This month we learned that in 1838, the Jesuits who ran what became Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to keep the institution operating. The editorial board of The New York Times has called on the university to pay reparations to their descendants. Last month, after extended student activism, Harvard Law School agreed to remove the crest of a wealthy slave owner from its seal.
Slavery isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines. Since I wrote in this space last June about teaching slavery, we’ve seen a popular history textbook called out for describing enslaved persons as “workers,” and we’ve seen wide public criticism of children’s books that depict slaves as happy and eager to please their owners. Sometimes it seems we’re never going to figure out how to tell the real stories of American slavery in our classrooms and communities.
Vast and Inadequate Resources
Part of the problem for teachers is that freely available resources for teaching slavery are both vast and inadequate. There are a many excellent digital collections of original historical documents for teaching the history of American slavery from its roots in global history through what Ira Berlin has described as “the long emancipation.” However, these resource collections can be overwhelming for teachers, and the learning objects are not normally linked to concrete practices.
There are also a number of institutions that offer professional development for teachers about slavery. These in-person seminars are unlikely to reach all but the most dedicated educators. Finally, there are smaller museums and organizations that offer a handful of lessons that teachers could pick up for use in classrooms, but these are widely disparate in quality, do not offer a unified approach to the subject, suffer from large gaps in covering the relevant parts of the American history sequence, and generally focus on secondary students. Even an especially motivated teacher is likely to become lost and dispirited when looking for meaningful free resources online.
The Potential to Change Teaching
However, a new book shows considerable promise in pointing teachers toward actionable strategies rooted in high-quality scholarship. This February, the University of Wisconsin Press and the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching published Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, a book that has the potential to change the way that slavery is taught in American schools. It takes a comprehensive look at slavery across American history, offering dozens of concrete suggestions for teaching strategies and learning objects that could be used in all K-12 social studies classrooms.
The book begins with an introduction by Ira Berlin, laying out “ten essential elements” that any curriculum dealing with slavery should incorporate. These include teaching the disparate manifestations of slavery’s impact for different peoples in different situations; complicating the relationship between slavery and racism; and refusing to deny the agency of enslaved peoples. Teachers can use these essential elements to ensure their lessons give slavery the nuanced and thorough treatment that it deserves.
Specific Ideas about Engaging Students
The introductory chapters by James W. Loewen and Steven Thurston Oliver will help educators at any level identify opportunities and challenges in teaching about slavery while giving concrete strategies to navigate often-treacherous terrain. Loewen suggests beginning with the slavery’s lasting legacy in the present day, asking students to examine socioeconomic inequalities and specific representations (or lack of representation) in cultural products, such as the now-defunct and almost entirely white Skymall. Oliver reminds us that it is both necessary and challenging to create a “safe space” to discuss slavery and its lasting trauma. He suggests approaching with compassion:
“I find that laying out a simple premise - namely, we didn’t do this - in clear terms helps students get past any sense of personal guilt they may experience. We were born into this mess, and various forms of structural oppression are built on foundations that have been in place for centuries. This point - “we didn’t create these systems of oppression in which we find ourselves” - is quickly followed by another statement: “We all have a responsibility for considering how we might be part of upholding these systems and we must commit ourselves to the work of undoing these systems.”
The following chapters walk through specific content areas, proceeding from the origin of slavery in the Americas through emancipation and the present day. The third part of the book includes chapters that take a deep dive into resources and strategies including film, art, narratives and archaeology. A massive online archive like the thousands of interviews with former slaves by the Federal Writers Project can confuse teachers. What’s more, some might be tempted to take these interviews at face value, rather than encouraging students to read the narratives critically with an eye toward context. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly’s chapter walks teachers through better ways to use these narratives to teach critical literacy and historical thinking.
The book’s editors, Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly, told me that they worked closely with authors to ensure that each chapter includes specific ideas for engaging students in the content. Their work, and the attention of the authors, shows. Any teacher of American history can find something in this book that speaks to their part of the scope and sequence.
In a world where the divide between historians and educators is often both vast and vague, it’s refreshing to see a book that takes seriously the bridge between understanding and teaching. Teachers with serious content knowledge are more likely to be effective, but we all know that content knowledge isn’t enough in the classroom. I hope we’ll see more resources like this stellar book to help move our society closer to understanding slavery in all of its dimensions. We, and our students, dearly need this knowledge to navigate the present.
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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.
The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.