For Teachers pt 1

It’s that time of year when schools starts again (although I know a lot of schools are already in session) which means that there will be lessons on slavery and the occasional field trip or two to a historic site. But for the past few years, I have noticed a growing amount of news reports of slavery being taught and instead of providing a lesson to the students, it’s been embarrassment and agony for students, teachers and school districts.

Make no mistake, slavery has to be one of the most difficult topics to teach. It’s an extremely charged subject that is often handled so delicately that the truth never comes out. I’ve heard complaints that slavery is never taught in class. I’ve heard that there’s very little time spent on this important topic in our nation’s history that it seems whitewashed. I’ve heard that some folks spend too much time on it. I’ve heard that it’s done wrong if done at all. You’ve seen the headlines, “Slavery Reenactment Rankles“, “‘If Fred Got Two Beatings Per Day’…Homework Asks” and “Va. Teacher Holds Mock Slave Auction“, among a host of others. You’ve read them with disgust thinking, “How could those teachers be so careless? How dare that interpreter make those students do that? They should be fired! This is an injustice!” but you never sat down to think, well how CAN slavery be taught in the classroom?

The one thing I learned about being an interpreter of slave life is that every single experience is different. When you are in front of a group talking about slavery and all that it involves, you learn to read your audiences quickly and adjust your presentation to keep their attention. When I speak of adjustment, I don’t mean the content, just the way it’s presented. I realize that for teachers in a classroom setting, that may not be possible, especially when you teach one subject to 6 or 7 different periods. Your lesson plans usually need to be identical right? Well, here are some tips that I have (take ’em or leave ’em) on how you can teach about slavery and not end up on the news.

Prepare the students
Slavery was hard and it happened mostly to African Americans. I always get one person who wants to argue that there were white slaves (um…indentured servitude and chattel slavery are two different systems.) and that there were Native American slaves. Yes, in the early moments of our nation’s history, Native Americans were enslaved. But the majority of enslaved men and women were African and later on, African-American as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished in 1808. There’s no getting around this fact and it seems to be the catalyst of most complaints about how slavery is taught. “Well they said that only the black students would have been slaves, and our African American students were offended” In those complaints and those moments, I’m not sure why telling the truth about who would have been enslaved would be a problem. Is it a pleasant truth? No, but it’s the truth. It’s best to just be honest and to the point on this one.

Explain chattel slavery v. indentured servitude
I used to get told that there were white slaves ALL.THE.TIME. Not just by children, but mostly by adults who would try to take ethnic background out of slavery (by the way, that’s not possible). What they are really referring to is indentured servitude where you belonged to basically a sponsor for a certain number of years, then you would be given a parcel of land at the end of your indenture. Indentured servants were white and black. But indentured servitude was not as profitable as slavery would become. Chattel slavery however is…not only do I own you for the rest of your life, but I own your offspring, and their offspring forever and always. This was reserved for those of African descent, point blank period. It’s imperative that students know this and understand this because both systems are a part of the “early success” of our country, but only one has a legacy that we are still afraid to talk about.

Avoid definite
What do I mean? Slavery as an institution was bad, that is definite. But not all experiences were the same. Some slaves were treated well, some were treated bad, but there is no definite description of what the enslaved experience was. It’s important to make sure that students realize that for the millions of enslaved men, women and children, every experience was different. The complexity of slavery is what makes it very difficult to discuss for many people. It’s this complexity and lack of understanding how vast the institution was that you get people who are offended because you hit on an experience that they never heard of.

Human Examples
If you must use a person for an example, use yourself. (Sidebar: When I say yourself, I do not mean that you should suddenly try your acting skills and “be a slave”. I simply mean, instead of pointing to a student and saying “you would… and singling out a student, single out yourself. By simply saying, If I were enslaved, as a woman, I would have to pick 75lbs of cotton a day, whereas a man would have to pick 100lbs. And if even that’s too much for you, then just say an enslaved woman etc. For some students, they need the visual of a person which is why I say use yourself) Using students, even the ones that volunteer, opens up such a large can of worms. Even if the example is historically accurate, like at Latta, it’s easier to not use students. Other than the obvious of the student getting offended, let’s say the student is okay with it. That student goes home and talks about the amazing lesson they had talking about slavery and how they (insert activity here). There could be an adult on the other end of that conversation that only hears, “I was made a slave today” and all hell can break loose. Or you have the game of telephone where a student who didn’t like the lesson goes and tells their friends in another class “Ms/Mr So and So said they were gonna beat students X, Y & Z and sell them because they’re slaves” Suddenly students X, Y & Z are getting taunted by classmates and schoolmates. This rumor gets spread to an adult who becomes upset and tells the administration you need to be fired. I can see you thinking, “What if I’m not black and I use myself as an example? I’ll end up offending someone won’t I?” While that may be the case, as long as you aren’t in black-face, you may be alright. I say may, because you can’t please everybody. But what you’ve done is left the students out of it. If an adult gets offended, you can simply ask them, “would you rather I be the example or the student?” and tell them about all the teachers that ended up on the news and out of jobs because they used student examples. It seems like a lot, but this is the world we live in and you can never be too careful.

Teaching about slavery calls for extra research unless that’s your educational background. Before you teachers out there give me a hard time with everything that you already have to do, and how you don’t get paid nearly enough to do anything extra, I understand. And it pains me to even give this tip but it’s true. Research doesn’t always mean hitting up the library and reading the latest scholarly journal (although…) instead, it could mean taking a closer look at how the resources you have are being utilized. And if you don’t have any resources, then finding some should be your next step.

This is already a pretty long post, so in the next post we’re going to look at historic sites, provide resources and how to teach slavery across subjects.

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1 Response

  1. Jeff says:


    All very sound advice. You’d make a fine classroom teacher. I wish I could have you come up to NJ to present to my students!

    Keep up the excellent interpretation,


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