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

The Art of Risky STEM

When I reflect back on my experience as a student during my middle and high school years I don’t have a lot of instances when I can recall real joy or excitement happening during most of my academic classes.  I do recall though, being driven to succeed in those courses because I felt like they were a pathway to participation and accomplishment in my artistic endeavors.

This is not to say that I always thrived and/or exceled in those academic spaces but that I recognized them as tied directly to my aspirations, for better or for worse.  I’ve been thinking about this tremendously during an era where it seems that the arts are continually excluded from the scope of educational development in schools.  Yes, there are co-curricular programs, many of them funded through state and federal grants. But, in truth, when these programs are included as “add-ons” they are relegated to a space of secondary importance.  Simultaneously, we forget that at the core of mathematical and scientific discovery is the capacity for abstract thought and the creative translation of this into its physical being.

So, if school systems will continue to devalue artistic pursuits, how will educators develop the practice of creativity in their young people? Risk.

One of the most vital aspects of creating something new is the recognition that, perhaps, it might somehow fail.  Perhaps, you might change and so your perspective on your design might change as well.  I am prepared to see my design as a reflection of myself.  I am prepared to have others examine and find fault.  I am prepared to excel and prepared to feel defeated at times.

Inspiration is tied directly to risk and the success or failure of STEM programming is tied inextricably to these both.  Are we, as educators, feeling inspired by our STEM objectives?  Are we invested in inspiring our students?  Do we recognize that this feeling is the drive that carries students to look “beyond the numbers?” Along with all of this, are we willing to take the risk of exploring our own creative humanity in the context of the classroom?

I’m leaving this with a lot of questions which I should continually ask myself.

Black Boys in the Woods

They won’t let us

black boys in the woods

We might run too far

might get caught up in a tangle

might get somewhere no one can follow

We got bugaboos and injuns all kinda scary unknowns

Cabin life and familiar beatin’s be much better

Nowadays we don’t know why

But we know they don’t let us

black boys in the woods

Better kept safe without windows

We’re gon’ tunnel ’round under concrete

Officers can run their hands up and down my thighs

and love my brothers the same way

my cousins

my neighbors

my friends

Bridges might collapse

Roads might crumble

There’s no breathing

deep

the way fresh air requires

Big cats

Don’t know fir for Nike

catfish ’til it’s fried

Someone’s taken your land

Someone’s lengthened your legs

and shortened your reach

They won’t let us black boys

in the woods

We’ll refuse

to touch the soil again

-Njoli-

No Room for Flowers

there’s no room for

flowers in the playground

children plant

feet on the ground – before

a leap to the basket

full of under ripe fruit

and drop flesh in

a crash

encounter with the man-godly enslaver

the blacktop is cracked

it’s where god-men launch them

selves

trying to escape

from built things

-Njoli-

A Capucine Bailly photo
A Capucine Bailly photo

 

Meditation by Minutes

One minute of meditation

“Stand clear of the closing doors, please!!!”

One minute of meditation

“Ey, yo, bruh, wanna buy my cd? Original hip hop music.”

One minute of meditation

“Show time folks, show time! Live and direct!  Gotta see it to believe it!

One minute

Clouds roll in over Thompkins Square.

One minute

A collage of smells, flowers, chinese food, urine

One minute

Man yelling at woman

Woman yelling at child

Traffic on the GWB

Stoop-ball

Bachata

One minute of meditation

One catch up

catch all

-Njoli-

DSCF0360

Handing the Reigns to Your Students

By Njoli Brown

Are you setting your students up to take the reigns?

I know there’s still a couple of months left before the school year officially comes to a close but for those of us who facilitate co-curricular programs that time is rolling quickly toward us.  It’s a wonderful gift, the opportunity to bring arts, athletic and social education into schools, but the true gift is seeing your students find the inspiration to motivate their own explorations beyond that.

Often this time of year has us extremely focused on seeing final projects come to fruition, finalizing paperwork and providing a sense of closure for our students, many of whom we are unsure if we will be seeing again since our presence in their school is contingent on the receipt and renewal of grant monies or direct sales.  With all of this said, one of the most empowering things we can do is provide resources and suggestions for means through which students can pursue new found passions.  By doing this we really meet out the goal of generating an environment which acts as a wellspring for ingenuitive young people.

youth activism

Drawing attention to some of the free and low cost opportunities available in your area can often be a first step…

Activism:

(TAP) Teen Activist Project

“TAP is an exciting youth program that engages New York City teens as organizers and peer educators on civil rights and civil liberties.”     http://www.nyclu.org/issues/youth-and-student-rights/teen-activist-project

 

Amnesty International – Youth In Action

“From New York City to San Francisco, from Detroit to San Antonio, young people across the US are standing up and making noise for human rights! No matter how big or small, there is no better way of becoming involved in the global community than by taking a stance on human rights. With over 1,000 student and youth groups across the nation and growing, Amnesty International is leading this charge. The time is now. Lend your voice.” http://www.amnestyusa.org/resources/students-and-youth 

Visual Arts:

Free Photoshop Alternatives              http://gizmodo.com/5974500/10-photoshop-alternatives-that-are-totally-free

Free Arts NYC

“The Teen Arts Program (TAP) provides teens with regular access to NYC cultural institutions and opportunities to explore the arts as a potential academic or professional goal.” http://www.freeartsnyc.org/programs/teen-arts-program/

Literary Arts:

NY Writers Coalition

“NYWC’s workshop method is designed to reduce competition amongst writers and allows writers of all backgrounds, ages, experience levels and genres to work together to grow as writers. Workshop size is limited to ensure that each member receives enough time and attention.

Workshop participants write during the workshop and receive positive, supportive feedback. We do not critique brand new writing, because the writer has not yet had a chance to read or revise it. In addition, it is assumed that all writing done in the workshop is fictional. Workshop leaders also write as part of the group, providing a model for taking risks and showing vulnerability in a group setting. These guidelines ensure that participants feel safe to write and read aloud even the riskiest material.

Writers are given the freedom to find and strengthen their individual and unique voices as well as to experiment with form, style and new genres. In addition, the workshop provides a structure for writers to produce new work on a regular basis. Workshop members become part of a community of writers, easing some of the isolation that writers and those in marginalized groups often encounter.” http://nywriterscoalition.org/programs/programs-for-youth/