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

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.

Forum for Community Action at FICA Seattle

By Njoli Brown

I was graciously invited by FICA Seattle to facilitate a conversation on how cultural orgs can effectively engage in social action.  In Seattle there are a large number of groups which participate in the ethnic/cultural arts of Latin america, Africa, central – SE Asia and so on.  But, aside from the artistic endeavor, how many make the determination to actively and positively effect, in profound and long term ways, the communities within which these arts were sustained through centuries of struggle and an infusion of intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy?

The first thing that came to mind for me was a discussion on the spate of ongoing disturbing events throughout our communities, but it seemed that the first step needed to be a deep dive into “identity.”  One of the most common falsely held presumptions in groups is that, “if we’re all here then we’re all ‘down.’ ”  But before getting to the “what” we’re doing, there’s a lot of figuring that has to go into the “why” so that when it becomes difficult and laborious there’s a foundation that we’re working from in common.  I give FICA a lot of credit for often trying to provide opportunities for critical evaluations of itself by its members.

How does this collection of people see itself?  Does the collective mission align with each individual’s personal mission?  Are we willing to lose members if we determine the mission is of tantamount importance? From where are we garnering vital information and through what lens are we evaluating it? Do the actions we hope to take stay true to the missions we’ve established for ourselves?   Etc, etc.  There is a lot to be said for a group which decides to wrestle with itself and deal with the discomfort of recognizing the failings, doubts.. the humanity of all its members.

There is a long history of misdirected actions which can often times do more damage than help. Often times these are a result of not establishing all the predetermination that will provide you with the fortitude to stay in the process for the long haul.  Simultaneously, there are advocates who have, at times, been discarded without a dedication to the difficult conversations which provide soil for effective growth and leadership.  I hope to hear more from the participants of this recent forum, to hear if they found worthwhile takeaways, if there are plans for next steps, suggestions.  I also hope that other groups will make use of the currently aroused energy to figure out how they can utilize their organizations as nuclei for positive change.

*Gratitute to co-facilitator, Jabali Stewart, and to Mestre Silvinho (FICA Seattle), Leika Suzumura and Chelsea Rae for getting the ball rolling.

http://www.papernopaper.wordpress.com

Turning Vision Into Service

By Njoli Brown

Today during our LEAD session we talked about the role that vision can play in transforming things that we do for ourselves into tools we can use to support our communities. Such an important thing to remind our young people that service isn’t always a grandiose thing out of reach in our everyday. Look for ways to use their passions and interests as the vehicle for engaging their generosity and empathy. http://ow.ly/i/lyefa

Training, Well Rounded

By Njoli Brown

I was recently having a conversation with some other martial arts instructors of various styles.  One of the things that came up was the fact that, for the most part, along with the physical stimulus that training provides, one of the things that’d kept us involved for so long was feeling a sense of richness through involvement with the people and  ideas of another culture.  Now, I don’t want to say that this is or must be an interest for all students.  But for us, in common, it’s been an integral part of our practice and, as such a priority in our instruction.

So how do we convey that to our students?  As importantly, how do we convey that in a way that doesn’t diminish the reasons that each individual has for investing their time and energy into an activity that often has no reward other than that which the participant gleans?

Is it timely?  Sometimes a moment presents itself.  Perhaps a situation occurs, a movement or idea reveals itself and, in this time a historical or cultural reference is the perfect framing feature.  It might give context for a way of doing things or for the evolution of a concept.  It might, as well, give some insight into the mindset of those figures who had, at times, practical reasons for the design of their craft.

Is it enriching?  For many students, having a deeper knowledge of the practice to which they have dedicated themselves gives them a greater sense of purpose.  They come to see themselves as guardians of ideas and, in the most fortunate of instances, as researchers who dispel myths and contribute to  the archive of developmental resources.

Is it relevant?  Class isn’t the time to bloviate about all of your past accomplishments, about the awards you’ve won or the opponents you’ve beaten. Check yourself and, if it isn’t in service of the practice maybe keep it til you’re out having a drink with your buddies.  Remember that your stories and the ideas they convey become part of the culture of your school as well.

Integrating history and culture into the practice of your students takes a real sense of scope and a strong concept of what you hope for your community to embody.  You are shaping values in subtle ways.  It can be tremendously enriching or it can be the “turn-off” that pushes hard training students out the door. Done well, it turns your students into teachers and re-creates the story as a living thing.

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.

Over, Under and Through the Hump

By Njoli Brown

So here we are.  It’s February and all of the emotions that the school year brings feel like they are compressed somehow by the cold.  I think it’s commonly understood that self-care plays directly into the kind of care that we, as educators are able to give our students.  But one of the built-in lessons we can give during this time is a capacity to self-reflect and to recognize when our equilibrium is askew. From here we can determine to take actions both in and out of the classroom to right our sails.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that, very often, we’re only associating the phrase “prep time” as an indicator of the time we put aside to prepare the room, our materials, our resources.  But are we allocating 5 or 10 minutes to psychologically and emotionally prepare for the day?  Did we walk away for 5 minutes in the afternoon to hit the “reset” button? Some deep breaths, some music that brings you joy, some stretches to address the parts of your body that need it, all of these things remind you that you are loved, by you.

The prep that I’m talking about isn’t an anticipation for things we imagine will go wrong.  Instead it’s taking the time to observe yourself when you feel at peace so that you can recognize that feeling as you try to return to it at various points in the day.

Perhaps, as this becomes part of your practice, it becomes a part of your class’s practice as well.

 

Snowpocalypse

An activity for… well, whomever.

I do this initiative in some of my classes called “Snowpocalypse.”  It starts with everyone in the class taking scraps of paper and writing things they do for themselves and things they do for others, one item on each piece of paper.  The collection of things they do for themselves focused particularly on things that they enjoy, whether at home, in school or out in the world, and the things they do for others should be focused on things they do by choice, not because they are mandated.  Perhaps these are things they do because they bring them personal joy or because they are needs that they see should  be met and they recognize their distinct capacity to do so. Next we ball all of these scraps up into “snowballs” and have a 4-5min snowball fight.  Afterwards we all go about the task of picking them up (yes, this activity cleans itself up) and sticking them in their appropriate places on a Vinn diagram divided into:

  • Things I do for myself
  • Things I do for others
  • Things I do for my community (in the intermediary position)

We take time to look at what we’ve constructed and give space for anyone to move the position of an action to some new category.  We find that a thing which so often one person thought of as completely selfish endeavor, from the perspective of another, was a action of tremendous generosity.  We process this by delving into a discussion around how we can make simple, every day things into opportunities for transformation and building. All this is to explain a process wherein we guide students to understand their capacity to affect change and growth in their communities.  We come to recognize that service and personal fulfillment can be interwoven when each is approached with the proper perspective.  We start realizing that “labors of love” don’t have to seem so laborious. I’m always curious about ways in which facilitators, instructors, educators guide their students on this empowering journey of self-realization and I hope to continue sharing inspiring activities as I encounter them.  And I hope to keep encountering them… so feel free to send some my way.

Beauty in the Human Language: Capoeira & Connecting with Possibilities

By Njoli Brown

So, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to wrap my head around the entirety of my recent experience in Cuba.  Working with other artist-educators, exchanging ideas about this endless work of empowering youths in marginalized communities, all of it was tremendously inspiring and thought provoking.  I’ve been wanting to share that here but instead, in trying to encompass everything, I find myself spinning and inadequately capturing the profundity of things every time I try to put something on paper. I’ve decided I need to break this down for myself.  Over the next few weeks I figure I’ll take moments, pieces of that short but impactful time and engage in some explorations.

DSCF6965That being said I wanted to start by discussing the workshop I facilitated in Havana using capoeira as the medium.  My objectives were to explore the ideas and constructs that determine our process for valuating beauty. In addition I wanted to use this exercise as a catalyst for conversations on the concept of “embodying the spirit” and using the body as an efficient language tool.

We kicked it off by doing a brainstorm on popular concepts of beauty.  In part this was an opportunity for us to reflect on the ways in which social constructs sometimes diverge from our unqualified humanity.  When we moved into “ginga” I offered the structures as suggestions instead of rules. It was an interesting practice for me, to look at this form of engagement with laser focus on facilitating a journey of discovery instead of instructing a lesson.  A humbling thing to let go of my usual objectives and to hone in, much more deeply, on the method and process of sharing ideas.  We took the opportunity to explore the emotions tied to the tension and relaxation of muscles, the exploitation of the joints and the fear that is tied directly to the concept of equilibrium.

DSCF6983

Each individual then chose an emotion that they had recently engaged with, something to which they’d had a strong response and maintained vivid memories of the physical experience.  After a moment of meditating on this emotion they partnered off and used  ginga as a vessel through which they could embody this emotion and see how it might inform their interactions.  Our next step was to recall our conceptions of central figures in our lives, matriarchs, patriarchs, elders, youths and through each of these lenses we interacted with our emotion experiment in greater depth.

So, through this we were able to tap into an experience of beauty as a concept that exists in greater part due to its capacity to stimulate emotional resonance as opposed to a design which we accept as beautiful because particular language has been associated with it.

As a next step we DSCF7201decided to use the language of the body to investigate the experiences of our compeers.  In capoeira we often talk about the body conversation as a game of questions and answers.  As often as not though, a player may ask questions without giving truly intentional scrutiny to the merit of his/her camarada’s responses.  

It’s easy at times to get caught up in your own movement, in the power of inquisition, in the sound of your own voice.  But capoeira, as life entire, has the necessity of maintaining a balance between pressure and growth. We looked at our kicks and escapes as equal opportunities to observe ourselves as well as the our embodied identities of our counterparts.  We then processed the effects of the experience on our ideas about interpersonal communication.

How would we take this practice and apply it in our visual arts programming, our music, theater, writing? Did we gain some new DSCF7075connection to the somatic process underlying emotion?  How could this be relevant to the work we do with youths? What will it mean to create something “beautiful” in the future?