The superintendent of the public school system I work for recently banned a book that told the story of an African king who was captured and sold into slavery. The banning occurred after an African-American parent complained that the book made her child feel uncomfortable about himself and his heritage because the book discussed slavery and used realistic racist language. Although I can sympathize with parental or student discomfort about these topics, the banning of the book was wrong. My own experiences have convinced me that it is critical not to shy away from discussing slavery and racist language in the classroom.
I have been fortunate enough to travel and live in West Africa. On one of my early trips, I paid my first visit to a slave castle--used to imprison captured Africans until they were driven aboard slave ships bound for the New World--during a tour along the coast of Ghana with my sister and two close friends.
It was a gloomy, overcast day. Our guide kept saying it was unusually cold. Perched on the high ground with a perfect view of the Atlantic Ocean, the castle dominated the local landscape. It was strange how fast my imagination kicked into overdrive as I got close and then stepped inside. I could smell the odor of human misery seconds before entering the castle gate. I could hear the cries of my ancestors as I walked in the castle’s dungeon, and they echoed in my head hours after we left.
Standing on the castle wall overlooking the ocean, we shared the last view our ancestors had before they were forced off in chains to the New World. As we tried to reconstruct in our minds the journey across the Atlantic, we wept. Our guide was right: It was a very, very cold day.
That trip to Africa changed the way I looked at myself and the world. I had always been proud of the fact that I knew much about slavery. I had read book after book and nearly memorized the words of writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. But until entering that slave castle, slavery was just an abstraction. Afterward, I could close my eyes and see slavery. The sheer horror of the place somehow filled in all the blanks in my knowledge at once.
What I saw at those castles angered me in a way I had not experienced before. And this anger grew into a new determination to teach and share my experiences about slavery and to encourage others to talk about it. I hoped that doing so would increase our nation’s understanding of African-Americans. I became convinced that in order to move forward we had to confront and understand the past. In short, my visits to the slave castles of West Africa encouraged me to think boldly and never shy away from the facts, however grim or discomforting.
Now, whenever the occasion presents itself, I talk openly to my children about slavery and racism. On a vacation in Charleston, S.C., we visited an exhibit on slave holding. During a trip to a James River plantation in Virginia, I took my children aside and made sure they saw where the slaves lived. And I made sure they understood that our ancestors weren’t just “servants,’' as the plantation guide politely described--they were slaves. I wanted them to know about the miseries their ancestors suffered and the misguided, racist Europeans who created the institution that systematically destroyed Africans.
I also want my children to be able to detect racism and be aware of the indignities some of us continue to suffer today because of skin color. I want them to know that Africans are still enslaved under South Africa’s inhuman system of apartheid. I can’t think of any better protection, any better weapon, to ensure that slavery never happens again than for my children to read realistic material about slavery and be exposed to its racist language.
I want them to know these things even if it means feeling “uncomfortable.’' Slavery should never be a comfortable issue. Do we discuss the Jewish holocaust in comfort? Do we discuss the destruction of the Native American in comfort? Of course not. The history of human suffering should make all of us feel things we would prefer not feeling. A visit to a slave castle or a Nazi concentration camp should be uncomfortable. Reading a book about slavery, a truthful and realistic account, might make some of us uncomfortable, but that does not mean we should avoid it.
The consequences of not discussing history, not knowing about slavery, are too great to imagine. Too great to chance. Ignorance only breeds ignorance.
I wish educators would stop running away from their responsibilities. Stop taking the road of least resistance. Stop hiding every time a parent complains. Stop giving in. We must take a stand, take a firm position on what to teach about slavery--including an honest discussion of its economic and ideological underpinnings--and stick with it.
By the way, my children told me that if anyone should feel uncomfortable about a discussion of slavery it should be the ancestors of the slave holders--not the ancestors of slaves.
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Cries Of My Ancestors