getting it right

The teacher who, two weeks ago, reportedly stepped on the backs of her black students in order to make a point about “how it feels to be a slave” is just the most recent example of white teachers getting the teaching of slavery horrifyingly wrong.

As mystified and furious as I am about “teaching” of this kind, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s not so hard to get it right.

If, in kindergarten, you teach children that all the colors of their skin are natural and beautiful, that everyone’s name is meaningful and important and has a story, and that everyone has a right to determine how others interact with their own body;

If, in first grade, you teach children to identify their own and others’ feelings, and to repair mistakes by listening and making an apology of action (doing something rather than just saying sorry);

If, in second grade, you teach children about changemakers and advocates and allies, not as isolated or exceptional forces but as part of coalitions (Chavez, Huerta, and United Farm Workers; Harvey Milk and queer allies and advocates; Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin and SNCC);

If, in third grade, you teach students to recognize their own and others’ cultures, to respect and celebrate differences, and to understand that indigenous American cultures are not other or long ago but living and right here;

If you teach all this, then by the time students learn about people who were enslaved systematically by mercantilist Europeans, with a permanence and brutality that had never been known before even in a culture of serfs and indentured servitude, they will get it.

They will be shocked and pained by the barbarity of treating people as objects, so much so that they will stop the rest of the lesson to let you know how outrageous they find it. Without the need for traumatizing “experiential” lessons, they will understand the disrespect and calculated erasure of changing names, splitting families, and moving people as far from their homes and communities as possible in order to maintain a brutal power over them.

If you really want to get it right, this is when you remind students, vocally and explicitly, that slavery is never “justified” or “necessary,” and that Europeans invented all sorts of mental gymnastics including the construction of “whiteness” to make enslavement of other humans somehow seem acceptable to themselves.

If you really want to get it right, this is when you take your New Amsterdam curriculum (standard fare for New York City students in third and fourth grade), and tone the parts about (white, male) Directors General way, way down. Spend more time talking about the people who were enslaved by the corporation that was colonizing Mannahatta. Make sure students know it was these enslaved people who built the literal foundations of a thriving and profitable settlement that before had been a crumbling, ragtag outpost. Remind students, vocally and explicitly, that these people who were enslaved came from a variety of cultures with centuries of their own history, tradition, art, religion, and language that had nothing to do with European incursions.

If you really want to get it right, from here on through high school you make sure to teach students that this brutal form of enslavement was never justified and was always resisted, from the bottom up long before it was resisted from the top down. Teach about the ways the legacy of slavery, including Jim Crow, Reconstruction, segregation, Brown vs. Board of Ed, redlining, the war on drugs, the school-to-prison pipeline, and special education referrals, continue to operate in American life today.

This is what I mean by it not being so difficult to get it right. If we are teaching children to be ethically-minded, compassionate human beings, they will get why American slavery is a national shame. Our job is to make sure they also understand that it’s a foundational part of American history. Our job is to make sure they see that slavery and its legacy have everything to do with the country we live in today.

And then, our job is to make sure students understand that the same goes for the history of revolt, refusal, and resistance, so that they can, with their own motivations and their own skills, take up the fight.

Recent news items notwithstanding, you can teach the history of American slavery with truthfulness and without compromising anyone’s humanity. Here are two sets of resources to do that: Teaching Tolerance – A Framework for Teaching American Slavery. New-York Historical Society: Slavery in New York Educator’s Guide.

Featured photo: Jeffrey Gibson, “American History.” Read more about this artist and his work here and here. Text reads, “American history is longer, larger, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it. J B”






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