USA TODAY US Edition
Careless history lessons can be traumatic
Classes can fail to teach complex Black history
On the first day of Black History Month 2021, a group of Wisconsin teachers gave sixth-grade students an assignment asking them how they would “punish” a slave.
As the month drew to a close, a Florida high school teacher was suspended with pay after allegedly telling students slaves were not whipped by white people and that the N-word, a racist slur, “just means ignorant.”
In February 2020, a student-teacher in Tennessee gave her fourth grade students an assignment called “Let’s Make a Slave” about a speech from the 1700s about keeping Black slaves under control.
In 2019, a fifth-grade teacher was accused of holding a mock slave auction in which white students bid on Black students in New York.
Such careless assignments and lessons can traumatize students, experts said, and they are just one example of how teachers have failed to teach the complex history of slavery.
“Unfortunately, (slavery is) addressed often in ways that are either marginalizing or it’s the only way that Black people ... are brought into the curriculum,” said Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas-Austin.
‘He did not want to be Black’
In May 2019, teacher Patricia Bailey made Nicole Dayes’ son and another Black student stand in front of their class while other students bid on them during a social studies lesson at North Elementary School, according to a lawsuit filed on Dayes’ behalf.
The children were told to refer to the winning students as masters and were warned not to try to escape because they would “be chased down and violence would be done to them,” according to a report from the New York attorney general’s office.
Dayes said her son had to receive counseling after the incident, which the attorney general’s office found had a “profoundly negative effect on all students present – especially the African American students.”
“He told me that he did not want to be Black anymore,” Dayes said. “He didn’t want to go to school because he didn’t know if he could trust the teachers.”
More than a year and a half after the incident, Dayes said her son, 12, still worries that he’s judged because he’s Black when they’re out in public and his friendships have been seriously affected.
‘Not isolated incidents’
Brown said that when teachers ask students to imagine themselves as slaves or slaveowners, they may be attempting to bring history to life to build empathy or give students a more emotional and visceral experience.
“We can never re-create, nor should we want to re-create, enslavement,” she said. “It minimizes the trauma of the history itself.”
Brown said these kinds of lessons are being taught at multiple grade levels across the country.
“These are not isolated incidents,” she said.
Dozens of teachers “proudly” reported that simulations were their favorite lessons when teaching about slavery, according to a report in 2018 titled “Teaching Hard History” from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which surveyed more than 1,700 social studies teachers and analyzed textbooks.
Teachers said they had students simulate the middle passage, the sea journey taken by slave ships from West Africa; others had students clean cotton and role-play as enslaved people and enslavers.
In addition to the problems with simulations, the SPLC report found that the U.S. education system fails to effectively teach about slavery across the board.
Teachers fail to discuss the relationship between white supremacy and slavery, teach about slavery as an exclusively Southern system, focus on the white experience instead of the perspective of enslaved people and rarely make connections between slavery and present-day structural racism, according to the report.
Machayla Randall, a senior at Cherry Hill East High School in New Jersey, said she grew disappointed and uncomfortable after years of learning only about the civil rights movement and slavery in school. She said she was never upset with her teachers but always wanted more from the curriculum.
“The fact that we only discuss (slavery) is kind of dehumanizing for the African American culture,” she said. “Especially in the perspective of history textbooks, we’re only seen as tools and people that were utilized.”
Brown said teachers struggle with lessons around slavery because they are not properly trained and because the country itself has had a difficult time addressing race and racism. Although some states adhere to common core standards, there is no national standard for teaching slavery, she said.
Slavery simulations should never be used in the classroom, according to Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of the SPLC project that produced the “Teaching Hard History“report. Instead, primary source documents can offer students more insight into the true experience of slavery, she said.
She encourages teachers to explain the root causes of the institution of slavery, the connection to political power and how injustices still impact life.
“We need to be honest and tell the truth,” she said. “We can’t romanticize it.”
Brown is cautiously optimistic that more conversations are being had about this topic, but she said she has experienced pushback to talking about racism.
“I’m curious to see how that will play out and whether we will see it to its full fruition or if we will let this moment pass as moments have passed before without really doing the work,” she said.
What can parents do?
If parents encounter a problematic assignment, Brown said, the first step is to talk to the teacher to understand the intention of the lesson. “That’s where you can begin to push for a more expansive and really transformative curriculum experience at the school,” she said.
As a parent, Brown said it is important for kids to learn about hard histories, including slavery, at home first and to humanize the experience of people who were enslaved. She emphasized that parents should make sure slavery is not the only time their children learn about Black history in school.
“As an African American parent or parent of Black children, I am interested to know how do Black people and the Black experience play out in the curriculum,” she said.
LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri who contributed to the “Teaching Hard History” report, suggested parents look at the assignments their children are given and consider what kind of message or narrative the work presents. He said parents should better educate themselves about the history of slavery and use additional resources to supplement what students may or may not learn in the classroom.
He noted that even when students are taught about slavery in a complex way, it can be difficult for them because “history is psychologically violent.” Creating space for students to critically examine the actions of people who have not been historically held accountable is “extremely important.”
“Holding white people historically accountable for their actions is extremely important if we’re going to teach slavery in a more humane way and complex way,” he said.
Students push for change
Black students demand better Black history lessons in their schools.
Only a few states, including New Jersey, Florida and Illinois, require public schools to teach Black history, but what exactly is taught is often decided by school districts.
Randall and members of her school’s African American Culture Club worked with authors and college professors to develop a Black history course, which was approved by the school board. The Cherry Hill School District became the first in New Jersey to require students to take African American history to graduate.
Inspired by a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College got the Denver Public Schools Board to unanimously vote to pass their resolution to ensure knowledge of Black, Indigenous, Latino and other communities of color are incorporated into every part of the curriculum.
Students Kaliah Yizar, Dahni Austin, Alana Mitchell and Jenelle Nangah push to make that resolution a reality by including a new textbook, Black History 365. Yizar, a sophomore, said focusing only on select civil rights leaders and slavery minimizes the entirety of Black history.
“When you only teach Black kids about them going through trauma and struggling, they’re going to think they’re only going to be able to have trauma and struggle,” she said.
Students at Stanford University launched a campaign called Diversify Our Narrative to get one book by and about a person of color added to the curriculum in every school. The campaign has attracted more than 5,000 student organizers in 850 school districts.
Victoria Gorum, the campaign’s director of project management and research, and fellow sophomore Beth Engeda said they were inspired to join the campaign amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. “In school, the only time I would get to read about Black people was in history textbooks ... they wouldn’t really talk about anything other than slavery,” Engeda said. “I just thought it would be better if schools had these things already incorporated into their curriculum.”