Colonial Days and the Erasure of American Slavery

Of the four core subjects (social studies, science, language arts, and math), social studies is no doubt the subject with the reputation for having the most potential to be boring. The lifeless history class taught by the uninterested male coach is the cliché that every social studies teacher must work hard to avoid. Then there is the iconic economics teacher, played by Ben Stein in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” whose idea of engagement is to pause mid-sentence during an intensely monotone lecture and ask, “Anyone? Anyone?” Fortunately, social studies teaching has come a long way since 1986, and the one truth that every social studies teacher now knows is that the material absolutely has to be presented in an interesting manner.

No one knows this better than elementary level teachers. They know that boring is never an option in K-5 education. A strong commitment to highly engaging lessons is primarily what leads elementary schools to utilize various forms of reenactments when teaching social studies. To be sure, this kind of recreation of history happens at the middle school and high school level as well, but most typically “Colonial Days” occur at elementary schools. At these often day long events students dress up in period costumes and engage in activities that assist them in pretending they are living in 18th century colonial America. Elementary school historical reenactments are fun, interactive, highly engaging, nostalgic, and very problematic.

colonialdays

Worse social studies teaching mistakes have certainly been made. In 2008, two black female students in Haverstraw, New York, had their hands bound by their teacher and were told to crawl under desks to simulate conditions on slave ships. There was the Bronx middle school teacher who earlier this year had three of her black students lie on the floor while she put her foot on one of the student’s back to demonstrate how little space there was for enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage. Similarly, a high school in California has for years provided a “unique learning experience” that consists of whole classes of 8th grade students lying on the floor in a dark classroom with their wrists duct taped while teachers play the role of “slave ship captains.” It is never going to be appropriate to recreate, simulate, or role play American slavery in a school setting. Film depictions of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “hard history” have come a long way since the original “Roots” in 1977. There are plenty of ways to make history interesting without having students physically reenact the “peculiar institution” of slavery, whose racial legacy continues in the United States today.

Students study the period of U.S. history between 1619 and 1865 multiple times throughout their K-12 education, but the majority of states (30) place the teaching of American slavery squarely in 8th grade. That is why these history lessons gone wrong keep happening at middle schools and high schools with 8th grade. Teachers of American slavery feel a strong need to portray the severity of slavery precisely because students often arrive at 8th grade with absolutely no framework for how slavery was the key feature of the first one hundred plus years of U.S. history. As blatantly racist as middle school slavery recreations are, the erasure of slavery from elementary social studies curriculum may be worse. Elementary textbooks are notorious for calling enslaved people “migrant workers,” “human resources,” or worse “workers.” The reality of the Atlantic slave trade gets lost in the “Columbian Exchange.” And the idyllic thirteen colonies are not portrayed as being built entirely dependent upon race based slavery, but rather through the hard work of colonists who utilized a mutually beneficial system of “indentured servitude.”

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Teachers of American slavery feel a strong need to portray the severity of slavery precisely because students often arrive at 8th grade with absolutely no framework for how slavery was the key feature of the first one hundred plus years of U.S. history.

Having elementary age students dress up as colonists is problematic because it does not acknowledge the existence of slavery during that period of U.S. history. Including the reality of slavery in a celebration of “Colonial Days” would be much worse, but that is not an argument for having 3rd grade African American students dress as free residents of Jamestown. The harrowing truth about American slavery should be sensitively and incrementally dispersed to elementary age students leading up to their formal study in 8th grade. The historical narrative that “bad things happened and continue to happen” should be taught in social studies as early as 1st grade or even Kindergarten. We are not protecting students when we romanticize U.S. history. We are only setting them up to become “color blind” adults who pretend to live in a post racial society.

Some teachers truly believe that slavery was “not that bad,” and are facilitating “Colonial Days” from that particular historical and political position. Most elementary teachers, however, are likely to simply be afraid to address the realities of slavery with young children. Given that learning history must be engaging, the tension between teaching slavery and celebrating “Colonial Days” begs the question, “Should learning U.S. history always be fun?” If we are to ever effectively teach the history of American slavery, the answer to that question has to be a resounding “No!” Engaging and fun are not the same thing. Learning U.S. history should often be uncomfortable and disconcerting. Even when learning U.S. history is fun, the troubling reality of slavery should be directly in the background. The difficult truth is that there is much more “bad” in the story of our nation than there is “good.” Facing this reality does not make U.S. history more boring, but it does create ethical challenges that the social studies teacher must carefully overcome.

It is past time for a movement to ban “Colonial Days” and other reenactments that contribute to the erasure of American slavery from elementary level social studies teaching.

5 thoughts on “Colonial Days and the Erasure of American Slavery

  1. There is much more bad than good in our nation’s history should be followed up with “in my opinion”, or qualified. As a first grade teacher, I am sensitive to what a small child needs to know or be told. My great grandfather was a slave and I do believe that we have to tread carefully.

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  2. I love when you make the clarification that engaging and fun are not the same thing. At times it can be easy to sacrifice one for the other.

    Prior to reading I wanted insight on ways you believe schools could not only compassionately but respectfully teach slavery. Whether that be solely at the junior high level or leading up to.

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  3. As an historian, I have argued for a reboot for years on how we teach these topics in history. We pedal “feel good history” when it’s not left very many people feeling good.

    But, uh, no fan of the sanctimony this piece took.

    Also, not a fan of any piece that dismisses “social sciences” as boring in the opening sentence. Why assign a “hater” to this topic to begin with?

    I also get the sense that whoever wrote this has spent zero time in a classroom and can do no better than cite old stories that have been circulating for years now on missteps teachers made in the past when trying to teach slavery.

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  4. Certainly teaching about the subject of slavery is a difficult task at any level. It is made even more difficult when the teachers are ignorant of the subject matter. I think that period historic houses and museums have failed our schools by not dealing with the subject forthrightly. After all, museum educators and curators are the specialists who should be at the forefront of establishing curricula on slavery for teachers as well as workshops outlining the do’s and don’t’s of slavery education.

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  5. In my 8th grade US History class I tell them that America is exceptional, that it is a great country but that much of its exceptionalism and greatness came (and comes) at the expense of “others”, typically people of color who were exploited or massacred to fulfill a vision. I often begin a discussion with, “When I was in school, this is what I was taught” and then go on to explain that Columbus discovered a vast, open, mostly uninhabited America; that slavery was practiced by a few ignorant Southerners and that image of the happy, singing slave was pretty much the reality that I was sold. I then spend the rest of the year trying to explain the reality of smallpox, encomienda, Middle Passage, Nat Turner and all of it to the best of my ability.

    I do believe that we are a great country but I also believe we have done some heinous things and are still doing them today.

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