Explain why Mr. Williams’ views on black history were significant.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For Malcolm, Mr. Williams' teaching of history fits the overall narrative that he sees between White and African- American communities.  It is significant because a young Malcolm realizes that there is little element of reflection in how White communities perceive the issue of racial identity, something that is so dominant to a person of color.  Malcolm's description of Mr. Williams' view of Black History represents this lack of reflection.  Consider Mr. Williams' statement upon a young Malcolm, the only student of color, entering into his classroom:

The one thing I didn't like about history class was that the teacher, Mr. Williams, was a great one for "nigger" jokes. One day during my first week at school, I walked into the room and he started singing to the class, as a joke, "'Way down yonder in the cotton field, some folks say that a nigger won't steal."

The idea of using a slave reference as a "joke" helps to bring out how White Americans of the time period, such as Mr. Williams, viewed the Black experience in America:  As fodder for humor.  When the course text devotes a paltry paragraph to the experience of slaves in America, Malcolm's recollections of how Mr. Williams views history helps to bring out the significance of racial bias in the retelling of history:

Later, I remember, we came to the textbook section
on Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the Negroes had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually lazy and dumb and shiftless. He added, I remember, an anthropological footnote on his own, telling us between laughs how Negroes' feet were "so big that when they walk, they don't leave tracks, they leave a hole in the ground."

The details are both painful and highly relevant.  The "one paragraph long," "laughed through it practically in a single breath," and the racist dismissivenss of the dialogue is indicative of Malcolm X's overall point regarding racial identity in America.  Specifically, it illuminates his belief that until there is serious discourse in both sides on the issue of race in America, it is a problem that cannot begin to be solved.  Mr. Williams becomes but a normative example of this process.

Read the study guide:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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