Every Educator’s Challenge: HOW To Teach About Slavery Outside The Texts

School systems remain indecisive on teaching about slavery and therefore there is yet no clear guideline for doing so without controversy. Sometimes teachers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That period in U.S. history IS controversial. However, it is a necessary topic about which we must teach and not just gloss over, as if there is nothing to learn from that era. Omitting that practice, and its impact on society and the world is to miss the point that connects all history to follow. There is much to learn that offers valuable life lessons. It speaks to our humanity and what happens when that is lost by greed. People make and made excuses in order to justify their cruelty. It became embedded in the mindsets of people who benefitted unjustly from the laborious sufferings of others. That is just factual.

Our modern day racial narratives, beliefs and worldviews are rooted in the unjust bondage and enslavement of African peoples due to unbridled greed in the past. Many don’t want to talk about it, but that is just too damn bad. Children[and adults] can learn so, so much from that time of intense repetitive and ongoing trauma inflicted onto black people. Many would say that the trauma has not ended and has taken many different forms-presently cloaked in different names.

There is an unhealthy fear felt by opposing segments of the general population. At the root of that fear is certainly fear of potential retaliation, general hatred and clarity in the eyes of the masses who may come to identify and highlight continued inequity. Realistically, that clarity will lead to equity and equitable practices. That clarity will lead folks to question and reflect individually and collectively.

“If power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely!”

Not many ‘conservatives’ wish to be faced with the potential for loss-loss of power and influence. As a population of ‘awakening’ people, we can’t afford to succumb to that type of pressure. They have had more than enough time to reckon themselves with the inevitable. The longer that we prolong teaching truths, the more difficult life will be for children and adults alike- everyone of us.

We remain connected to our past and in the field of education, the connections are evidenced by disparities: poorly resourced schools, forced poverty, family disruption, poor health outcomes and mass incarceration. Educators have been left without choice, but to explore our past in the classroom, safe and supportive learning environments. My mantra: Quality education teaches ‘how’ to think, not ‘what’ to think.

Teaching about that period in our history doesn’t need to be explicit or gory. It just has to be honest. If we can teach around sensitive topics in many of our fairy tales and classic novels and still build skills and comprehension in literature, then we can approach history just the same. What’s the difference? It remains possible to teach about our history, absent being overly explicit.

What we do is present dilemmas, situations to students and invite their unique interpretations. We can compare and contrast, inviting critical thinking and SEL development. We understand that children can only think as critically as aligned with their developmental level. We add relevance while encouraging them to think at a more advanced level, and we promote their growth.

This can be accomplished by engaging in ‘guided’ discussions and asking questions like these:

“What is/was slavery? What does that word mean?

When Africans were first brought to this country, how did they get here? Can you imagine how they lived before leaving Africa? Who were these people? Did they have families?

Can you tell us why they were brought here? For what reason? Let’s talk about that. Do you know how long it took to travel from their countries to America by water? What do you think that voyage was like?

If 500 people was the total when leaving Africa and 350 people landed in the U.S., what do you think could have happened to decrease the numbers? Let’s think back to the reason they were brought here from the start. That was why? Children provide ideas and answers.

Would you consider enslaved people employees? Did they get time off, a paycheck? Did they have a labor union? What are unions? Could they go into town and shop on their own? Could they travel into towns, different states, could they visit neighbors, were there playgrounds? What were plantations? What was life like? Who owned them? Can you own someone? What do you think that looked like? How do you think these people felt in that situation every day? How would you feel?

Who cooked and cleaned, farmed, babysat, built homes, worked from sun to sun, 7 days a week? Were there lunch breaks? Were enslaved black people allowed to learn to read and write? Do you know why or why not? Why would it be forbidden, punishable, if you learned how to read? Is education important? Could you become a doctor without knowing how to read and write? Black people were sent different places with their ‘master’s’ permission. They frequently were given notes and letters to deliver. If they could read, they would understand messages. They could send messages, and all of that was not permitted. They had to learn in secret.

If I was black and called a slave, and I invented something that helped society, could I take credit for it? Why or why not? Name some inventions from the late 1700s to the 1800’s. Are you 100% positive that one or more of these things was not actually invented by a black person? Whose name would be documented in history- the black person or the white owner or even another white person? Remember these human beings were considered ‘property’ not human persons-things to be bought and sold. Things could not own other things at all.

Tonight[or in class], I want you to search for an invention by a black person and then share it with the class.” Etcetera …..

A common question among children and adults pertains to escapes. Wanting the answer to ‘Why didn’t they try to escape?‘, this questions begs for engagement and conversation in classrooms. Teachers can counter that question by asking, :

“What would you do?” “Do you think that nobody ever tried to escape into freedom? Not one person? “Ask another question: What would make anyone choose to stay? What would make you decide to stay somewhere that you’ve only known from birth if you have a family? What do you think happened if caught? How do you think they were treated? What happens to the family if all ran away together and are all caught?

Who went out to look for escapees? Were these people kind to them when found or cruel? Would it matter if those captured were returned unharmed? All that mattered was that they were placed in their jails called ‘plantations’, whether they were still able to work or not. It also didn’t matter if any children were old enough to work the fields, which was extremely young.

In the South, do you think that those who were sought by ‘police’, called ‘Bounty Hunters’ back then, sounds familiar to how black people say they feel today? Suppose that your ‘master’/owner gave you permission to travel on the open road to do an errand, and only white people could travel freely without answering to anyone ever, what do you think that person would need in order to not be ‘arrested’ or pulled over, because any white person had the right to question a black person who was not being escorted by a white person?”

At the upper grade levels, you may have even deeper conversations with students and ask questions such as these:

What would they need to say or have with them in order to continue on their way or keep white folk feeling safe and comfortable with it? How different is that from getting pulled over by police today and being asked where you are going, coming from, what you are doing where you are and then being asked for ID? Has that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel?

There are the lessons that must be taught where children are asked to think logically, learn from the past and make sense of the present. Questions and conversations such as these promote engagement with ALL students, white and black alike. It is in this frame of teaching that allows you to continue to use the old textbooks, at least until new, updated texts are issued to school children.

What we want to do is make history come alive and create imagery that promotes empathy and awareness. For all children, particularly black and brown, ending all lessons on a positive note is how we avoid traumatizing students. Nothing gory, just life-like. Bringing students back to the present day, discussions can end with highlighting evidence of progress, resilience, and triumphs made in spite of a horrid past or present. Ask students what has changed since then, and then name some specific inspired feats of genius of black people and the social adjustments made by whites, as well. In these ways, the past, history becomes what it should be for everyone, an era where many lessons about our humanity were learned. With this accomplished, we are not doomed to repeat them. We can move forward in our democratic experiment and promote equality through equity.

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