How Have You Learned About Slavery?

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How Have You Learned About Slavery?

Find all our Student Opinion questions here.

How have you been taught about slavery in the United States? Do you feel that it is a topic that has been accurately and thoroughly taught in your schools?

Have you learned about slavery outside of the classroom? Are there questions you still have that you want to explore further?

In “Why Can’t We Teach Slavery Right in American Schools,” Nikita Stewart writes about the history of teaching about slavery in American education and what it looks like today:

In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that researches and monitors hate groups, pored over 12 popular U.S. history books and surveyed more than 1,700 social-studies teachers and 1,000 high-school seniors to understand how American slavery is taught and what is learned. The findings were disturbing: There was widespread slavery illiteracy among students. More than a third thought the Emancipation Proclamation formally ended slavery. (It was actually the 13th Amendment.) Nearly 60 percent of teachers did not believe their textbook’s coverage of slavery was adequate. A panel made up of the center’s staff, an independent education researcher with a background in middle- and high-school education and a history professor with expertise in the history of slavery looked at how the books depicted enslavement, evaluating them with a 30-point rubric. On average, the textbooks received a failing grade of 46 percent.

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a program at the Southern Poverty Law Center that promotes diversity education, said the rubric used to analyze the textbooks was about seeing how the history of enslavement was integrated throughout a book and exactly what those contents were. In most teachings, she said, slavery is treated like a dot on a timeline. “The best textbooks maybe have 20 pages, and that’s in an 800-page textbook,” Costello told me. “At its best, slavery is taught because we have to explain the Civil War. We tend to teach it like a Southern problem and a backward economic institution. The North is industrialized; the South was locked in a backward agricultural system.” About 92 percent of students did not know that slavery was the war’s central cause, according to the survey.

Ms. Stewart notes that teaching about slavery often begins before high school:

The law center’s study focused on high-school students, but the miseducation of children generally begins much earlier. Teachers bungle history as soon as children are learning to read. Because teachers and parents are often so afraid to frighten children, they awkwardly spin the history of this country. They focus on a handful of heroes like Harriet Tubman, whose is picture is tacked to bulletin boards during Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Elementary-school students learn about our nation’s founders but do not learn that many of them owned slaves.

Ms. Stewart invited readers to share how and what they learned about slavery. She featured some of their responses in this article: “‘It Was Very Humiliating’: Readers Share How They Were Taught About Slavery.” Some readers said that when they were in school, the emphasis was on the “good” parts of slavery:

In the fifth grade, my textbook said that many enslaved people were “sad” that slavery ended, because their enslavers took care of them and gave them food and clothing. I took the book home, and my parents made me go back to school and tell my teacher to change the book and teach us the truth — my parents said “justice demanded it.” — Kian Glenn, 32, went to school in Eden Prairie, Minn.

In my 10th grade American history class, we were given an assignment to write the “pros” and cons of slavery. Many of us questioned what, if any, “pro” would there be, but the assignment stood. — Deirdre Sheridan, 24, went to school in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Other readers shared that they had been told that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War and that instead it was states’ rights or Southern economic interest:

In eighth grade, we debunked the “myth” that slavery caused the Civil War. Instead, we learned, the Southern states felt as though their rights were being encroached on by the Northern states, and thus “states’ rights” actually led to the breaking up of the Union.— Daniel Tran, 20, went to school in Windham, N.H.

My high school history teacher was a strict economic determinist — all wars are fought for economic reasons, whether or not those reasons were actual or merely perceived was moot to him. To him, slavery was not a cause of the war, except to the extent that it threatened the economic interests of landed Southerners. John Beauregard, 79, went to school in Windsor, Conn.

Some readers recalled poorly constructed lessons and demonstrations:

One day, I was looking at a work sheet my little sister brought home from school from the fourth grade. Two questions in particular caught my eye. One was “In what region did the African workers primarily settle?”

And another was “Why did the Virginia colony need African slave labor?” I couldn’t believe the work sheet referred to enslaved people as “African workers,” as though it was voluntary. I also couldn’t believe it said Virginia needed slave labor.— Hannah Lang, 23, Leesburg, Va.

In the fifth grade, I was one of three black girls in the class, and all three of us were assigned to be “slaves” during a presentation. I told my teacher that I was too nervous to give the presentation, and he told me to add that into the role playing.

He said if my voice shakes or cracks, I can say I sound like that because “massa will beat me or sell me if he knewed I was talkin’ to y’alls.” It was very humiliating, and I felt horrible afterward.— Mary Watts, 29, went to school in Orlando, Fla.

Other readers shared that very little class time had been dedicated to learning about slavery:

I was one of the few African-American students at my high school in Southern Virginia. While taking Advanced Placement U.S. History, I noted that our book only had about one and a half pages on slavery, which included the half-page diagram of a slave ship.— Brian M. Williams, 39, went to school in Botetourte County, Va.

There was minimal discussion about slavery at my school, but in our Texas history class, a teacher joked, “If the South won, you would be our slaves.” I was one of four black students and we looked at one another in shock. The teacher became angry and said it was “just a joke.”— Gina Kennedy, 46, went to school in Dallas

While many readers thought their education about slavery had been lacking, some believed their teachers had effectively taught about slavery:

I had an excellent, but unorthodox, U.S. History teacher. During one discussion, he said this: Enslavers loved enslaved people “like they loved their dogs.”

During that time, I think it was common for people to believe the adage: Enslavers “loved their slaves.”

I believe a student brought this up in discussion. Mr. Hall’s comment told us that “love” might mean something very different than appreciation. This realization was profound to me.

I came to see that it could be love of property, love of economic advantage, love of defining and “being superior,” love of degrading people.— Suzanne Zintel, 76, went to school in Ridgewood, N.J.

Students, read at least one of the articles, then tell us:

  • Did any of the reader comments resonate with how you have learned about slavery in school? What lessons or readings have your teachers used that you thought were effective? Are there other things you have learned or read in school about slavery that were inaccurate or unhelpful?

  • How was slavery framed and talked about when you were in elementary school? Both articles talk about how heroes, like abolitionists or black people who escaped to freedom, are of focus, particularly when teaching younger children about slavery. Do you think that young children need to be protected from the horrors and realities of slavery?

  • In the first article, Tiferet Ani, a social-studies specialist, suggests that teachers should use textbooks sparingly when teaching about slavery. What do you think? How do your teachers use textbooks and other sources to teach about slavery?

  • What language was used in school when you learned about enslaved people? How were enslaved Africans and free black people described or referred to? What were the causes of slavery that you learned in school? How does that compare with what you know now? Who were prioritized as key figures in slavery and abolition? Did you learn about rebellions or the resistance of enslaved people? How were national divisions described in what you learned about slavery?

  • What do you think should happen so that slavery is more accurately taught in schools? Do you think there should be national or statewide requirements? Who would determine those requirements? Do you think it is possible to have a national consensus on the reality and legacy of slavery?