"Reforming How Slavery is Taught at the 6-12 Level" by Sarah Wood

Updated: Oct 28

Reforming How Slavery is Taught at the 6-12 Level

by Sarah Wood, Wor-Wic Community College

Abstract: Interdisciplinary curriculum reforms are needed to teach about slavery more accurately. This includes teaching students that slavery was not confined to America nor to White perpetrators. Additionally, slavery is a form of genocide and thus should be taught alongside the Holocaust. Teaching these two events in tandem has the added benefit of showing that large-scale oppression can victimize both White and Black groups. Civics classrooms need to have discussions about how slavery’s legacy in America continues to affect the Black population. Teaching about the subjectivity of history needs to occur in the classroom by explaining to students that who controls the historical narrative in turn controls what is regarded as historical fact. This can be done through novels that reify this, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a study in perspective. New materials need to be incorporated so that slavery is taught without a biased lens, which entails replacing Uncle Tom’s Cabin with primary sources. Other literary reforms can include teaching A Raisin in the Sun as the story of an American family rather than a Black one, as Black literature should not be lumped into one unit. Incorporating materials that show examples of Black empowerment, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture’s role in the Haitian revolution, will counteract the fact that Black students only learn about their historical experience in the classroom when it relates to slavery. Teaching Black students’ historical legacy more accurately may help stop the perpetuation of racist thought systems among the next generation.



Slavery is currently taught at the 6-12 level as a system that ended with Emancipation. However, it is not a stagnant structure that ended in 1865, but rather a complex and fluid set of societal conditions that adapt to fit within the legal framework of the times. The advent of slavery in America actually predates the landing of the Mayflower, making it a fundamental part of our national heritage (Hannah-Jones, 2019). A quality social studies curriculum needs to address the legacy of slavery in America because our Black population is still impacted by it. Black students live in poverty at a rate of 32%, as compared to a rate of 11% among their White counterparts (Kids Count Data Center, 2018). One in three Black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, and our current Black male student population is unlikely to procure a better fate for themselves unless we take action now (Bonzcar, 2003).

Interdisciplinary curriculum reforms are needed to overhaul the way we teach about slavery at the 6-12 level. This will not only make curriculums more accurate, but also engage Black students more by equating slavery with oppression rather than Blackness. The father of Black History Month himself, Carter G. Woodson, stated, “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies” (Woodson, 1933, p. 5). This can be countered by incorporating narratives of Black achievement and empowerment into our curriculums. However, at the same time, teachers need to spend time delineating the unique and disproportionate challenges our Black population faces and has faced in America. Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Wright explains the need for this: “Nothing about the problems of Negroes was ever taught in classrooms at school” (Wright, 1944, p. 193). Mr. Woodson and Mr. Wright’s critiques must be recognized as equally valid problems in our education system today.

The first barrier to curriculum reform is politics, in which racial issues are mired. K-12 teachers don’t have much control over the materials they use in the classroom because they are determined at the state level (Paul, 2016; Goldstein, 2020). The governors of each state appoint members to that state’s Board of Education. Those appointees then edit a nationally-written textbook for their specific state’s political climate (Goldstein, 2020). This creates a stark political bias among the various social studies textbooks of the U.S. For example, the McGraw-Hill social studies textbook used in California discusses redlining and housing discrimination against the Black population, whereas this is entirely omitted from the theoretically identical Texas edition (Goldstein, 2020). A federally-determined social studies curriculum would rectify this, and it should comprise standardized concepts as outlined in the paragraphs below.

In order to accurately teach about slavery as an institution, it must be taught as something that was not confined to White perpetrators. Students need to know that slavery is an institution that can affect any group. It dates back to the Roman Empire, where foreigners of any color were captured and enslaved (“Slaves & Freemen,” n.d.). Foreignness, not race, was the “otherness” factor that defined this iteration of the system. Differences in ethnicity and religion can also be a way of implementing slavery, as was the case with the Bosnians enslaved by Europeans in the early Middle Ages[1] (MakiSRB 2018; “Recalling Africa,” 2018). Race came into play later, beginning with Muslim conquerors in Africa enslaving Africans from the seventh-century onwards (Gakunzi, 2018). However, Arab slave traders would not enslave Muslim Africans, as such a similarity meant they could not be “othered” to the necessary degree (Fröhlich, 2019). Native Americans even enslaved Africans in colonial America because they were different enough (Dull, n.d.). The prosperous British enslaved the poverty-stricken Irish via indentured servitude, which is a form of slavery that exploits the poorer group (Dull, n.d.). An ethnic difference like this can be used to excuse or explain slavery, and thereby be the mechanism for implementing it although it is never the origin of slavery. The origin of slavery is always one group seeking to benefit economically at the expense of another group. Examples such as the ones above are important to teach because they demonstrate to our students that slavery is colorblind, and any difference can be the tool by which a group in power implements a system of slavery. Slavery is based in group differences, and sharing the multitudinous examples above will prevent the demonization of our White students while making our Black students feel less like something about themselves predisposed their ancestors to enslavement. Teaching that Europeans were enslaved by North Africans during the Byzantine era can alleviate the superiority and inferiority some White and Black American students feel, respectively, as they learn about American slavery (Dull, n.d.).

American slavery, like all forms of slavery, has origins that can be explained by political science. Slaves in America mostly came from Africa via the Middle Passage, and part of why Africa was the choice for slaves was the continent’s geopolitical situation circa 1600-1900. During this time, Africa lacked broad, unifying governments such as those seen in empires. The Nigerian historian Joseph Inikori states that this system of fragmented governments in Africa predisposed the area to enslavement. This is supported by the fact that the Balkan region was also predisposed to enslavement in the early Middle Ages due to a similar system of fragmented states (Dull, n.d.). Large-scale slavery is geopolitical in origin, not racial, and our high school students should be taught this. Fragmented governments also explain how and why Africans enslaved other Africans, as tribal differences were a group difference stark enough to warrant enslavement of another. Students need to understand the group versus group nature of enslavement because slavery is not always racial in origin; it just happened to be in America. The ethnic differences exploited in the Balkans when they were enslaved have left the region fraught with conflict into the modern era just as racial tension remains in America today between the Black and White populations. Exploiting group differences for slavery creates lasting problems that do not end when the system of enslavement does.

Returning to the concept that slavery is a metamorphizing institution, slavery did not end in America in 1865 as the system of peonage replaced it, something which is defined as the leasing of convicts for their labor (Peonage, 2020). This societal phenomenon epitomizes how slavery is not a stagnant structure, but rather adapts to the legal framework of the times in the society in which it occurs. Unable to own persons any longer, White politicians in the South began ensuring Black persons were arrested at high rates for relatively minor crimes (Davis, 1981). This ensured a large prison population of persons who could be rented out to former plantation owners for cheap labor. Under this system of oppression, Black convicts were frequently worked to death under atrocious conditions that included literally chaining workers together[2] (Davis, 1981). Native Americans were affected by a similar system in colonial America where they were subjected to “judicial enslavement,” or being sentenced to slavery in court (Dull, n.d., p. 193) Slavery is actuated by whatever means the group in power has available. However, slavery did not just affect Black persons in America. Immigrant populations were worked to death in factories in the early twentieth century under tortuous conditions, a phenomenon detailed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (Sinclair, 1906). He writes that this factory system was akin to “the system of chattel [i.e. traditional] slavery” except there was “no difference in color between master and slave” (Sinclair 1906, p. 113).

As per the systems explained above, slavery is a form of genocide because of the death rates incurred by the group enslaved. With Muslim enslavement of Africans, it is estimated that 75% of enslaved persons died (Fröhlich, 2019). The system of slavery is one of exploiting a group for labor at the expense of their lives. Consider the rarely taught Belgian genocide:In the early twentieth century, the population of the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo was enslaved on rubber plantations when the area was a Belgian colony (Stanley, 2012). This system did not end until 1908, reifying for students that slavery was ongoing after American emancipation (Gerdziunas, 2017). The death toll in the Congo was exceptionally high – on par with that of the Jews in the Holocaust (“United States Holocaust”, 2019; Rummel, 2001). The nature of the two genocides is so eerily similar in other ways too that they ought to be taught in tandem. In the Belgian Congo, slaves’ hands were regularly cut off if they didn’t work hard enough in a way akin to how concentration camp inmates were similarly shot for shirking their duties (Stanley, 2012). Much like with Hitler, the Belgian genocide occurred under one man - King Leopold II, a colonial administrator of the region (Stanley, 2012). Given the time period and the role of bureaucracy in both of these genocidal enterprises, the Belgian genocide parallels the Holocaust in multiple ways. For this reason, they need to be taught contemporaneously in world history classrooms. By linking Africans and Jews as victims of genocide, it will instill in our students that there is nothing inherently lesser about a certain skin color that lends itself to oppression by a group claiming to be superior by way of being more powerful.

The Belgian genocide is a valuable historical event to incorporate in our curriculums about slavery for several other reasons as well. In modern-day Belgium, the narrative of the twentieth-century situation in the Congo is taught inaccurately. King Leopold II is regarded as a nation-builder rather than a genocidal despot, which can demonstrate to students the degree to which history is subjective (Gerdziunas, 2017). Teaching the above fact about the subjectivity of historical narratives opens a door to discuss colonialism in both U.S. and world history classrooms. On African soil, colonialism had a terrible effect on Africans, and the Belgian genocide was a colonial enterprise (Gerdziunas, 2017). One way to stop looking at the Belgian genocide through a colonial lens is to call it the Congolese genocide in honor of its victims. Colonialism’s role in slavery needs to be discussed when teaching about the history of slavery[3].

However, the Congolese genocide and the Middle Passage need not be the only events in African history that students are taught. Great Britain now offers the equivalent of a twelfth-grade history elective on precolonial Africa that has received praise from the current Ghanaian president for its focus on examining the impact of the slave trade on African society (Haselby, 2020). History is all about perspective, and it is unfortunately currently taught through the colonial lens, meaning that it is only examined from a Euro-centric perspective (Pokhrel, 2011). Rectifying this includes placing greater emphasis on the Songhai Empire[4] in world history classes in order to correct the misconception that Africa never advanced beyond a group of hunter-gatherer-like tribes (Cartwright, 2019). Adding small facts to textbooks can counter this stereotype, such as the observation by a European explorer in modern-day Benin that “the Fidasians [the inhabitants] are so expert in keeping their accounts, that they easily reckon as exact, and as quick by memory, as we can do with pen and ink” (as qtd. in Williams, 2008). In other words, their mathematical prowess was unparalleled; all of Africa was not uneducated and stupid, but that is sometimes what is conveyed in poor history textbooks. A combination of primary accounts, such as this one, mixed with secondary interpretations need to be included in high-quality updated textbooks that reframe the narrative of African history so that it is taught with less European bias.

Continuing in this vein, tales of Black empowerment need to be incorporated, as there are plenty of them throughout history. The facts surrounding Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian Revolution is an excellent example. In 1795, he led an army of Black soldiers to overthrow his French oppressors and gained freedom for the slaves of Haiti (McNally, 2018). Teaching this example has the added benefit of breaking down the White Savior trope by demonstrating that Black persons can be their own liberators. In regards to American slavery, correcting this trope means placing greater emphasis on the fact that Black men comprised 10% of the Union Army because Frederick Douglass urged them to volunteer (Freeman, 1992).

Emily Bernard, Professor of American Studies at the University of Vermont, wants to stop lumping Black authors and historical figures into survey courses/units on Black history. At the start of her African American literature course, she issues this disclaimer to students: “If you cannot grasp the significance of Frederick Douglass’s plight, for instance, you are not trying hard enough [...] This material is not the exclusive property of students of color. [...] This is American literature, American experience, after all” (Bernard, 2019, p. 25). The play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is about a family living in a segregated neighborhood in the 1950’s (1959). Students need to be taught that this is the story of an American family more than that of a Black family. Improving the way in which the Black experience is taught entails incorporating new materials for students. This can start in the English classroom, as the best curriculums have interdisciplinary connections.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is the perfect book to help students understand that history comprises far more than dates, and therefore can vary widely depending on who is recounting it. The novel is written from oscillating points of view, and tells the story of the same series of events from two different perspectives. This leads readers to get a starkly different picture of what is happening in a marriage that takes place in the Caribbean just after Great Britain ended their involvement in the slave trade (Rhys, 1966). Given the historical milieu of this novel, the book successfully weaves together history and English, and thus should be incorporated into curriculums.

Returning to the suggestion of teaching about American slavery and the Holocaust as two separate but similar genocides, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Incidents in the Life of the Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs ought to be taught in tandem as well. The latter is a primary source document written by an escaped slave in America in 1861 (Jacobs, 1861). Students should be taught the parallel between pogroms, or attacks on Jewish communities, and the White mob disguised as a militia in Jacob’s volume which attacked slaves and ransacked their homes (Jacobs, 1861). Both of these books are, again, interesting studies in perspective that make clear for students the degree to which history is a subjective narrative. For example, both Harriet and Anne wrote their accounts, but Anne Frank’s father and Harriet’s abolitionist friend edited the volumes before publication, which can engender a discussion about whether these books were published with an agenda (Lydia, 2020; Frank, 2010). Furthermore, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a far better choice for curriculum material than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is a piece of fiction written by a White abolitionist (Davis, 1981). Although the latter novel was written with good intentions, and served its purpose in rallying support for the abolitionist cause, it does not accurately represent what slavery was actually like (Davis, 1981).

Continuing in the vein of interdisciplinary content, science is not exempt from necessary reforms. The famous entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian is often included in Women’s History Month celebrations at scientific institutions (Periale, 2009). She studied the life-cycle of butterflies, but relied on enslaved Africans and indigenous South Americans in her data collection (McKee, 2019). Their contributions are often omitted from the recognition she receives each year (Periale, 2009). Rectifying this would not detract from Maria Sibylla Merian’s incredible accomplishments, but acknowledging the omission would further correct the stereotype that all slaves were uneducated and stupid. This specific example also has the added benefit of introducing students to the concept of intersectionality, or that Black women are particularly oppressed (Davis, 1981).

Several Black women who helped get the U.S. to the moon in the 1950’s and ‘60’s have recently received media acclaim because of the film celebrating them called “Hidden Figures” (“From Hidden to,” 2019). Their story is a corollary to Maria Sibylla Merian’s in terms of crediting women, but is more appropriate for younger students. Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan were three Black women who were mathematicians and engineers for NASA’s predecessor, yet were rarely credited in the academic publications on which they worked (“From Hidden to,” 2019; Wei-Hass, 2016). Katherine Johnson was only allowed to do the math for the Apollo mission because FDR initiated a law that made racial discrimination in hiring for federal jobs illegal (Wei-Hass, 2016). Yet there were “Colored Computers” at NASA (Wei-Hass). Discrimination continues even when laws and statutes are passed making it illegal andall students need to realize this. The story of Hidden Figures can be a springboard for students to learn about more of the lesser-known facets of the Civil Rights movement. Teachers can inspire Black girls by sharing these womens’ legacy, and should incorporate the recent book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race into their curriculums (Shetterly, 2016). Adding the movie could be an exciting reward for students who finish the book.

Civics education is the final crucial curriculum piece to ensure students graduate with a nuanced understanding of slavery. Students need to have discussions about modern societal phenomena and how they relate to what they’ve learned in history class. Martha Euphemia Hayes is a good place to start for one of these discussions. She was the first Black woman with a Ph.D. in mathematics, who organized what went on to become teachers’ unions while serving on the Washington D.C. Board of Education in the 1950’s (Pitts, 2007). Students can discuss whether we should have unions at all today while learning about the history of them. Ida B. Wells, another prominent Black woman, was an investigative journalist who alerted the public to the vast number of lynchings being committed against Black men (Greene, 2020). Her story can lead into a discussion about the importance of freedom of the press and the ethics surrounding whistleblowers.

The necessity for civics discussions is aptly summed up in a quote by author James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history” (as qtd. in Shuster, 2018). The legacy of slavery continues to affect our Black students in ways that extend beyond the classroom. Despite the fact that White and Black persons use and sell drugs at similar rates, 56% of people in jail for a drug offense are Black or Latino (Alexander, 2011; “The Sentencing,” 2018). Yet those last two groups only make up 31.7% of our population (“United States,” 2018). Does racism factor into this disparity as it relates to arrests and sentencing? There is no need for civics and statistics to be kept entirely separate in our curriculums.

The prison system arguably has parallels to the plantation system based on the fact that when inmates are released they have “no retirement savings, nothing of monetary value, [and] no Social Security contributions,” just as slaves were emancipated with only the clothes on their backs (Hartman, 2019, p. 64). While incarcerated, inmates receive subpar medical treatment, paralleling the lack of medical care slaves received on plantations (Hartman, 2019). Modern inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary have even nicknamed it “Angola” (Hartman, 2019, p. 63). Teachers need to be able to facilitate discussions regarding these societal conditions, without bringing in their own political bias, as a way of teaching students the art of civil discourse, which is necessary in our democracy.

The above discussions are of particular necessity because Black students are 4.3 times more likely than their White counterparts to be committed to a juvenile delinquency facility (Rovner, 2016). Furthermore, 13.7% of Black students are subject to at least one out-of-school suspension - more than any other racial group; this is despite the fact that they constitute a minority of the student population (de Brey, 2019). Situations such as this are what need to be discussed in civics classrooms today. In order to facilitate discussions of civic issues, teachers must develop “deep background knowledge on the issues [being discussed] as well as the skill to manage diverse opinions” (Zimmerman, 2016). Classrooms need not be echo chambers for liberal thought, but rather hotbeds of fair and unbiased civil discourse. Any overlap between racially-progressive thought and the liberal ideology is coincidental, and ought not to be considered an example of teaching a political agenda. Civics discussions are necessary because they are a vehicle to challenge students’ racist thoughts before they are codified by maturation into racist worldviews. This creates a large onus on civics teachers to maintain diversity of thought while correcting students’ misconceptions. There is no getting around the fact that any teacher will influence students’ beliefs in a somewhat personal and partial way, but this challenge does not preclude the possibility of beneficial civic discussions in classrooms.

The curriculum overhaul proposed here will not happen overnight, but it is necessary. A charter school would be a good place to pilot the entire program delineated above, which includes heavy revisions to English and social studies curriculums in order to correct the current, inaccurate historical narrative. Examining the curriculum materials mentioned here with a critical eye has the potential to be politically-charged. This could create difficulties starting on the micro-level in the classroomwhere dissenting opinions must be allowed without maintaining the narrative that slavery is exclusively a problem of the past. On the macro-level, reforming the curricular content and objectives of various subjects is likely to face harsh partisan opposition and require both lobbying efforts and a great deal of funding. However, our Black students are going to prison at rates higher than their White counterparts, graduating at lower rates, and committing suicide at higher rates (Dillard, 2019; “National Center,” 2019; “Sentencing,” 2018). Whether one believes these trends originate from slavery or not, Black students deserve to have their experience, both historical and modern, taught accurately. Perhaps if we do so, such trends as those above will be eradicated for the next generation.

Footnotes

[1]In fact, the word “slave” originates from the word Slav, in reference to the ethnicity of these Bosnians (“Recalling Africa, 2018”)


[2] i.e. “chain gangs”


[3]Our colonial past had a terrible effect on the Native Americans in addition to African slaves (Gerdziunas, 2017). Native Americans are victims of a colonial genocide in America, but not large-scale enslavement, which means they will not be discussed in-depth here.

[4]Which existed in modern-day Mali

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