Living Appropriately: Musings From a History Teacher in Colombia

Even though this blog is primarily supposed to be a blog about teaching history, I haven’t actually made very many posts yet about my day-to-day life in this new vocation. Partly this is because I have found that what many teachers often claim about the workload and demands of the profession-especially during your first year when you’re making all your own lesson plans and tests from scratch–is quite true. It has been a pretty big challenge for me to consistently tackle my daily to-do list, but I’ve enjoyed the process and am just now feeling like I’m kind of hitting my stride in terms of being completely on top of my daily routine.

In any case, I wanted to make a post tonight about a recent lesson we had on slavery in our Modern History class. I think it was probably one of the better lessons that I’ve come up with so far, and the highlight of it was watching a 10-minute clip from the 1997 Steven Spielberg film Amistad (absolutely fantastic movie by the way, if you haven’t seen it–Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as usual). The scene we watched was from near the end of the movie when former President John Quincy Adams is in front of the Supreme Court, defending a group of mutinous African slaves who had overthrown their captors during their voyage to Cuba, were subsequently recaptured and brought to the U.S., and whose fate was now in limbo. I was mesmerized by this speech and have watched it a few more times since; I find one of the last lines to be not only moving but also a great justification of the importance of studying history–namely, the “who we are IS who we were” line. Here is my favorite part of the speech excerpted below:

The other night I was talking with my friend Cinque…out in the greenhouse together, and he was explaining to me that when a member of the Mende encounters a situation whether it be that there is no hope at all, he invokes his ancestors: tradition. You see, the Mende believe that if one can summon the spirit of one’s ancestors, then they have never left, and the wisdom and strength they fathered and inspired will come to his aid. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams: we have long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so, we might acknowledge that our individuality—which we so, so revere—is not entirely our own. Perhaps we have feared that an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But we have come to understand, finally, that this is not so.  We understand now…we have been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding…that who we are IS who we were. 

Here is the whole Supreme Court scene that we watched in class:  

Amistad Supreme Court scene with John Quincy Adams


I had the students reflect in a journal entry that night about their thoughts on the viability of the idea of ancestor worship, as well as the idea of a group (in this case, African-Americans) enduring great collective suffering and the possibility of using that experience over time to gain strength from it. A bit cliche, perhaps, but also an idea with a lot of meat to it, I think. It’s beautiful to witness examples in the African-American community where they have been able to do precisely this; there are a ton of things I could link to below (have you watched the last few minutes of MLK Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and did you know that he was killed the very next day? This was a man who knew, on some level, that he was about to die. What an absolutely enormous badass that guy was), but I kind of like this rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” which was a classic song during the Civil Rights Era and frequently covered by Joan Baez, among others:

Morehouse College “We Shall Overcome”


"The Old Plantation" c. 1790

“The Old Plantation” c. 1790



The following two tabs change content below.

Andrew Leniton