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Teaching Slavery: A SHEAR Perspective


Teaching Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion was the third session I attended as part of the SHEAR conference on July 23. It was scheduled after the lunchbreak and I made a point of arriving early just in case…and, yes, the room ended up being filled to capacity and then some. I along with others “purloined” chairs from neighboring and less full rooms but soon there was no more space even for chairs. People sat on the floor or leaned against the walls.

The session consisted of a series of “brief” presentations where people sort of stuck to their allotted time. The presentations were followed by questions from the moderator posed to each presenter and then the discussion was opened to the floor. As one might expect the session was more fluid than some of the other ones and my notes reflect that dynamic. One of the lessons I learned in college especially from undergraduate history classes was that the organization of my notes tended to mirror the organization of the lecture. But this session was not a lecture but a roundtable.

Vanessa Holden, Michigan State University
Survey Strife: Transparent Pedagogy as a Multiracial Woman in the Classroom

Holden often was the first black teacher many of the white students in her survey class on United States history had ever had. The TA met with smaller groups of students while her contact tended to be in the lecture format. She chose not to start the class with 1492. Michigan itself was not a slave state and had minimal Underground Railroad involvement.  Holden did not mention the Great Migration so I don’t know what she teaches in the 20th century. Since the SHEAR conference doesn’t extend to that time period and the session was limited to slavery (and not its impact or legacy as part of American history), she was not obligated to mention it but it would have interesting to know. Of course, her time was very limited.

On the pedagogical side, Holden shared that many college students were unaware that as part of slavery families could be separated. Her comment exposed an important dilemma. In the Public Roundtable session earlier that day covered in a previous post, curriculum was regarded as if not a panacea, at least, a positive, in promoting awareness of the historic sites/museums and encouraging visitors. A common refrain in this session beginning with the first speaker highlighted the shortcomings of the curriculum.

One should note that social studies has a varied presence in the k-12 curriculum at the state level. The current focus on the Common Core and STEM has been detrimental to the teaching of social studies including history especially in the early grades where reading and math skills have become the god standards against which students and teachers are evaluated. Regardless of the content, not all states or school districts teach social studies at each grade level. New York State does which is a contributory factor to New York State social studies teachers often having positions of prominence in national social studies organizations. Just as learning a foreign language is easier the younger one starts, so is learning language of history. Introducing teenagers to history through boring factoids is not conducive to developing a life-long love for history as part of the civic health of the society.

Edward Baptist, Cornell University
Teaching with Survivors Testimony

Baptist spoke on the use of primary sources. He observed that students were not tabula rasas on slavery. They arrived in the classroom with the slave story already “spun.” This comment again goes the issue of what is taught at the k-12 level although Baptist did not specifically refer to it. His experience as a teacher led him to conclude that the values the students ascribe to the testimonies read in class correlates with the race of the race of the student. [My notes may be a little confusing on this point.]

Jason Young, State University of New York, Buffalo
The Persistent Propaganda of History

Young commented on the textbook controversies, on how textbooks present the topic of slavery. Here again curriculum is an issue. He specifically mentioned McGraw Hill’s designation of the Middle Passage as one of “migrants.” He expressed concern about the rejection of critical thinking. It should be noted that the new social studies guidelines just released by New York State stress the importance of critical thinking. I don’t know how familiar Young is with those guidelines or the role of history professors in developing them. While it will be years before the products of those guidelines enter college, it would be worthwhile to foster dialog between the college professors who teach the graduates of the k-12 guidelines with the social studies teachers (and State Education departments) about what is actually taught in the classroom. True students in an undergraduate class may come from multiple states with divergent requirements and curriculums, but there is benefit to having teachers of undergraduates knowing what the college students were exposed to and are supposed to have learned already.

Brenda Stevenson, UCLA
Navigating Emotional Triggers for Black Students in the Multicultural Classroom

Her topic was the challenge of teaching slavery in the world of trauma today. She depicted the college classroom as contested turf.

Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, Smith College
Humanity as a Thing Unraced: Classroom Conversations on the History of Slavery

Pryor revealed traumatic experiences of her own. She reiterated the refrain on the lack of racial education prior to college. The point was dramatically broached when a student in the classroom raised the question of teaching the “N” word. The student did so in the context of a joke the student had heard. After the class the teacher cried and was frightened. Later the students recounted the various experiences in their own lives where they had encountered the “N’ word. This class became the first opportunity they had ever had to discuss the topic in a formal setting. The very question of whether to even pronounce the “word” was an issue of discussion. Pryor ended up devoting three classes in the semester to addressing this trauma.

I am curious to know if the word “Negro” factored into these conversations. For centuries the word was the name of a people devoid of approbation in and of itself. Lately it has acquired a negative stigma. The source documents from the 1600s-1800s that might be used in a SHEAR time period routinely use this term and it continued to be positively used at least through the time of Martin Luther King. Is it becoming a trauma term requiring trigger warnings and if so what does that mean for use of source documents?

Moderator Questions
Ousmane Power-Greene, Clark University

1. The question asked whose expertise would be useful in joining this conversation.

Young introduced the unspoken issues that generate guilt and shame.  The sale of Africans into slavery by Africans always is brought up. He referred to this technique as the sharing of culpability. Teachers need to recognize what really concerns the students who ask that question or make that claim.

Baptist reiterated that by college we are too late in our interventions.

Pryor noted that not too many black students take history classes. She further observed that black students are mad at white students who use the classroom to unburden themselves. I might add that there are white people who don’t look favorably upon white people engaged in a pissing context of how guilty they are and how passionately they seek to cleanse themselves of their guilt. Has slavery become the original sin for Americans of Christian heritage who don’t believe in the Fall?  Do white people with American ancestors from before slavery became illegal [which was in 1827 in New York] react differently than those who arrived afterwards?

2. What do you say about slaveholders to the students?

Young informed us based on his classes that students say most whites didn’t own slaves or only owned 1 or 2. They see slavery as a systemic problem and therefore not one where the students should feel individual guilt [a contrast to the perceptions expressed in Pryor’s class. I wonder if the demographics of the student body contribute to the discrepancy – a public school in Buffalo versus an independent women’s liberal college in Northampton.]

Stevenson recommended following the money. She claimed that if students trace the money they can more easily see how slavery could exist. In other words, you didn’t have to own slaves to profit from slavery.

Holden observed that poor whites and others did own slaves. She suggested reading the letters of the slaveholder families. Since slaveholders were people too [my choice of words] it was beneficial to encounter them as people through their own writings.

A series of short-answer questions/comments followed given the time constraints.\

  1. Reparations – put off the question in a classroom. But in class debates the pro-side wins on merits and the negative-side wins the debate [it sounds a little like the difference between Fantasy Football and the Superbowl.]
  2. Slavery in other places and times – Roman slavery is not the equivalent of American slavery.
  1. Impact of the slaves on the nation as unpaid labor.
  1. Anger at not being taught about slavery.
  1. Is it necessary to use all the examples of the horror of slavery? Trauma.

Obviously there is a lot to discuss on this subject and the likelihood the conversation will be ongoing. It is important that the conversation not be limited to teaching slavery at the undergraduate level but include k-12 as well.