How Parents and Teachers Should Teach Children About Slavery

5 years ago

[Editor's Note: Is the history of slavery in America something that can be taught in elementary schools? I wish there were a simple answer for that. In two separate incidents during the past month -- in Georgia and New York -- public school teachers have been in the news for assigning math problems which flippantly mentioned slaves, asking children to do arithmetic involving beatings, whippings, and deaths. And the most ironic part? February is Black History Month.

It's important for society to teach the next generation about the history of slavery -- but with the appropriate perspective and setting for meaningful discussion. Professor Kim Pearson has some good advice for how parents and teachers can teach students about this chapter of African American history. --Grace]

April 12, 2011 marked the 150th anniversary of the assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, launching the United States into four years of bloody civil war. This year's anniversary has occasioned panels, debates, balls and a raft of commemorative activities. However, it has also presented challenges to educators and parents about how to teach children about this crucial but contentious time in ways that are both honest and sensitive. Of all the difficult issues surrounding the Civil War era, helping children understand slavery can be especially daunting.

Last month, residents in one Ohio community had a reminder of how difficult that challenge can be when school administrators in Gahanna, a small town near Columbus, apologized for a teacher who had her students pretend they were part of a slave auction. The fifth-grade social studies students were divided into "masters" and "slaves." Ten-year-old Nikko Burton, one of two black students in the class, told reporters he felt humiliated as other students looked in his mouth and felt his muscles to gauge his health and strength. Burton's mother, Aneka, called the lesson insensitive and racist.


And yet, this incident raises questions about how to talk to children about slavery in a constructive way that still helps them understand its horrors. Dr. Alicia Moore, an associate professor of education at Southwestern University, is uniquely positioned to address that question. In addition to being a teacher-educator, former K-12 teacher and school principal, Moore is co-editor of the Black History Bulletin, a journal published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The Black History Bulletin is intended to serve primarily as a curricular resource for secondary school teachers. One of its most recent issues focused on African Americans and the Civil War.

Dr. Alicia Moore, Southwestern UniversityBlogHer: At what age is it appropriate to begin talking to children about painful episodes in history such as slavery? How should parents approach the subject?

Moore: I believe that both parents and teachers can begin talking about “slavery,” at least from a conceptual standpoint, as early as prekindergarten -- and, before there is a backlash about what is and is not developmentally and/or age appropriate for young children, let me explain. There are three important points to consider when addressing the practicality of talking about the historical events of this nation with children of any age, especially a topic like slavery that is wrought with controversy regarding how to teach it, or whether it should be taught at all.

The first point to consider is why a topic such as slavery should be considered important for young children. There are several reasons why it is important, but I will only speak to two. One reason involves the work of dismantling the fallout of slavery that manifests itself in mis-education regarding who should and should not be valued in our society. If we consider the work of Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, whose work explores Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, we may choose to take to heart her assertion that due to slavery, Americans of all races continue to be exposed to its injuries through a perpetual and systematic “hierarchy” of privilege based upon skin gradation -- a “the lighter the skin color, the better” mentality. With this in mind, I think that it is important that children first be taught that all people should be valued regardless of their differences. Later, it makes sense to discuss ways in which this valuing of all is antithetical to slavery’s tenets.

Another reason involves the fact that children should be presented with information that provides them with an understanding of the institution of slavery as it relates to history, both world and US. This information provides an opportunity to begin to understand the enslavement of Africans and their valiant fight for freedom in this country. As well, the history of slavery in this country is useful in helping students to recognize the true significance of events ranging from the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, to the election of the first African American president. As my 105-year-old father says, “You can’t truly understand where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

The second point to consider is what should be taught. We must realize that many events in US history are not pretty and there are countless things about slavery that we would all like to forget due to the painful images and emotions evoked while teaching and learning about it. Yet, leaving slavery out of our curriculum altogether is not a viable option. I believe that through omission, an implicit message is being sent that this troublesome portion of our nation’s history is not important and that old atrocities should be buried quietly with those who suffered through them. Moreover, omission does not provide our young people the option of using the mistakes of the past to continue to build a brighter future. Besides, these omissions silence the courageous efforts of those who, both black and white, fought against slavery and for human rights.

From an additional standpoint, author Beverly Tatum wrote about teaching children about slavery and shared that it is necessary to be open and honest about the racism of the past and the present while also providing “children (and adults) with a vision that change is possible.” With this in mind, I believe that it is also important to teach children about our journey as a nation from slavery to freedom, the heinous treatment endured by enslaved people, and the importance of becoming advocates and activists who work toward continued progress in race relations. Along with this knowledge about slavery, teachers should take care to share other facets commonly left out of textbooks that can expand the historical knowledge base of children. They should teach children about the work of abolitionists and historical accounts of the lives of slaves and slave owners. As well, they should teach about white allies who fought against the injustices of slavery and that many slaves were not passive victims as textbooks portray them; they protested their situations through courageous resistance.

The third point to consider is how slavery should be taught. Teaching about slavery, just as teaching about any controversial subject, should involve planning and preparation that focuses on the culture and climate of the classroom community and the use of common sense. One aspect to consider involves presenting prerequisite concepts, knowledge, and skills within the Social Studies that prepare students for the information. This entails a careful examination of what is developmentally and age appropriate when broaching the subject of slavery and involves an understanding of how to be responsive to, and sensitive of all children within the classroom community. And, finally, it involves prerequisite concepts that include friendship and conflict resolution in its simplest form. I think that by teaching children about these concepts, you are preparing them for the topic of slavery while building a classroom community where all children are poised to learn and grow together.

Children and adults may find the topic of slavery uncomfortable and teachers should take care to be sensitive to the childrens’ emotional needs, as well as their own. This means not intentionally engaging in activities that will either shame or demean African American children, or evoke feelings of shame or guilt for white children. Feelings should be talked about and the teacher should acknowledge that this is an important and intense topic that is sometimes difficult to discuss. However, I think that the biggest challenges arise when teachers are actually afraid to teach about the institution of slavery because of their own fears that they will “not do it right”. To prepare for teaching about slavery, teachers should make sure they have laid the foundation for teaching about this intense topic, they possess adequate background knowledge about slavery, and they have an adequate understanding of what is ethically right and wrong when planning activities to explore slavery. As well, school districts should provide professional development that focuses on providing teachers the knowledge and skills they need to teach about difficult topics while create a learning environment that is respectful and conducive to learning for all.

BlogHer: What are some effective strategies for teaching elementary school students about slavery?

Moore: You mentioned a recent story about an incident in which a teacher had students participate in an inappropriate role-playing activity to teach students about slavery. Along those same lines, in 2008, a story surfaced about a New York teacher who bound the hands and feet of two 13 year old African American female students and had them climb under a desk to simulate the cramped conditions found on slave ships to teach a lesson about slavery. Her actions were considered to be “misguided” and the teacher kept her job. In Norfolk, Va., this year (2010) a fourth-grade teacher separated black and mixed-race children from their white peers and staged a mock auction. This teacher’s actions were described as “well-intended” and though it was reported that “appropriate action” was being taken, I am sure that she will be allowed to keep her job, as well. These are only a few stories in which teachers took rather foolhardy routes to teach children about slavery. So, let’s just say that these teachers were merely “misguided” or “well-[intentioned]” and should be given the benefit of the doubt. What’s wrong with this picture? What is it that makes professionally educated teachers seek to teach lessons in slavery at the expense of their student’s emotional health and well-being? Before I reference effective strategies for teaching students about slavery, let me go on record as saying these instances clearly remind us of what not to do.

One effective strategy for teaching young children about slavery is through the use of literature to support lessons. Examples of appropriate books to be read to or shared with young children include Follow the Drinking Gourd by J. Winter (1988), Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson (1993), In the Time of the Drums by Kim L. Siegelson (1999), A Place Called Freedom by Scott Russell Sanders (1997), and Aunt Harriette’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold (1992). Another is class discussions that provide opportunities for students and their teacher(s) to discuss their feelings when talking about slavery. Additionally, author Beverly Tatum suggested a strategy that uses an open-ended format to allow teachers to acknowledge the possible discomfort of their students while affording them the same outlet. ( See Tatum's article: It’s Not So Black and White: Discussing racial issues can make students and teachers uncomfortable.)

BlogHer: Do you have any comments on the wisdom of staging a mock slave auction as a teaching tool?

Moore: Wisdom = understanding, knowledge and insight. There is no wisdom involved here. Don’t do it! We are all human and all make mistakes, but what would give a teacher the idea that this was an appropriate strategy to teach anything this controversial? How do you think that it is feasible for even one of your students to become the collateral damage of your lesson? I think what is even sadder is reading comments posted after stories of these disastrous activities and realizing that there are people who really think the actions of these teachers are, and I am paraphrasing, funny; appropriate; done, so get over it; a great way to get students engaged; and a good opportunity for learning soured by one whining parent and child; -- you fill in the blanks. My comment is, “Just don’t do it!”

BlogHer: In recent years, some school boards have tried to soften the language used to describe the experience of slavery in their curricula. Would you care to comment on this?

Moore: If you are referring to school boards in Louisiana and Texas having approved textbooks that refer to the Civil War as the "The War for Southern Independence" which was previously popular on the confederate side of the war, yes, I am familiar with the softened, if not inaccurate, language. I find that this reference to the Civil War seeks to use the other-side-of-the-coin assertion that attributes the cause of the war as being primarily over state's rights and taxation; yet, downplays the role of slavery. To this, I merely direct readers to the 1861 Texas Ordinance of Secession. If you are referring to the sanitization of Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn, through a censored reprint that replaces the ‘N’ word with “slave” and “Injun” with “Indian”, I am also familiar; however, I have mixed emotions that vacillate between understanding the common consensus about the intent of the offensive language Twain used in his work and my own personal exasperation about the personal physical pain I feel each time I read or hear the ‘N’ word uttered. Either way, my thoughts are personal -- that whether written language is “softened” or not, it is the actions and words of people whose hearts are hardened, and who do not understand the complexities of the perpetuation of derisive terms and their impact on people. If you are not at risk of words damaging your psyche or the psyche of those you love, this will not make sense.

BlogHer: Talking about slavery and its role in American history can still create controversy and discomfort in some families and communities. Do you have thoughts about how educators and community leaders can foster constructive conversations about the lessons of our troubled history?

Moore: First of all, I have to remind myself that the institution of slavery endured 250 years and our country is only 234 years old. Slavery lasted longer than our country has been established!! Wow! What an opportunity for families, educators and communities and community leaders to talk openly and honestly about our nation’s history – an opportunity to proclaim, like the old Virginia Slims commercials, “We’ve come a long way, baby!” And, in the same breath, recoil and decree, “Yet, we have a long, long way to go!” 

When answering questions about constructive conversations and the subsequent discomfort when discussing difficult topics such as slavery, I often refer to Beverly Tatum’s work about seeking to come “to terms with past and present injustice” and the discomfort in doing so that “is often cause for anger and guilt, frustration and despair.” Let me read you what she wrote: “All children, regardless of color, need to find the hope in this history. We must not insensitively sanitize the pain of those caught in the bind of oppression. We need to celebrate the strength of the human spirit to go beyond the roles of victim and victimizer. In doing so, we may inspire one another to do likewise in the struggle against the contemporary injustices we face.” I think that constructive conversations can be fostered through actively talking about our history and seeking to continue to heal. In doing so, we can use the tribulations of the past to create triumphs for present and the future.

BlogHer: Is there anything more that parents and educators should know or think about with respect to this issue?

Moore: Yes. Do not conduct drive-by discussions about slavery, racism, or other controversial topics. Controversial topics, including slavery, can become easier with each conversation. Dialogue is imperative and provides an opportunity for inaccuracies, feelings of shame, guilt or other yet-unnamed emotions to surface, be discussed and for us all to find ways to heal. Conversely, when we seek to hide our history in the shadows of the past, the message is sent that we should all be afraid or ashamed. Thus, blacks may feel afraid or ashamed of connections to slaves and whites may feel the same about the possibility that their predecessors may have been slave owners. The truth is that we should not allow slavery to reflect who we were from a shameful perspective, but who we have become as a progressive, yet struggling country. We should seek to be free of the legacy of slavery as present-day shackle of hate and expand the limited scope of this part of our history as humans.

The best advice I can give is, do not think that by shielding our children from the past, we are creating some kind of futuristic, post racial, altered space that makes the legacy of slavery go away. Children deserve to learn about the history of this nation from knowledgeable parents and educators who have their best interest at heart and can help them to make sense of past hurts and show them how to make progress toward a better day.





Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor||

BlogHer is non-partisan, but many of their bloggers are not.

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