I read with great interest Carolyn Thompson’s article in the July 7 Post and Courier detailing the difficulties schools encounter when teaching about slavery in the United States.
As a middle school history/geography teacher during the height of forced busing in Boston during the mid-1970s, I taught in a school that was 100% African-American that was being desegregated. Teaching about slavery was left to the discretion of the classroom teacher as curriculum and content standards were quite vague on this aspect of U.S. History.
As a result, I developed a scheme of instruction that focused on the global economic impact of slavery and who benefited most from the labor of slaves. I had done considerable work on this topic for my undergraduate thesis and didn’t want to present a contrived or biased account on such a critical topic.
Consequently, during our unit on slavery, we learned about the factoring system and the payment of bank loans with specie (cotton) as stipulated by the lenders. We explored who controlled the price of cotton (English, northern banks and textile-manufacturers) and how the continued production of cotton was manipulated within a world market.
The profit gained from building ships to carry slaves from Africa also was investigated and it was noted that, “The streets of Bristol, England, ran red with the blood of slaves,” thanks to their ship-building industry.
We also noted the insurance companies that bonded the entire enterprise as being complicit with maintaining slavery in the New World.
In the process, I believe my students learned that slavery wasn’t just a Southern institution, but a worldwide economic system that benefited individuals who mostly never owned or even saw a slave.
We also investigated, in non-demeaning fashion, how a slave became a slave, the middle passage and what slaves endured while in captivity. We did this through visualizations using sound effects, diminished light and first-hand-account readings and tried to imagine the environment below deck on a slaver with space being a rationed commodity. We cooked a slave meal in the classroom and compared it to what we ate in our cafeteria.
We also studied the discontent slaves expressed by reading about Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Joseph Cinque. We investigated slave songs such as “Go Down Moses” and “Follow the North Star.” In doing so, hopefully, we came to understand that slavery was not a benign or willingly accepted state of being as purported by many Southerners. It crushed the soul of the captive.
In our two weeks of inquiry, I know we only scratched the surface of this odious institution. I tried to be Socratic in the process for I always found middle school students to be highly sensitive to what is fair and equitable in the world around them. I bade them to continue their study of slavery as they progressed through school. I had to move to the Civil War.
The impact of slavery can be taught to our children, but it needs to be done so in a balanced manner. It is a burdensome legacy we all own.