Cursory treatment given to Malcolm X in schools Spike Lee's movie sparks interest

Not long ago, Evelyn Chatmon, 50-something, started reading, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." She was mesmerized.

"I grew up thinking he was a negative man, until Spike Lee piqued my interest," said Mrs. Chatmon, an assistant superintendent for Baltimore County schools.


"I read this incredible book . . . and as I was reading I couldn't put it down. Then, I became angry because a completely negative image had been portrayed to me. I thought about all the black males in particular who could benefit from learning about this man."

For years, Baltimore-area schools have taught little about Malcolm X. But now he has been recalled to life by director Spike Lee's film biography, opening today. And some educators are trying to help their students understand the controversial black leader.


It is not easy, though, to quickly convert Malcolm X from historical footnote to main character, because his life was so contradictory.

At first, as national spokesman for the Nation of Islam -- the Black Muslims -- his message combined anti-white invective with a call for black pride and self-assertion.

Later, before his assassination in 1965, Malcolm embraced orthodox Islam, softened his rhetoric and rejected the idea that blacks must sever themselves from white society.

Said Mrs. Chatmon: "I have seen students very angry because we have whitewashed Malcolm out of the curriculum."

Since the early 1970s, the Baltimore County curriculum has included some information on Malcolm X, as have curricula in the city and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

But that doesn't guarantee that teachers will bring him front and center, administrators said.

Charlie Springer, supervisor of social studies for Baltimore County schools, pointed out that teachers sometimes cover the last three decades of the 20th century during the last week of school. "This works against a lot of attention on Malcolm X," Mr. Springer said.

The interest generated by Spike Lee's film prompted Baltimore and Howard counties to hold voluntary workshops for teachers over the last two months. The goal was to give teachers extra materials and knowledge about Malcolm X.


In Howard, about 60 teachers turned out for a seminar. In Baltimore County, about 500 teachers attended workshops.

Teaching teachers

The last session in Baltimore County was held Monday evening. About 70 teachers watched a 35-minute film on Malcolm X and listened to a panel of five people -- including two students -- who have studied the black leader extensively.

"Malcolm X is my role model because he taught black people pride," 15-year-old Tonya Moore told the group, the majority of whom were white. "Malcolm X was not a racist, nor was he a hate-monger. He was an educator. He taught me that I could achieve anything."

Said 16-year-old Jamal Harris: "It's true he was very outspoken and he was very educated. He spoke out against the wrongdoings of the white man. But he wasn't a violent person."

The teen-agers, both 11th-grade students at Woodlawn Senior High School, said that few of their peers know much, if anything, about Malcolm X, because he is not taught at Woodlawn.


"Nothing. We learn nothing about Malcolm X in school," Jamal said. "[Teachers] don't bring him up at all.

"I didn't know anything about him until I was in the ninth grade. I had to do a report . . . and I chose Malcolm X," he added.

Tonya said she learned about Malcolm at home, not at school. Her stepfather brought home a video about Malcolm and she found herself glued to the TV set.

"The only thing we learned about in school was Martin Luther King, and that was just during Black History Week," Tonya said. "Back then, it was a week. Now, we get a whole month."

Little information

Other Baltimore-area students contacted by The Sun say they too are receiving either no information on Malcolm X, or a version that has been sanitized.


"Most of the time we don't talk about him," said Te'Naya Johnson, a ninth-grader at Annapolis High School. "We talk about him some during Black History Month, but not a lot. Most of the time we just talk about Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman, and that's it."

Mike Harris, the student representative on the Harford County Board of Education, said, "We don't get a lot of Malcolm X or a lot of African or African-American history. We discussed [Malcolm X] in my government class when we talked about the movie as part of our current events.

"He's talked about in the Black History class, but that's an elective. And, usually only black students take the class," added the 17-year-old senior.

At Baltimore's Malcolm X Elementary School, Leon Pulley, assistant principal, said, "We look at [him] from the positive things that came out of his life."

Students are "made aware of the pitfalls that have occurred with him. When the children leave here they know who he is," Mr. Pulley said.

For the most part, area school systems leave it up to the individual teacher to decide what, if anything, will be taught about Malcolm X.


Robert Jervis, coordinator of social studies for Anne Arundel County, said that high school classes deal with the period from the 1920s to the present.

"Our students should be doing quite a bit with Malcolm X," Mr. Jervis said. "I would be very disappointed if we're not dealing with Malcolm."

But a group of 30 Annapolis High School students say they have learned very little about Malcolm X from their school system.

In Carroll County, Donald Vetter, supervisor of social studies, also said the degree to which students learn about Malcolm X is up to the individual teacher.

Since the late 1970s, the schools have incorporated black history into the regular U.S. history classes, he said. Teachers have some latitude on what they emphasize, but it is likely that all classes would at least mention Malcolm X, Mr. Vetter said.