Get It Right: Teaching About Slavery to Students

Black, Brown, Colored:  Education


By Njoli Brown

In Wisconsin a school asked its student body to list “3 good reasons for slavery” (along with three bad ones).

Another school, in South Carolina, decided to take its students on a field trip for Black History Month.  Activities included:  picking cotton and singing slave spirituals…. Yes, you read that correctly.

It was only this February 2019 when a school in northern Virginia thought it would be a good idea to teach about the Underground railroad by playing a “runaway slave game.

There’s no way around it.  There are some people who are too damaged to keep from letting their racism shine through.  That being said, you don’t have to ride that train.

Before even starting though, as the adults in the room, this work needs to begin with teachers and parents—deepening our own understanding of the history, paying attention to the broader context, considering the children’s developmental age, and clarifying goals in doing this type of education.

On the site Teaching Tolerance are provided a list of “key concepts” which it seems would be important to consider and reconcile with before jumping into the deep end of a conversation about the racial, social and economic foundations of slavery with your young people.

Key Concepts

  1. Slavery, which was practiced by Europeans prior to their arrival in the Americas, was important to all of the colonial powers and existed in all of the European North American colonies.
  2. Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and, later, the United States.
  3. Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court and Senate from 1787 through 1860.
  4. “Slavery was an institution of power,” designed to create profit for the enslavers and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.
  5. Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.
  6. The experience of slavery varied depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding and gender.
  7. Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.
  8. Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery.
  9. Enslaved and free people of African descent had a profound impact on American culture, producing leaders and literary, artistic and folk traditions that continue to influence the nation.
  10. By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, we gain insight into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans aspired to, created, thought and desired.

I wanted to provide a few start up resources for those of you who are genuinely interested in teaching about historical and modern day slavery in a way that is held in empathy and authentically speaks to the trauma of the institution. There are tremendous amounts of materials out there and hopefully some of these act as an inroad and inspiration.

  1. Books on Slavery and Resistance

A list of 60 books recommended for the classroom and as background reading for parents and teachers on the history of slavery and resistance in the United States.  This lists provides materials relevant for all ages, from child through YA to adult.  These aren’t just books to drop in a room but to act as a catalyst for art projects, writing projects, debate and discussion.  I’d also refer you to this article from the Chicago Tribune “Slavery In Children’s Books: What Works?”

2. The Passage — Researched & Written by Fern Lewis / Directed by Dale Gooding

An animation which explores the slave trade and the journey of the Trans-Atlantic voyage. Wonderfully written and narrated. This is not “G” rated.  There are some deeply emotional themes here.  It is a film you should pre-screen in order to determine the appropriateness for your class’ age range and prepare for the depth of conversation needed to to process it.

3.  Teaching Hard History Podcast

“What we don’t know about American slavery hurts us all.” From Teaching Tolerance and host Hasan JeffriesTeaching Hard History brings us the lessons we should have learned in school through the voices of leading scholars and educators. It’s good advice for teachers, good information for everybody.

4.  The ABCs of Black History

The history of African people did not begin with nor did it end with slavery.  It’s just important to educate on the continuance of this journey, acknowledging the identity of a people as more than just their epochal social status.

Do you have more resources to suggest?  Drop them in the comments.

“It is of crucial importance for every American to understand the role that slavery played in the formation of this country, and that lesson must begin with the teaching of the history of slavery in our schools. It is impossible to understand the state of race relations in American society today without understanding the roots of racial inequality – and its long-term effects – which trace back to the ‘peculiar institution.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.,  Harvard University Professor, author America Behind the Color Line

Read more:

U.S. Students’ Disturbing Lack of Knowledge About Slavery

U.S. Schools Failing to Teach History of American Slavery: Report

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nopapereducates

Teaching, learning, traveling, exploring, telling story, listening actively, being actively.

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