To Do it Better: Teaching the History of Slavery

Courtesy Library of Congress

Note: I’m taking a brief break from my recent series on the women’s history course I’m teaching. I’ll provide a final update on the course next time I write here, but today I want to talk about teaching something else: the history of slavery in the United States.

Do you remember when and how you first learned about slavery? I don’t. I wish I could say I remember, but I have no memory of when I first read descriptions of slavery and enslavement, nor how I felt about it. I suspect this is not uncommon for white people like myself who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement seemed to end, and as school bussing began declining in the late 1980s and 1990s. There was also the matter of geography: my parents knew few black people, having grown up in Southern California (dad) and Northern Iowa (mom), and until I was 15, we lived in places that tended to be majority white or Latinx.

I can count on one hand the number of African American people I knew before I started college, including a friend when I was six or seven, and a youth minister when I was 15. Even my reading was pretty whitewashed: I know I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its sequels, but I have more vivid memories of Nancy Drew books and my obsession with British books (Secret Garden, A Little Princess…). I didn’t encounter A Raisin in the Sun until college. Probably the only thing I can tell you for sure is that I did somehow learn that slavery caused the Civil War, although I spent more time visiting battlefields than reading about the causes of the war. I know my historical knowledge expanded in undergrad, where I first encountered the concepts of analyzing race, gender, and class, and certainly graduate school deepened my knowledge and understanding much further.

Last year, I returned to teaching US History after several years of teaching only world history. Coming back to my specialty area was exciting, but also thought-provoking, as I worked to develop a new honors-level US history course that would spin off of AP US History (the class prepares students for that exam, while not being specifically an AP class). Over and over again, I found myself disappointed in how poorly I was teaching my students about the history of slavery. I could blame the AP curriculum, on the one hand, because there was so much to go through that it didn’t seem like it could be helped on the one hand, but on the other hand – that’s not the right place to direct the blame. As a result of this, I started a personal effort to better understand and teach the history of slavery to my students. It began with a lot of reading, beyond what I’d studied in grad school, to look more deeply at what I thought I knew, and how I’ve approached that in the classroom.

It’s a good time to take stock in how I teach slavery. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to North America. I’ve had my eye the New York Times’ 1619 Project since it came out this summer, although I have to admit I haven’t been able to dive into every aspect of it as much as I’d like. (I really wish I’d had access to it this past summer before school started.) If you haven’t seen it, the project is remarkable, encompassing not just text, but multimedia and literary elements, including a podcast I’m just starting to get through.

A few days ago, the 1619 Project published a new piece highlighting readers’ experiences of how they learned about slavery in school. It’s not a new topic, but it’s one we seem to be starting to pay more attention to, and should. (The Washington Post ran a similar piece in August, but in 2015, NPR was reporting on a textbook in Texas that described enslaved peoples as “immigrants”. And, for a few years now, there have been discussions about the language of enslavement more broadly.

As a teacher, I cringe when I read people describe how they learned, and I know that I’ve been part of the problem. The question is: how do you help create solutions?

This is what organizations such as Facing History and Teaching Tolerance (among others) have been working actively to do. Teaching Tolerance offers an extensive framework and resources for teaching the history of slavery at different grade levels. Facing History’s extensive Reconstruction resources are particularly rich materials, and an online (free!) course on the topic helps take teachers much more in depth into thinking about and teaching Reconstruction and its impacts. (Facing History also offers resources for teaching the Holocaust.) This book, too, is one of the best I read this summer, with a variety of specific examples and resources to help adjust classroom teaching for the better. And, of course, this document created by scholars of the history of slavery is a must for anyone in the classroom.

My goal this year is to do better and to keep finding ways to do so. So far this year, that’s meant rethinking the summer reading: we read Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America by Peter Wood, which the students really took to. As one student said, “I had no idea slavery started so early! I thought it came much later [ie, the 1800s].” I’ve also cut back on some of our fall content so that we can devote a fair amount of time in December to a research project on Reconstruction. I’m not quite sure yet just what that project will look like, but I’ll draw inspiration from Facing History and other resources.

It doesn’t feel like much, but it’s a start. Eventually, I hope to have a much stronger thread of the history of slavery, one that moves consistently throughout the course, helping my students better understand the history of race in America and the legacies of slavery today. The question before all of us educators now is how can we keep doing better? What will it take, and what does “doing better” look like?

So how do we keep getting better at this? Anyone out there trying to do the same? Let’s connect and keep working on this together. I’d love to build a network of educators who are trying to better integrate the history of slavery into their curriculum. Find me @DrTanyaRoth if you’d like to talk more.

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