Dos and Don’ts of Teaching American Slavery (for White Educators)

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Teaching Tolerance recently released a report entitled, “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.” It is essential reading for all teachers; all subjects and all grade levels. The companion podcast series of the same name is equally valuable for educators. For U.S history teachers, like myself, that teach American slavery as part of our curriculum, the release of this report represents a watershed moment. This country has never even attempted to face the reality of nearly 250 years of enslavement of black people. What we need is a groundswell of history teachers willing to comprehensively teach the hard history of American slavery in the classroom.

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The teaching of American slavery should not be standardized or trivialized. It should be prioritized. At the very center of the story of Colonial America and the first 100 years of U.S. history lies the “peculiar institution” of American slavery. Textbooks and curriculum standards treat the issue much more fairly than ever before. There are remnants of the Southern “lost cause,” but by and large secondary level textbooks want students to see slavery as a horrible and tragic historical reality. While today’s students are familiar with the violence of American slavery, they are often taught that slavery was a reality for which no one in particular was to blame. Textbooks and standards consistently portray American slavery as a single blemish on an otherwise perfect track record of “the greatest nation in the world.” American slavery is not often portrayed in curriculum standards as the single most defining characteristic of Colonial America leading up to and during the struggle for independence from Great Britain. Browsing through many U.S. history textbooks, it would appear that American slavery had its origins in the early seventeenth century, but then did not exist for perhaps 200 years until the early part of the nineteenth century as a contributing cause of the Civil War. In many textbooks, there are long periods of U.S. history where the continuing impact of American slavery is not brought to bear.

The teaching of American slavery should not be standardized or trivialized. It should be prioritized.

Teachers are responsible for teaching the curriculum standards for their given content area and, to a lesser degree, the textbook that has been assigned to them. Every day, however, teachers make a multitude of decisions on what material to emphasize and de-emphasize. Curriculum standards should be taught in their entirety, but they are not intended to be the only material a teacher can teach. History teachers can responsibly teach all the standards, while creating specific emphases on hard history like American slavery. With a view to the importance of this particular subject matter, I humbly present my “dos and don’ts of teaching American slavery.” I cannot separate my pedagogical practices from my experience as a white educator. Teachers of color will no doubt approach many of these practices with a different perspective and perhaps a markedly different list of dos and don’ts.

dosanddon'ts

Do have students draw people of color. Stick figures should not be all white.
Do use humanizing language like “enslaved people.”
Do include a full study of 19th century African American culture; a culture that thrived under the brutality of slavery.
Do reclaim the power and legacy of Alex Haley’s “Roots” to help humanize enslaved African Americans.
Do teach the experiences of enslaved African Americans at each stage of U.S. history beginning in 1619.
Do allow black students to feel angry.
Do allow white students to feel uncomfortable.
Do teach the multitude of ways that African Americans resisted slavery.
Do allow students to see and hear film dramatization of white people saying the “n” word.
Do implicate the North in the profiteering from and perpetuation of slavery.
Do utilize films that portray black agency like “Amistad” and “Glory.”
Do teach Abraham Lincoln as a flawed individual who never fully embraced the tenets of abolitionism.

Don’t have students draw enslaved people being whipped, hung, etc…
Don’t define and restrict enslaved people by calling them “slaves.”
Don’t play academic games related to slavery.
Don’t use euphemisms that derive from American slavery like “sold down the river” and “cotton-picking.” And don’t ever play “Hangman.”
Don’t recreate, simulate, or role-play slavery.
Don’t have students imagine themselves as enslaved people.
Don’t overemphasize white figures like John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison.
Don’t say, “You couldn’t do this” or “You couldn’t do that.”
Don’t intentionally make white students feel guilty.
Don’t say or read aloud the “n” word. Don’t allow students to say or read aloud the “n” word.
Don’t teach Confederate myths like kindly masters or black Confederate soldiers.
Don’t celebrate “Colonial Days.”

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