Eight-year-old Rosetta Serrano didn’t know much about slavery when she entered the second grade at PS 372—The Children’s School—in Brooklyn, New York. But after studying slavery with her teacher, Steve Quester, she discovered something astounding: Black people had been enslaved by white people.
Every year, millions of students like Rosetta learn about the ugly and far-reaching institution that irrevocably shaped the history of our country. Teaching about slavery is tough. The facts are complex. The emotions those facts evoke are intense. It’s no wonder that educators tend to shy away from the topic, assigning readings from the textbook and avoiding class discussions.
Teaching about an institution as ugly as slavery will never be easy. But it can be done well, and the topic is too important to be left untaught.
Chauncey Spears, director of Advanced Learning and Gifted Programs in the Office of Curriculum and Instruction of the Mississippi Department of Education, says the key to teaching about slavery is taking a multi-faceted approach: “If enslavement is taught correctly and in the proper context—with a focus on real people making real choices—and there is a cohesive, collaborative teacher community with shared instructional values, there can be transformative teaching and learning that is responsive to students.”
Creating the “proper context” Spears describes starts when educators look within themselves and acknowledge any personal biases or privileges that might influence their teaching.
Lisa Gilbert is an education coordinator at the Missouri History Museum. Confronting her own emotions about slavery has prepared her to have meaningful discussions about the topic with her students. “As an educator,” says Gilbert, “I want to be truly present with my students. For me, this means sharing my struggle with this history. I don’t understand how it could have been, and yet it was. It troubles me so deeply. And I don’t have the answers. But that’s OK, because history is something we wrestle with, something that challenges us to know ourselves and decide how we can use our lives to shape a better future.”
Set the Stage
Just as educators often feel uncomfortable talking about slavery, students may be hesitant to enter conversations or share their emotions about the topic. Developing a strong sense of trust allows for hard conversations and the asking of hard questions, says Spears.
Ina Pannell-Saint Surin, a fourth-grade teacher at PS 372, agrees. She works hard throughout the year to foster honest discussion about different cultures and guides the development of cultural literacy that enables students to appropriately phrase questions and seek answers.
It is within this construct that Pannell-Saint Surin is able to share her own emotional reactions to slavery. This, she explains, allows students to not only see the impact of slavery, but to share their own emotions.
“Sometimes,” says Gilbert, “we hide from the emotional content of this material. Sometimes we try to resolve it neatly, believing we will help students feel safer this way. But what we’re really doing is leaving them adrift to deal with whatever emotions come up, alone.”
Tell the Whole Story
It’s a goal Quester, the Brooklyn teacher, keeps in mind as he moves away from the traditional slavery story. Many textbooks focus on subjugation and tales of the Underground Railroad or the Emancipation Proclamation. But Quester deepens student understanding by broadening the narrative to show enslaved people as the courageous human beings they were.
Pannell-Saint Surin emphasizes culture when she teaches about slavery. “This way,” she explains, “we can impart the knowledge that Africans had rich, vibrant culture[s] that met their needs before being captured. And that [these cultures have] persevered through great odds and obstacles.”
That knowledge is a jumping-off point, says Gilbert, “the start of a conversation in which we ask: ‘Who do you want to be, and what role do you want to play in creating a more just society?’”
- Use role-plays. They can induce trauma and minimization, and are almost certain to provoke parental concerns.
- Focus only on brutality. Horrific things happened to enslaved people, but there are also stories of hope, survival and resistance.
- Separate children by race.
- Treat kids as modern-day proxies for enslaved people or owners of enslaved people.
- Make race-based assumptions about a child’s relationship to slavery.
- Use primary sources and oral histories. Danny Gonzalez, museum curator for St. Louis County, Mo., recommends letters written by Spotswood Rice, a formerly enslaved man who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.
- Underscore enslaved people’s contributions. Roads, towns, buildings and crops wouldn’t have been possible without them.
- Use photographs that reflect activism, family life and other daily activities.
- Choose texts that illustrate enslaved people as whole individuals. Try Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine or Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder.
- Organize field trips to historic sites that reflect enslaved people in a human and courageous light as well as to places that reflect the lives of black people beyond slavery.
- Introduce stories about black and white abolitionists. Black abolitionists were present, from the beginning, as vocal and courageous advocates for their people.
Slavery in North America lasted for centuries, affected millions of lives, and contributed to every political, legal, social and economic institution fundamental to our country’s identity. Because the topic can be so overwhelming, the narrative of slavery taught in schools is often oversimplified: Owners of enslaved people become the bad guys; enslaved people become the victims; and Abraham Lincoln becomes the hero who saves the day.
The reality was much more complicated. While not a comprehensive list, the five dimensions of slavery listed below will help you approach teaching this difficult subject in more depth. These often-overlooked areas focus on the people involved, the choices they made, and the context within which they made those choices.
The term slavery did not always hold the institutional meaning it did in colonial America and in European colonies. Enslaved people in ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and parts of Africa, for example, were closer to what we now think of as indentured servants or prisoners of war. The trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved people drastically redefined slavery in a number of ways.Enslaved people became the property of their owners for indefinite periods of time; ownership of enslaved people could be inherited; and the children of enslaved people automatically became the property of the family who owned their mothers. The perception of enslaved people as property that could be bought, sold, traded or inherited was marked by use of the term chattel slavery.
Slavery in European colonies also became racialized in a new way. There is evidence of Africans living and working in the American colonies as free men and indentured servants from the early 1500s. But once Virginia entered a period of rapid economic development, the British began importing enslaved Africans in massive numbers. There were no white enslaved people by the end of the 17th century, and being black automatically equated with being enslaved.
Like other European colonizers, the British relied on the forced, unpaid labor of Africans to create infrastructure and wealth where there had been only land. The tobacco, rice and—eventually—cotton plantations in the South supported developing industries in the North. This expanding economic reliance on the labor of enslaved people required the complicity of the nation. Similarly, the tightly bound “triangular trade”—cyclical importing and exporting of enslaved people, raw materials and manufactured goods among Africa, the Americas and Europe—was a system wholly dependent on forced labor.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made this labor even more valuable, as producing cotton became faster and more efficient. The explosion of the cotton industry opened a new era of slavery in the United States, during which hundreds of thousands of people—mostly from the Carolinas and Virginia—were sold to plantation owners farther southwest. This so-called second middle passage, the second-largest forced migration in American history, tore apart innumerable families that had been stable for generations.
Maintaining these systems required more than just importing bodies and exporting goods. The rise of chattel slavery was accompanied by a widespread campaign of cruelty, degradation and cultural myth-making intended to dehumanize Africans. Historical accounts of auctions provide vivid illustrations of this dehumanization, as the process of buying enslaved people directly mirrored the process of buying animals. Enslaved people were bound with chains, physically examined, bid on and—in many cases—torn from their families, friends and communities.
Despite slave owners’ attempts to strip enslaved people of their cultures, identities and relationships, Africans in the American Colonies and later the United States persisted in expressing elements of their myriad home cultures. Food, music, dance, storytelling and religion are all areas of life in which enslaved people blended their individual cultural memories (inherited or personal) with their experiences in the New World. Many of these cultural elements would go on to influence American society as a whole. From Southern cuisine and jazz music to call-and-response worship, the cultural contributions of enslaved people changed the cultural face of the United States.
From slowing their work to breaking tools to eating food from the fields, enslaved people found subversive ways to exercise power and control their daily lives. Escape was a means to steal back freedom. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.” There were also coordinated demonstrations of rebellion—such as assaults against plantation owners—and even organized, violent revolts. The 1739 Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner’s Revolt of 1831 were ultimately quelled; the Haitian Revolution succeeded. News of such revolts was terrifying to many American colonists, particularly in the South.
The American Revolution had brought hope to many enslaved people who heard, discussed and passed on the rhetoric of liberty and independence. Twenty thousand black loyalists took the risk of bartering loyalty to the king in exchange for promises of freedom, only to receive little support after the war was over. As the fight for American liberty was won, the system of slavery grew ever stronger.
Despite state laws forbidding the formal education of enslaved people, literacy spread within subsets of the community. Under threat of severe punishment, enslaved people actively built consciousness within both white and black populations about the horrors of slavery, the struggle for liberty, the abolitionist movement and organized resistance efforts. They often used liberation rhetoric that appealed to Christian beliefs.
Protections for Slavery
Slave codes enacted across the southern American colonies and states legally established the absolute power of those who owned enslaved people over their “property.” These codes defined consequences for—among other violations—violence against enslaved people (none), violence against owners of enslaved people (severe, usually death), educating enslaved people and traveling without permission.
Protections for the institution of slavery and states that sanctioned slavery were also written into the U.S. Constitution. The fugitive slave clause guaranteed owners the right to pursue and capture an enslaved person in any state or territory. In fact, a powerful Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress in 1850, partially in response to increased abolitionist activity.
What’s in a Word?
A lot. Referring to people as slaves implies that their entire being is wrapped up in their oppression. That’s far from the truth. Using the term enslaved person reduces the state of enslavement to an adjective—one of many that may describe an individual—and acknowledges that person’s full humanity.
Creating a Safe Space
Emotions aroused in students when discussing slavery will be no less intense than those experienced by educators, so it’s essential to create a safe classroom environment in which kids feel comfortable and supported in expressing their reactions to the material. An important part of creating that space is looking inward to identify your own biases.
Try these Teaching Tolerance resources to get started:
Abolitionism vs. Anti-slavery—Do You
Know the Difference?
Many anti-slavery advocates held racist views and wanted a white country. Abolitionists staked a claim to full humanity and true citizenship.
>> Toolkit: Nervous about teaching serious and sensitive topics? Try these tips. Visit tolerance.org/teach-sensitive-topics.