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

5 QUESTIONS: Teaching and Learning Through Silat

It’s been such an honor to have Guru Robert as a teacher, facilitating my silat journey.  His patience, humility and deep understanding have been as engaging as his skill and I figured it’d be a pleasure to get his take on just 5 Questions about his ideas on teaching his student journey.

Robert Hilliard of Kuno Silat talks back to 5 Questions from Njoli Brown at NoPaper.

I’ve been around martial artists my entire life. I had two brothers that studied Okinawan karate. They where basically my first teachers. When they would see me and my friends imitating martial arts moves, they would came and make corrections. Occasionally they would let us spar with them. This would typically end with me and my friends on our backs, or a bit bruised up. The younger of my two brothers, who was acimg_20190203_054134_770tually a black belt, had a friend who was opening a Kung-Fu school in a local community center. My brother thought that would be good training for me, so he enrolled me and another of my siblings at the school. I trained there until I finished high school. After college, I ran into a friend that was studying Wing Chun. I loved the efficiency of that system and trained for over ten years. After that, I was introduced to silat by a neighborhood friend. I was instantly drawn to it’s effectiveness and completeness.

My experiences have been varied. I try hard not to look at them through the lens of good or bad, but as learning opportunities. I’ve had some teachers that were, what some would consider heavy handed, while others were nurturing and accommodated. Early on, some of my teachers pushed so hard that I got injured during training. When this happened, they would frankly state that it was not the training methods that caused the injuring, but my lack of conditioning, etc. Those were unpleasant experiences, but they taught me to listen to my body. It also taught me that good teachers don’t push their students beyond their physical limitations. I should note that those experiences happened while I was studying others systems. The vast majority of my experience with silat have been incredibly positive.

_MG_3232As an instructor, I try to create a warm and welcoming environment where people can come to class, work hard, and enjoying their progress. I teach my students that success in martial arts, or life for that matter, is not a straight line. It’s okay to struggle and fail as long as you are “failing forward.” As far as my student’s aspirations go, I want everyone to be ambassadors of the art and have confidence in their ability to execute what they’ve learned with confidence in class or in the street, if need be.

I manage my personal practice by making sure that I carve out time during the day to train all aspects of the art. I learned that it’s easier for me to train early in the morning (around 5:00 am). Of course, you can’t train everything in the system in one day, so I focus on certain aspects throughout the week. The jurus (forms), I train everyday. I also try to make sure that my general fitness is good. I’ve also learned to listen to my body, so I don’t train when I’m sick or injured. Instead, I give my body time to heal.

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To make things relevant in my daily life, I use the two basic principles of silat: adat and hormat. Adat is how you conduct yourself. Hormat is respect for all around you. As a instructor, I believe that I should be a mirror for my students outside of class as well as inside.


Robert Hilliard

Robert Hilliard is a student of Senior Guru Tim Anderson and a long time promoter of this Indo-Dutch system of silat as Head Instructor of Kuno NYC.  He additionally has an extensive background in Wing Chun.  Robert brings his classes alive by consistently imbuing them with a community feel while committing his students to a highly technical and detail oriented practice.

Semangat Baru is the name of our specific style of Pukulan Pentjak Silat. It translates to “New Spirit” and reflects our new way of viewing and teaching the ancient art of Silat. We operate free from any kind of “secrets” or “martial politics” that can become attached to coveted knowledge. The style itself focuses overwhelming an opponent with strikes, while finding leverage points to take their balance and ultimately subdue them.

Silat is a collective word used to describe martial arts originating from South East Asia, such as Malaysia and in our case Indonesia. Pukulan is a word that means striking. In this case denoting a silat system that places a heavy emphasis on hitting. Pentjak is generally considered to refer to the movements and performance of forms where “Silat” is an expression of those motions for use in combat. So “Pukulan Pentjak Silat” could be seen to mean something like “Striking form based Indonesian Martial Art”.

*Special “thank you” to Jelena Antanasijevic for the photos.

Winter Stands for Revolutionary Growth

By Njoli Brown

“For every century there is a crisis in our democracy, the response to which defines how future generations view those who were alive at the time. In the 18th century it was the transatlantic slave trade, in the 19th century it was slavery, in the 20th century it was Jim Crow. Today it is mass incarceration.”

– Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO, NAACP –

 

I know that most of us have entered into this work of social justice because we have a general concern for the welfare of our youths and for our society as a whole. We work to design relevant programming that provides skills that are translatable in real world situations. In order to better understand better those situations it’s important on our part to develop an understanding of the historical dynamics at play.  For, as positive a message as we desire to bring into educational institutions, we have to remember that the specter of prison  still looms large in the minds of our parents as a track which statistically competes with the likelihood of college for our students.  How do we combat this? How do we engage in the conversation?  One of the first things we can do is to well acquaint ourselves with the issues so that we can provide empathy and mindful, intentional and action based programming.

Look for community meetings, lectures and literature to enlighten you on, not only the current happenings in your communities, but the legacies within which these communities have evolved.  The Schomburg  offers a tremendously educational range of events, the Unitarian Universalist Association website is on my reading list this month.  Make winter the time to check out an exhibition or round up your squad to engage in some coffee and real talk or to redefine your role in the justice structure, investigating ways to empower your own level of engagement with Restorative Justice Initiative.

Let’s get you started…

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, speaking at University of Chicago.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, speaking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Question. Resolve to be an advocate of progress.  Engage and act.

Engineering Change: Youth Create

By Njoli Brown

One of the most powerful things we can give to our youth is IMG_20171025_140618the realization that they have an actual capacity to effect change.  In my autumn projects in Brooklyn and the Bronx I decided to utilize concepts from civil engineering to develop 

a sense of the importance of design in the nature and timbre of a community.  But even more importantly, the objective was to mature the capacity to critically evaluate our environment to recognize ways in which it could be changed and/or supported.

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The process was collaborative and grounded in the work of establishing leadership skills, common values and collective empathy.   Through discussion, writing, movement and art we dove deep into the most difficult work of putting language to our ideas, debating and, at times, compromising.

We concluded the project by creating an interactive public gallery wherein participants could post questions as a pathway to research and activism.

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Grading Up: Ranks Without Ranking

By Njoli Brown

This present continuous practice is nothing other than just that, just committing oneself to continuous practice for no other reason than to practice continuously.”

Dogen in “Continuous Practice” –
(Translation by Francis Dojun Cook in the book “How To Raise an Ox”)

Most recently MSMB had the opportunity to promote students through the Pekiti Tirsia Kali ranking curriculum in association with PTK Elite.  It has been a pleasure to see their growth as students and to see them undertake and overcome increasing challenges both in training and in life.  Through this process, it had me truly reflecting on the value of rank testing and the importance of doing it well, justly and academically.

24313066_1815938585083611_5796395572561629866_oNow, truth be told, I do hold a lot of more seemingly abstruse elements to be equally as important in the progression of studentship — empathy, mindfulness, dedication, compassion, fortitude, humility, etc.  But here, I’d like to talk about the importance of the skills element of the pedagogy.

This year there was a decision among Elite Family instructors to really drill down and go layer by layer through the rank requirements, specific skills, language, historical knowledge, deemed essential both by our teachers and by us, collectively.  In making these determinations we were looking to do a better job of making sure that , not only were we developing skilled practitioners or doing our part to protect the legacy of our predecessors but that we were giving our students access to mater24302166_10155929671212520_5244908863842982036_oial which, perhaps, none of us have fully deciphered.  Material which could then truly be theirs to explore and investigate.  In the martial practice everyone brings their own personhood and thus unlocks elements only accessible to them, elements revealed through work and diligence.  These are all the spaces between wherein students often teach their instructors.

By utilizing a clear platform for ranking, it also calls on me to continually develop myself and work on my own weaknesses.  It requires me to regularly test myself and delve deeper.  In part because of my own curiosity but, as well, because It would be my greatest fault to leave a student short-changed because of my own incapacity to reconcile with challenges I face in my own study.

Ranking is a funny thing.  It is both objective and subjective simultaneously.  The more esoteric aspects of a teacher’s pedagogy, I’ve put aside for the sake of this exploration but they are easily as essential, particularly if your institution is also concerned with developing teachers, leaders, comrades.  People age, the body becomes ravaged, illness, injuries, we know them all.  But, in this world of martial craft, nothing sabotages the weight of a leader’s presence in the field more then demonstrative ignorance of his/her craft, and nothing empowers a student more than to have strong foundations from which to build investigative inquiry into self and the world.

Questions:

  • How can I judge someone else’s journey?
  • As an instructor, what is the honest status of my “student mind?” 
  • Am I clear about my expectations as an instructor and/or as a student?
  • Do I ask discerning questions for the sake of learning or for proving?
  • How do I evaluate the connection between my internal and external practice?

Earn Your Keep (the follow up…)

By Njoli Brown

Every summer I spend about a month and a half out in the Northwest.  I’m getting my hiking in, connecting with family and friends, yeah, hard life.  But I also consider this the time where I earn my keep.  I hit my boxing training a bit harder, I work my silat, try to make the rodas and capoeira classes I can and I double up my gym time when I’m not in the mountains.

Back in NYC I have a fantastic group of students and colleagues who’ve been generous over the past few years to work with me as I develop and to dedicate their time to learning what I have to teach.  Now, I’m lucky in having some fantastic teachers who’ve spent years giving me the tools and the kind of support it takes to let me feel confident imparting their gifts.  But all this being said, the worst thing an instructor can possibly do, is rest on his/her laurels.  How many of us have seen the result? Too many.

Now this is obviously taking into account those with debilitating injuries, mental or physical conditions (ie age, disease), etc.  Even so, I recall an event where my capoeira teacher taught his workshop from crutches.  I also know a student who spent her year of physical recovery translating articles and interviews of old mestres from Portuguese to English.  I figure, the least I can do is model the kind of consistent growth I ask of my students.

So, what does that look like.  No, it doesn’t have to mean an extra 4 days a week at the gym or a complete overhaul of your training regimen.  But what it does mean, is taking a good look at the holes in your game and exhibiting the kind of diligence it means to clean them up. Conditioning slipping? Perhaps show up that 20 minutes before class to jump rope (low impact on the knees and high return on the effort).  Be okay with showing your students what it looks like to work before you work.  Feel like you’re losing those fast hand mechanics?  Get yourself to a boxing gym and ask folks who know the science to help you clean up your technique.  Speed is as much muscle elasticity as it is strength. When was the last yoga class you hit.  Local community center… free.  Maybe I’m hurt and out to the physical game for a while but am I innovating in ways to train my mind?And maybe, just maybe, you need a reminder of what it’s like to not be good at something.

Push yourself, find the time and earn your keep.
*Thoughts? Suggestions? Definitely kick them down.

A Sister in Brotherhood Spaces

By JL Umipig

It’s been 2 years now since I arrived to Central Park on a spring evening and was welcomed by Guro Njoli and two of my brothers of Pekiti Tirsia Kali (PTK) Vin and Chris. And I recall so distinctly why I returned after that first moment- it was the feeling of being held in a process of betterment and strengthening through comraderie. From day one, my brothers of MSMB and PTK held me to a caliber of that encouragement to better and strengthen my being.

I a20161126_105810m one of the few Womxn who consistently trains with the brothers of PTK Elite and MSMBNYC. In two years I have watched sisters come through and I emphasize to them why I continue to train which consists of the reasons that most people do, to have consistent physical regiment for my fitness and health, to be able to defend myself when the time comes, and to strengthen my body and confidence. But also I continue and commit to PTK and MSMB because of what I felt in that initial moment that I began learning with this circle: the camaraderie and mutual betterment of self as a practitioner that I feel growing with my brothers. There is a real pride we have for the betterment of one another, the push to excel as a family unit, detached from competition amongst those in our crew. They push me to go hard, to be able to hold my own amongst anyone, no matter their size or their strength level.  There is a belief that I feel from the respect my brothers hold for me, that when we train, our genders have nothing to do with our ability to train hard, and be able to step up to the challenges of body, mind and spirit that our practice teaches us to stand up to.

Our guros hold us all to our strengths, and also hold us to strengthening our weaknesses. I see how each of them in their teachings see the value of each individual in the group, and I watch the camaraderie between them that is model to us all. It roots our circle, the way they are able to respect and hold one another in collaboration and in unique styles of giving knowledge to our training. And as the little sister in the crew they rarely mention my gender, only with the recognition of how to apply their teachings to the very real degradation and violence Womxn face on the daily and how to use the learnings for my protection and ability to be prepared should I be confronted with the realities of misogyny and gender violence in this world. They teach me to use my size to my advantage, and help me understand my power to survive.

When we talk about Kali, we orient the learnings around the ability of Pilipino ancestors to fight and survive in battle with their colonizers, who were often larger and more equipped than them. These teachings of Pilipino Ancestral practices and traditions is the other reason I stay. My guros value this and respect the roots of the a20160625_114602rt, they help us understand the context and it brings me closer to my ancestors in a new way of understanding. I feel them in my movements. I feel their spirit of survival and resistance. And they and my brothers make room for me to share my learnings and cultural practices and values as a healer, activist and artist in connection to our training- another way they welcome what I have to contribute to our circle of my strengths.

“Respect everyone, Fear no one” our MSMB mantra is core to the way we train, is core to the way we learn, is core to the way we build camaraderie. Every time I come to train, I feel valued, respected and cared for as a member to this circle of warriors. I believe that is how my ancestors intended this practice to be upheld. So I bring myself fully to every training and every gathering, ready to step into my power. Sure, every now and then the testosterone is real, the frustrations of having to deal with my femininity being sometimes a hindrance because I can’t hide I am a Womxn physically and there are instances of societal stereotypes that surface (that’s real), and the moments of having to step it up extra notches to have new members that are men see me the way my brothers who I’ve trained with from the beginning is real as well. But what outweighs all of that is that my brothers will always remind me I am valued, that I am seen and I am held and so the humanization is real, the honoring is real and the love that makes me feel Family in this circle of brothers is real.

 

Jana Lynne (JL) Umipig is the creator of “The Journey of a Brown Girl” www.thejourneyofabrowngirl.com  Director, Producer, Actress, Educator and Organizer she currently resides in NYC. JL image5has worked with different community organizations developing curriculum and programs that integrate theatre and visual arts with activism and leadership development, working with schools, community organizations, detention facilities, and rehabilitation and support group centers. She believes in the power of the arts to activate and move the human spirit for individual toward community empowerment and transformation.  She creates with the intention to connect human experience and spirit between all communities.

Mistakes in the Microcosm

By Njoli Brown

One of the most commonly expressed analogies in capoeira is that it exists as a microcosm of all our experiences and interactions in the larger world.  I’m sure this kind of language is present in other arts and communal environments and I’ve been thinking about this lots over the years, often times a little dubious about where the rhetoric and the actuality intersect.

I think that humans are, as a general rule, social creatures.  Often times they are willing to make huge compromises in order to maintain a sense of connectivity.  Even in those instances where they choose to isolate, I imagine that, many times there is some past or present trauma attached to that decision.   That isolation might be a process for healing or for hiding but it seems to have a very intentional value and purpose.

In order to maintain a  sense of place and value within a community  there  can feel a necessity to do or to be.  I use these terms to indicate the drive toward doing more in order to become more and thus, somehow, elevating the value of the community as a whole.  But with all of this action there have to come missteps, some large and some small, so I think it’s important to discuss the important place that mistakes hold in both the micro and macrocosm. As an experiment, instead of looking at the small and working outward though, as is often the methodology, I’m going to take some lessons from the broader world and apply them inward.

e438892cd491af9c823ec137e759ed16The broad range of research would say that mistakes have inherent value.  They provide new pathways for exploration, generate unexpected and sometimes useful results, act as reference points or catalysts for change and, generally, imply motion of some sort.  In my experiences as an educator in NYC public schools, one of the sentiments I recognize in many of the students I work with is a fear of educational or behavioral “failure.” This fear is often born out of the the resultant reprimands, harsh exclusion, disproportionate disciplinary reactions which occur after mistakes or missteps that are part of the evolutionary journey.  Simultaneously, I know it is a major part of the conversation among educators to determine new and effective ways to address positive discipline while creating a safe holding container for  personal growth.  Saying that a space is safe for mistakes does not make it so.  But if the true investment in that idea is there, then intentional discussions on how to create actionable plans can be had.

Capoeira Angola is particularly interesting to me because it seems to attract social activists, teachers, community organizers and people with an, at least spoken, desire to affect societal change in positive ways.  It truly is a microcosm of a very particular aspect of the world.  It rests itself fairly firmly in liberal thinking in regards to social, environmental and overall political issues.  Even with variations, this holds itself commonly true in most groups of this style throughout the world and, as such, should provide an in common language and platform for discussions on acceptance , forgiveness and change on a very personal level.

I remember a while back, being in a discussion about concepts on friendship.  For my part, I recall saying something to the point of friendship having a relationship to a person seeing you when you have not been your best self and being able to recognize the goodness in you nonetheless.   Now, I’m an optimist.  I do mostly believe that people have some innate childlike purity continually existing within them, no matter how obscured.  I am also a realist.  I understand that mistakes can be painful, to the perpetrator and to the peripheral participants.  An actual supportive and forward thinking community has the difficult dual purpose of safeguarding itself while nurturing its individuals.  But like riding a moving sidewalk in the wrong direction, if a community is not actively problem solving it may as well be actively working toward the perpetuity of broken systems.

Sometimes, language is a dangerous thing.  Perhaps, better said, a powerful thing both, Image result for martial arts philosophy
in its inability to encapsulate all the layers of individual and collective emotional complexity and in its capacity to direct the mind towards concretizing thoughts into actionable aspects. It requires a careful measure when determining the language which codifies a living philosophy and, as a living and organic thing, perhaps the language and the community must continually take opportunities to evaluate whether they are in alignment and, if not, whether compromise or divergence is the most relevant path for evolved being.

It must determine if it places equal value in its ideals as to its practice.  If so, it must work as diligently toward evolving its capacity to make living its philosophies as it does toward physicalizing its corporeal aspects.  It must pursue the resources to make these ideas intelligible and applicable when students misstep and choose alternatively.  They must host forums in which students can realize their connection to these values and in which actions which prove themselves destructive can be processed to restore balance in the community.  Otherwise, the practice should dissociate itself and allow the philosophy to exist parallel if not integrated.

 “Lots of soccer players are Catholic.  But if asked if soccer is a Catholic sport, well I’d say ‘hell no.'” – Anonymous –

Capoeira, in truth martial arts in general, can become so wrapped up in rhetoric that they search and find ways to justify the connection between things even as they actively operate in dichotomy.  In this way, perhaps they are truly microcosms of the world we live in. The art is truly itself, the idea is truly itself and, in fact, it is the instructor or some hierarchical construct which determines that a philosophical foundation, whether historical or contemporary, is a grounding factor for the students’ development and so imbues his/her teachings with said ideology.  Without the critical process of determining alignment, compromise or divergence a martial art school generates a chaotic environment for a finding equilibrium.