School & District Management Opinion

Teaching about Slavery? It’s Debatable

By Contributing Blogger — June 22, 2015 5 min read
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(This spring I wrote about the Whitney Plantation, north of New Orleans, raising the question: How do we teach about slavery? Kate Shuster has taken up the challenge and connected it to her expertise in teaching debate. CTK)

By Kate Shuster

Recently, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture announced that a group of partners had discovered the remains of the São José, a Portuguese slave ship carrying a cargo of more than 400 slaves from Mozambique to Brazil. The ship sank close to Cape Town, with more than 200 members of its human cargo lost to the ocean and history. Recovered items from the ship, including iron ballast blocks used to stabilize slave ships in transit, will be displayed at the new museum when it opens on the National Mall in 2016.

It is impossible to understand the history of the United States without understanding slavery. But many teachers struggle to teach this difficult subject. Too often, education about slavery becomes a story of individuals acting badly and other individuals who fought against them. We teach about the underground railroad, Sojourner Truth, the Emancipation Proclamation, the cruelty of slave ships and the anguish of slave markets, but we fail to teach about the institutional aspects of slavery that made it possible for educated, respected, everyday people to participate in the profits of human trafficking and misery.

We tend to teach about slavery as if it were only a Southern institution; ignoring the ways that Northern industry and some of our oldest universities were built (often literally) by slaves. Some teachers make the mistake of beginning African-American history with slavery, when in fact there were free Africans in North America before slavery. If teachers start with slavery, they may unknowingly adopt a victimization frame where the starting point is a lack of agency for all African-Americans.

The institutional aspect of slavery comes home in Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, in which he traces the post Civil War criminalization of poverty and the use of “criminals” as bonded labor by a large number of institutions in the South, including large corporations. He begins by questioning what would happen if American corporations were held to the same standard as German companies and Swiss banks that benefited from the Holocaust.

Accountability has striking advocates. Last summer, The Atlantic published an extraordinary piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates making the case for reparations for slavery. I read this piece with interest, because for many years, I have organized middle school debate tournaments as part of the Middle School Public Debate Program. One of our most popular and repeating topics is “America should pay reparations for slavery.”

Besides meeting the basic criteria for a good debate topic (concise wording, room on both sides for debate, etc.), I have found that this is a good way for students to learn about slavery. In the process of research, students learn about the extent and effects of slavery - not just from a historical perspective, but as they persist into the present day. They confront slavery from a moral perspective and with an economic lens. This allows students to see what institutional discrimination looks like. And since the topic is solution-oriented, it encourages students to connect their learning to the present day, so that the debate is not only about culpability but also about change.

I’ve seen students debate this topic in class and competition. Over the years, many teachers and students have told me that it gave them a new perspective on slavery: that the topic is not simply a dead historical fact, but a living and complex construct whose effects shape everyday life. Even this week, the significance of the Charleston church shooting is better understood if slavery’s traces are mapped onto the present day.

Not all teachers have the time to conduct classroom debates about reparations for slavery, but this example shows that it is possible to encourage constructive, student-directed learning about the complex web of issues that surround the topic. If we reduce learning about slavery to some version of “People treated other people badly, this was wrong and now it’s over,” our students will leave the classroom without the tools they need to gain a rich historical understanding. And we will have missed an opportunity to connect to the very present legacy of slavery that persists in economic and social segregation today. This is a real, lived experience for many of our students.

Fortunately, there are many high-quality resources available for teachers interested in a broader and more nuanced approach to teaching about slavery. What follows is a partial list of resources that have caught my eye:

  • 4th Grade teacher Loredana Wicketts, who experienced elementary school as an English learner, demonstrates how she integrates teaching the Harriet Tubman story with vocabulary building and construct development on The Teaching Channel.

  • The Library of Congress site offers both classroom materials and lessons linked to the historical record.

  • Historians at more than 50 universities contribute open source resources to the U.S. History Scene, including this four-perspective look at slavery: Caribbean v. North American, gender, migration, and resistance. Many more links: as they say, the archives without the dust.

Please send comments with suggestions of other resources you found valuable.

(Kate Shuster is an educational consultant and author based in Montgomery, Alabama. She has advised and evaluated Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives for a Diverse America curriculum. She is the author of 14 textbooks, and is a nationally recognized expert on debate as an educational medium.)

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