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American history and poetry: Teaching an African American perspective

Lorenzo Taylor’s friend Mitzi Loftus inspired him to teach an OLLI course.
Lorenzo Taylor visited the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a National Historic Landmark in Selma, Alabama.

I was always fascinated by U.S. history. I loved all the stories about the founding fathers, the Civil War, and conquering the western frontier — always wanting to be the cowboy, given the plight of the “injuns.”

What I read in the state-approved public-school history textbooks was vastly different from the reality of being a Black boy growing up in Alabama in the 1960s. It was a different kind of history evolving all around me with adults that I knew at church and school.

Fortunately, the Black teachers in the racially segregated Booker T. Washington Elementary School taught me about the true stories of slavery, Sojourner Truth and the Underground Railroad, Jim Crow laws, the Tulsa massacre, and so much more that is called “Black history,” but is really integral to U.S. history. I went back to these stories time and again to gain a sense of pride and encouragement in the face of discrimination and racist behaviors.

It always surprised me as my education progressed into integrated schools just how little knowledge my white classmates had about these stories, and I always felt obliged to pass on what I knew in some way.

My friend Mitzi Loftus taught an OLLI course on her experiences in a Japanese internment camp and encouraged me to teach about my experiences growing in Birmingham. Earlier this year, I finally got the opportunity to do that by teaching an online course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University called “Birmingham to Black Lives Matter,” which focused on the evolution of the modern civil rights movement.

A hunger for the perspective my experience could bring was evident. Many more than the 30 students that I had specified as a maximum enrollment had signed up. We devoted an hour a week for nine weeks to discussing the personalities, strategies and accomplishments of what I truly believe was the most consequential half century in American history.

It also helped the students put the aftermath of the death of George Floyd into a broader context as the whole nation finally begins to look at our history in a holistic manner. We used videotaped oral histories from the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and guest presenters to help bring eye-witness accounts to events like the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the March on Washington, the Million Man March, the Watts riots, the Obama presidency, and more.

The wonderful thing about adult lifelong learning is that you are inevitably surrounded by others with curious minds who are willing to share their own life experiences. Some of my students had traveled to the deep South on their own to learn about the civil rights movement; another did her own research into Oregon’s racial history and is working to bring a more accurate and diverse historic representation to school curricula statewide.

One student grew up just a few miles from me in Birmingham with vastly different experiences, and another was the son of someone who helped with the Black Panthers breakfast program in Oakland.

Jeff Roberts, my class assistant, was enormously helpful with making the technical aspects look seamless, and I look forward to teaching it again.

Poetry is another passion of mine, and this fall term, starting Sept. 20, I will teach a five-week OLLI course online called “Black Poets Sampler: Words and Context.” Each week we will focus on social context, backgrounds and styles of 10 outstanding Black poets.

While each represents a different style (patriotic, protest, feminist/LGBT, rebellion, hip-hop), they all mix African oral traditions and classical European poetic forms reflecting the post-slavery experiences of African Americans living in a racially segregated country. In addition to learning about and being entertained by the words of these wonderful poets, I feel certain that the students will bring their own experiences to the course.

I will be previewing this course during the weekly Taste of OLLI speaker series in July and August with three additional OLLI instructors from a variety of class topics. You can learn more about this series and register at https://tinyurl.com/v84hhrc9.

If the Black experience in history and poetry don’t interest you, there are almost 100 other OLLI courses to choose from this fall, everything from gardening to languages to dance movement. Most require little preparation and just a willingness to show up, share and learn. Check it out at inside.sou.edu/olli.

Lorenzo Taylor was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where he witnessed the civil rights movement. After retirement from a career in public health policy and intercultural exchange, he has become a playwright, poet, novelist and OLLI instructor.