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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Social Studies Opinion

Teaching About Slavery in the United States? Start With Honesty

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 01, 2021 14 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you teach about slavery in the history of the United States?

Conservative critics are challenging the teaching of systemic racism in classrooms. Teaching about enslaved people, and its ramifications for today, clearly requires time, thought, and transparency.

Today, Keturah Proctor, Sarah SoonLing Blackburn, Alice Mercer, Keisha Rembert, and Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., contribute their ideas on how to do just that. Keturah, Sarah, and Alice were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in Useful Resources For Learning About The 400th Anniversary Of Bringing Enslaved Africans To America.

‘Be Clear What You Don’t Know’

Keturah Proctor has had over 20 years of experience in education advocating for students through an anti-bias, anti-racist lens:

Effectively teaching about the history of enslaved people and the practice of chattel slavery in the United States is to tell the honest, unmitigated truth. Teaching about the enslavement of Africans in the United States is to first recognize that your knowledge base is flawed and whitewashed. In order to provide authentic, honest learning experiences for students, you have to be clear what you don’t know.

You need to take a deep dive into history to challenge what you have been previously taught and what you understand about the lives of enslaved people in the United States. Along with that, you must understand that the lives of enslaved people did not begin with this horrific institution. Black men, women, and children had full, complete lives in Africa prior to their wretched experience of the middle passage. You must be prepared to teach that human lives were trafficked and destroyed solely for financial gain. This open acknowledgement is a necessary first step in teaching about the ills of this wretched institution.

Teaching about centuries of enslavement in the United States also means being honest about the role of white supremacy. Not the extremists that readily come to mind but of the system and conditions that supported and upheld the practice of chattel slavery. Along with that, we must be honest about the role of the founders of this country, not only their being complicit in this practice, but the contradiction in outlining the parameters for freedom while simultaneously denying that right to all human beings through the subjugation and ownership of Black people.

Teaching about slavery cannot simply be one where we focus on the simple binary of right and wrong. You must bring to life the stories of the victims, the stories of the enslaved. No longer can you tell the history of enslaved people and their experience through the lens of oppression. You must be honest about the violence, trauma, and horrors that were experienced by enslaved people on a daily basis. That means being honest about the forcible removal from ancestral homes and having every ounce of dignity and humanity stripped away.

No longer can you retell the story of the slave master and his mistresses. Instead, you have to explain that Black women and young girls were victims of rape and sexual violence. When teaching about slavery in the United States, we must be clear about the systematic means by which Black bodies were forcibly robbed of humanity and dignity. It means understanding that Black bodies were seen as commodities to be bought, sold, discarded, and abandoned, not as people.

Teaching about enslavement means being honest about anti-blackness and how Black people have been clawing for any chance of true humanity in this experiment known as America. With that, you must be able to openly say that without the forced labor of Black people, there would be no America. The system of chattel slavery not only profited the owners, but the entire infrastructure of this country was literally built on the physical backs of Black men, women, and children. Structures, roads, towns, cities, institutions standing this very day because they were built on the backs of Black people.

Teaching about chattel slavery in America should never include ‘feel good’ stories of white plantation owners that were kind to enslaved people. You should avoid any narrative that makes you feel more comfortable about teaching the history of enslavement. If you are searching for the truth that makes you feel good, then you need to start again. The effects from horrors of this system are seen to this very day. The dehumanization of Blacks in this country and the upholding of white supremacy in America is what cultivated and fueled the enslavement of Africans and is what continues to shape the lives and the experiences of Black people in this country.

Teaching about the enslavement of Black people means no longer prioritizing your comfort and openly acknowledging the collective ills of our horrific past. We can’t teach our students the truth if we are afraid of it.


Dispelling Myths

Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn, Ed.D., is an educator, speaker, and professional learning facilitator based out of Mississippi. She is currently the professional-development manager at Learning for Justice:

According to a 2017 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, high school students struggle to answer even basic questions about the history of slavery in the United States. Like a majority of survey respondents, in my own high school education, I had been explicitly taught that slavery was not a root cause of the Civil War. I was taught that being enslaved was mutually beneficial to enslaved and enslaver and, therefore, “not that bad.” Or, when one teacher admitted that the institution of slavery was, in fact, “that bad,” I was told that it was only upheld by and affected people in Southern states, so any legacy of racism resulting from slavery is also confined to the South.

These myths are not only ahistorical, they are actively harmful. The myths dehumanize enslaved people and erase countless stories of resistance. The myths erase the reality of Indigenous enslavement and that of de facto forms of slavery following emancipation. The myths also make it harder for students to fully understand the present or recognize the effects of our economic, political, social, and other systems having been built upon legacies entwined with the system of slavery.

In order to more accurately teach the history of slavery in the United States, there are a few things that educators must keep in mind. First, many of us (myself included) must recognize that we did not receive a complete or accurate education in this topic ourselves, so we have both unlearning and new learning to do. This learning might include reading texts like the excellent Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, watching documentaries, or looking at primary-source documents.

Next, when we do approach the topic of slavery in the classroom, we have to be ready to address the emotions that these conversations can bring up. We have to provide students with accurate language to use in discussion and provide age-appropriate definitions for terms like “enslavement,” “bondage,” “commerce,” and “emancipation.” As always, we have to be attentive to the particular dynamics of our own classrooms, including racial diversity, students with family histories of enslavement, international students, and students from different regions in the United States. It is important that we provide students with accurate information, including some ugly truths, while also attending to the emotional safety and well-being of all students.

Finally, that same Southern Poverty Law Center study that found gaps in how the history of slavery is taught also found that teachers are, in fact, serious about wanting to teach slavery well and accurately. The issue is more that many educators feel a lack of support or materials to do so. If you see yourself in that sentiment, the Teaching Hard History framework from Learning for Justice is an excellent place to start. This comprehensive resource includes a framework of key concepts to cover, a student-facing text library, and teaching tools and professional-development resources including a podcast, webinars, and readings.


Teaching About the Enslaved to Younger Learners

Alice Mercer teaches 6th grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, Calif. She started her career in Oakland, Calif., and moved to Sacramento in 2001:

I teach in elementary school, but my bachelor’s degree is in history, so I have a strong interest in teaching history and teaching it well. Most of my career has been in the upper grades, 5th and 6th, with recent forays into 3rd and 4th. Even though this is in a self-contained classroom where I teach all subjects, I always make time for science and history.

Recently, I had to change doctors and ended up in a conversation about this (centered on the history of the California missions) with my new physician who was lamenting that history was being “erased.” I told him that to the contrary, it’s about including more of the history (like the enslavement of Indigenous people), not less. That does mean spending less time on things, like mission models. Choices have to be made about the amount of information to share with students, including violence.

When someone like Frederick Douglass comes up in 5th and sometimes 6th grade, his biography includes issues like rape of enslaved women, and that requires a lot of care with this age group. Some kids have already been exposed to some of this information, or watch violent media, but I’ve found that explaining in advance that we will be handling difficult topics is helpful. I tell them that it will involve violence and the mistreatment of humans and that if they need a break, that’s fine, just let me know.

Why is this important? Why not wait to let them learn the true history of our state and country later? First, 4th grade is the last time they will cover state history comprehensively, so they may never get a realistic view of what mission life was like. Next, not starting their lessons in the history of our country with a realistic assessment of slavery means that they have to “relearn” later. Instead, I teach about the history of our country, the stated ideals that shaped it (e.g., all men are created equal), along with the contradiction of that with enslaving other humans. And I let the kids sit with that.


Teaching About ‘Triumph Before, During, and After Slavery’

Keisha Rembert is an award-winning educator who is passionate about anti-racism and equity in schools. Currently, Keisha is a doctoral student and an assistant professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University:

I remember being awed when I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum does such an amazing job of properly placing slavery in the larger context of the Black experience. It doesn’t start with people as property nor does it end there. It doesn’t gloss over the hard parts or makes excuses. That’s the model for teaching about slavery.

Start at the beginning. Freedom precedes bondage. Teaching about bondage requires one to first examine freedom. What did freedom look and sound like for Africans (understanding the differences among countries and people)? What were their contributions and accomplishments?

Lead with stories and name names. Slavery is a human story, and it’s imperative that the people who were at the heart of this history tell their stories. When students read and hear the words and thus experiences of the enslaved and those who participated in enslavement, they are better able to connect and attempt to understand the complex and horrendous institution of slavery. Author Charles R. Smith Jr. talks about how important it was for him in his picture book, Brick by Brick, to name names and give face to the enslaved people who built the White House. Students need to understand this as current teaching practices, and current rhetoric seeks to dehumanize and disconnect students from the realities of the past. It’s important that we acknowledge the personhood of enslaved people and give them the honor and agency of voice and identity in their stories.

Tell the truth. Nothing but the social, political, economic, emotional truths. If you don’t know it, learn it.

Highlight resistance. Sharing Black enslaved people’s acts of resistance is an important piece of the history of slavery. Highlighting resistance is a means of showing Black people’s power as they faced powerless circumstances.

Let phoenixes rise. Teaching about slavery should not leave students mired in the despair of institutional slavery. Slavery is a part of Black American history, but it’s not all of Black American history. There is triumph before, during, and after slavery.


‘We Have to be Color-Brave’

Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., is a co-author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching Online and In-Person: An Action Planner for Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments.” She is also a certified K-12 teacher and teaches pre- and in-service teachers culturally responsive and anti-racist teaching practices:

Slavery in the United States is a core aspect of American history. Avoiding teaching students about slavery can impact their understanding of the foundations of America and provide them with a less than comprehensive education. Slavery is not only American history; it is world history. Similar to how we teach students about the Holocaust, French Revolution, and the Berlin Wall, we must ensure that students have the knowledge and awareness of the tragedies, events, and institutionalized structures that happened within the United States, despite how difficult it may be to discuss.

The way we can teach students about slavery in the history of the United States is through a culturally responsive teaching paradigm. We can provide historical facts of the events that led to slavery, share the harsh realities of what life was like for slaves who built the United States, and explain the impact slavery has had on the generations of people whose ancestors were slaves. In our teaching about slavery in the history of the United States, we should include the stories, accounts, and lived experiences from multiple perspectives and groups. This includes slaves, slave masters, slave traders, abolitionists, and others from abroad who had a direct hand in the American slave trade.

Slavery can be taught in economics courses explaining the crops slaves were forced to grow, how slaves were seen as property, and the system of purchasing and trading slaves. The development of the colonies post-slavery and the contributions slaves in its establishment can be explained. There are many ways to teach about slavery in the history of the United States, but the largest hurdle is our willingness as teachers to do so. If the recent pandemic and civil unrest taught us anything, it is that we can no longer ignore the systemic racism and experiences that certain groups of people in the United States have faced in the past and still face today.

With the recent decision to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, there is a more heightened awareness that slavery did exist and should be remembered and taught in schools. We must teach slavery in months beyond February and embed it into the curriculum as we would with other historical time periods. Remember, slavery lasted for centuries, and mentioning it in one month during the year would not be sufficient. As Mellody Hobson says in her TED Talk Color blind or color brave, “I think it’s time for us to be comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation about race. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, male, female, all of us. If we truly believe in equal rights, in equal opportunity in America, I think we have to have real conversations about this issue. We cannot afford to be color-blind, we have to be “color-brave.” I think so, too, and know we as educators can move forward and do just that!


Thanks to Keturah, Sarah, Alice, Keisha, and Stephanie for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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