Why Fred Hampton Needs to Be on Your Kids’ American History SyllabusHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Black History Month, teaching history, Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton
My Blackness came to me while I was a student at Ohio State University.
To be clear, I always knew I was Black. My mother, who grew up silt-poor in the mud hills of Nelsonville, Ohio, made sure all of her sons knew we were Black. Not knowing was akin to signing your name to a suicide note. But I did not know its properties, the alchemy of its historical bonds in reaction to my daily life. I only knew its consequences. I was aware of the American problems that pursued my Blackness but could not see the joy that welled from it for what it was. I did not fully learn to wield my Blackness until I was skipping architecture classes, instead sitting in on showings of Black documentaries and heavy discussions in the newly minted Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center that imbued me with self-awareness.
The early 1990s was a beautiful time to become aware of one’s Blackness. It was the height of the Afrocentric movement, the covers of magazines like Newsweek musing aloud if Cleopatra had been Black, the widening reach of Black studies departments and Spike Lee films. Because I would only attend OSU for two scant quarters before being expelled for failing grades, the whole period felt as if the only reason I had gone to college was to uncover a deeper Blackness, that a destiny had somehow been fulfilled behind the artifice of my architectural pursuits.
I could never tell if the Black man running the screenings in the Hale Center was another student or a local street scholar who snuck onto campus for the express purpose of showing the films, but his weekly inoculations unwound the helix of my political DNA, replacing the white cells with Malcolm X and Kwame Ture speeches. And on the evening that he slid in a bootleg VHS of the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, my life was changed on a primordial level.
All of the theory I had been consuming was suddenly and brutally replaced with a new understanding: It didn’t matter how innocent or sensible the work you did for Black people might be; all work on behalf of Black people was a threat. Not perceived as a threat but judged an actual threat to the status quo. That meant children’s breakfast programs and free clinics as well. Opting to step out of the system was as punishable as standing in its face.
Naturally, prior to viewing Judas and the Black Messiah — Shaka King’s new movie about Hampton and the COINTELPRO plot to assassinate him — I was sure I was going to walk away mad. I was going to take issue with the decision to focus more on FBI plant William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) than Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). I was going to be underwhelmed by the film’s ability to unpack the breadth of Hampton‘s politics. Ultimately, I was going to be mad because Fred Hampton is my day-one dude and he deserved the most astute treatment that cinema could deliver. In short, the movie didn’t stand a chance.
I am happy to report that my fears were largely overblown. The movie was both good and important, and I officially welcome it into the canon of Black History Month standards, somewhere between your 12th viewing of Lee’s Malcolm X and Ava DuVernay’s Selma. It is a crime that it took this long to produce such a film. Hampton’s story, even in the abbreviated form that Judas provides, is too important not to tell.