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February 4, 2018
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slavery auction

~ Hard to Teach? ~

Slavery? Do you talk about it?

Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center carried out a survey of one thousand 12th graders and 1700 social studies teachers. They found that few students could answer basic questions about the history and impact of slavery on our country, and that the teachers struggled to teach about slavery in meaningful ways in their lesson design.

You can see the results of their survey and take the test yourself here. https://www.splcenter.org/teaching-hard-history-american-slavery

The Problem of Slavery

Of course, it is hard to teach about slavery in the United States. It was a vile, inhuman, racist blot on our history. It condemned millions of people to unbearable lives and forever divided us by the false concept of “race” and white supremacy. It makes white and black students and teachers uncomfortable.

But it is essential that we do teach about slavery and its aftermath without simplifying or whitewashing it, because even though we fought the Civil War, slavery didn’t just end and equality for all, regardless of skin color, arise the next day.

No, the legacy of slavery has continued to poison our society over the years of Jim Crow and segregation to the institutionalized racism that has never disappeared, but continues to dominate and infect our society to this very day.

Failing to Teach About SlaveryWhy we need to teach about slavery

But we fail to teach that history and heritage in our textbooks and in our classrooms as the SPLC research shows. The failure of our educational system to address slavery forthrightly can be summed up in the fact that 92% of Americans think state rights, not slavery, was the cause of the Civil War.

As a researcher who has delved deeply into first hand documents of the period, I can attest that is not what the people living at the time thought. State's rights as a cause of the Civil War has been the one emphasized in our schools because it is safer and less gut wrenching to discuss than dehumanizing slavery.

How not to teach about slavery

This is not to say that there aren't good-hearted, anti-racist teachers who want to address the issue. The problem is knowing how to do so effectively and finding the right resources because it isn't in the textbooks or in many of the books and educational materials on slavery out there.

The SPLC found certain practices and lessons hurt rather than helped clarify the impact of slavery on our lives today.

  1. Slavery is not a game or a story to role play. Slavery was real and it was horrible. Having students pretending to be slaves or holding a mock slave auction is as reprehensible as stuffing students in a closet to simulate conditions on a train traveling to Auschwitz. We don’t need to feel enslaved to understand slavery was wrong or stifled to know that the Holocaust was evil.

2. Slavery is not an escape story with a happy ending. Especially in elementary school, students are often exposed to stories about people escaping on the Underground Railroad to get to safety, ignoring the fact that there was no happy ending in the equally racist North. Nor is the story of slavery about all the caring white people who helped slaves escape.

3. Slavery was not just a southern problem. Because of very gradual abolition laws, slavery existed in the North until the Civil War. (Check out these stats, if you don’t believe me) The northern states recognized slaves as property and treated freed slaves as unequal. Even during the Civil War, the North depended on the cotton produced by the South’s slaves. Many in the North, especially immigrants, feared that freeing the slaves would cause them to lose their jobs.

4. Slavery is not the end of the story. Slavery cannot be understood without teaching the history and continuance of white supremacy and white privilege and how it affects our lives today from Ferguson to Charlottesville to Black Lives Matter.

So how should we teach about slavery?Why we need to teach about slavery

Last year, the Huffington Post ran an article on the withdrawal of a children's book because of the saccharine depiction of slavery. It then reviewed a number of other picture books that it recommended.

Here is a list of TPN recommended books some of which are on the Post's list and some that are not.

Picture Books

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carol Boston Weatherford A retelling of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack Compares the difference in lives of master and slave.

Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine When his wife and children are sold, Henry resolves to escape at all costs.

Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack A West African man mourns the stealing of his son by slavers.

YA Novels

Second Daughter by Mildred Pitts Walter Based on a true story, this is the story of a slave girl's fight for freedom in Massachusetts during the American Revolution.

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper  A fictionalized account of the slave trade.

Nightjohn by Gary Paulson A slave risks everything to teach others to read.  (Note: there are appropriately violent incidents in this book)

Day of Tears by Julius Lester Tells the story of the largest slave auction in history.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis Born free, a Canadian black man discovers the horrors of slavery for himself.

Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor Set in Mississippi during the Depression, a black family struggles to survive.

Non-Fiction

Rebels Against Slavery: American Slave Revolts by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L, McKissack  This book provides biographies of slaves who stood up against slavery. The fact that this Coretta Scott King Honor Book published by Scholastic is out-of-print speaks worlds for how shallowly slavery is addressed with our students.

To Be Slave by Julius Lester A collection of stories about slavery told in the actual words of slave.

Using good books about slavery is a great place to start 

Fictionalized stories are ways to elicit emotional responses from students. Well-written picture books and novels allow us to put ourselves in other people's lives.

But no matter the level, be careful not to let the reading of any of these stories end without a discussion of the history that came before and after.

Just reading a book about slavery as a nice story about a brave person is not enough. Introducing Sojourner Truth to first or second graders without putting the story into the context of the horrors of slavery degrades her.

Picture books because they have pictures are often thought to be for little ones. Nothing is farther from the truth. Use these books in upper elementary and middle school and high school, even with adults.

Then follow up with frank discussions.

In order to lead such discussions teachers need to read deeper on the subject of slavery. Suggested readings:

The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Anti-Bellum South by Kenneth Stampp

The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture by David Brion Davis

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823 by David Brion Davis

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis

A detailed review of these four books can be found here. "The Scholar Who Shaped History" by Drew Gilpin Faust

Teachers can also take advantage of the lesson plans addressing racism today made available by Teaching Tolerance. Here is a sampling. More can be found at TeachingTolerance.org

The New Jim Crow and Race, Racism and Mass Incarceration 

The Battle for Justice: The March Goes on

The Role of Privilege

Social Justice Using Historical Examples

Citizens and Government in Our Diverse Society

Take action

Slavery is a tough subject. It is time we talked about it.


How do you talk to your children and students about slavery?

Are you shocked at the SPLC research results?

We welcome your thoughts and comments

Teach Peace Now
Teach Peace Now
We offer books, activities, lesson plans, and ideas that teachers, parents, and students can use to promote values, attitudes and behaviors which encourage non-violent resolution of conflict, respect for human rights, democracy, intercultural understanding and tolerance.

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