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On Examining Slavery Through Deeper Learning

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This post is by Michelle Sadrena Clark, 9th grade Humanities teacher at High Tech High North County and a candidate in the UCSD/CSUSM Joint Doctoral Program for Educational Leadership.

"I didn't know slavery was that bad."

I looked into the eyes of my white student, who could not possibly know how much this innocent confession filled me with a unique combination of pain and hope. Pain, because that simple statement indirectly dismissed over 200 years of brutality, family separation, dehumanization, and oppression. Hope, because I saw an opportunity to correct her miseducation. Thus, my disbelief quickly transitioned into indignant curiosity as I contemplated how an eleventh grade student had experienced several years of schooling, teachers, and books, yet never learned about the gravity of the American Slave Trade.

After informally surveying the class, it was evident that their knowledge did not move deeper than the superficial awareness that slavery "happened," and an inaccurate assessment that it ended due to President Abraham Lincoln's belief that Whites and Blacks should be treated equally, rather than his desire to preserve the Union.

Although I had planned to have students read The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Twelve Years a Slave, and excerpts from A People's History of the United States, I knew I wanted to find a way to engage students in a segment of history that often receives cursory coverage, if it is explored at all. I decided to invest a week of my summer at a professional development seminar in Maryland where I studied colonial slavery in the Chesapeake. Then I designed classroom experiences that invited my predominantly white, middle class students to examine the cruel brutality of this institution, as well as the brilliant resilience of African American survivors. I want to share a sampling of student experiences that led to a deeper understanding of the incomprehensible.

Slave Ships

To help students visualize the global scope of the slave trade, we used the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to examine slave ship manifests. Students were able to see ship names, the geographic locations of embarkation and disembarkation, the duration of voyages, the number of passengers that began the voyage, as well as other ship and crew details. It was the number of passengers who died en route that shocked most students. There is something about seeing the actual ship manifests that conveys the meticulous manner under which the slave trade operated in a way that no textbook or lecture ever could.

Picking Cotton

I ordered raw cotton, and on a particularly warm day we went outside to collectively de-seed the cotton. I watched as students struggled to separate the stubborn brown cotton seed from the fluffy white cotton, and wondered if they too noticed the literary devices--irony, imagery, foreshadowing--that were at play in this one simple action. Needless to say, students began complaining after about five minutes. I gently reminded them that daily work for most field slaves lasted from sunrise to sunset, and consisted of picking approximately 200 pounds of cotton; they hadn't even picked two ounces.

Runaway Slave Ads

I incorporated primary source documents by having students read runaway slave advertisements, where slave owners described the physical appearance of slaves in dehumanized detail in an earnest attempt to retrieve their "property." Students wrote and performed response pieces to these slave masters, in the same fashion as the YouTube comments section, where people safe and secure in anonymity can say whatever they want. These "talk backs," as I call them, served as an emotional release for many students, allowing them to express themselves honestly, protected by the distance of time and space, as well as their sense of moral relativism. Hundreds of years in the future and further west, it's easier for Californian students to profess they would have behaved differently if they had been born in that era.

Black Resilience

It was important for me to share with students the plethora of ways African Americans endured their undeserved plight. One day I taught them how to make hoe cakes, a simple snack of fried cornmeal and water. We washed it down with switchel, a unique mixture of apple-cider vinegar, molasses, and water, a version of Colonial Gatorade. These refreshments were a source of sustenance and energy, obvious necessities for arduous field work. We sang Negro spirituals and danced Makuta, a celebratory Afro-Cuban dance that originated in the Congo. After each experience, we reflected on how the food, drink, music, and dance contributed to physical, emotional, and spiritual survival.

I am well aware that these experiences could in no way replicate what actual slaves endured, and I made this clear to my students. Yet, I was hopeful that the time invested in an authentic analysis of slavery resulted in a meaningful learning experience. I still wonder if learning about past events translated to a personal experience? And, whether or not this experiential exploration would change their future attitudes and actions toward Black people? Did it even make a difference?

In my own education I do not recall ever learning about how my ancestors coped for hundreds of years under this intolerable, oppressive system. There were no lessons that celebrated the strength, bravery, and resilience of my people. It wasn't until I became a teacher that I began to learn more about the history, culture, and accomplishments of African Americans.

Whenever I try to share what transpired over those weeks, I am met with a wide range of responses. I often leave the conversation feeling judged. Positively or negatively. Perhaps I am deserving of censure. However, a dear friend reminded me that, "Deeper learning has a role and responsibility in helping students explore issues of equity and systemic racism, recognize gaps in their understanding, and connect with a reality beyond their own. At its best, deeper learning builds empathy, corrects misconceptions and helps students emerge with the knowledge and motivation to work for social justice."

I wholeheartedly agreed with her and vowed to memorize her comment in case I needed to use it in the future.

September 24, 2016, marked the long-awaited opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Nearly 400 years after the first African slaves arrived to the American colonies, just over 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and over 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, African American people living in the United States finally have a place where their history and culture is preserved and shared in an honorable way, and on a national scale.

How many more years will it take for American classrooms to do the same?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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