, another rendition of “We Shall Overcome” seems like an empty gesture.
Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. press conference, by Marion S. Trikosko, via Library of Congress (public domain).