By Brent Locke
As an educator, and specifically a white educator, teaching about enslavement is fraught with the potential for disaster (e.g., Will students get upset when they learn what the enslavement really was? Will the unit create tension among different racial groups in my classroom? Will their parents question me for exposing their children to difficult and uncomfortable stories?). Yet its exclusion from the curriculum would be unconscionable.
To make matters more complex, inherent in the conversation of slavery is the social construct of race. In their introduction to the March 2018 issue of National Geographic — Black and White: The Race Issue — the editors suggest: “Discussing race in our learning environments is critical. Race is one social construct that impacts the everyday lives of all students in this country. We have been warned not to discuss race, politics, or religion, but those very constructs are at the heart of human identity, human conflict, and human healing.”
As a former seventh grade social studies teacher (I just moved out of the country due to my partner’s job and am spending the year writing curriculum), my curriculum content area was American History, and I believed (and still do) there was no story more important to tell than that of how and by whom the country was built, shaped, and consequently how it is now understood. Each year, I was tasked with trying to guide my students in the story of America’s founding, and therefore the story of enslavement, to young impressionable and mostly white students.
As a white teacher working with both white students and students of color, I knew I needed to prepare my classroom for this unit. The most critical part of this preparation was building a culture of respect and empathy, one that allowed for disagreement and discomfort. When that culture was present I knew it would allow for the deepest and most transformative learning to occur. For example, after the unit, a student commented, “Not until this unit did I really understand how America was created.” Because of my own implicit blind spots, I knew I could not eliminate all stereotype threats or prevent students from wandering into often well intentioned but undoubtedly offensive race-related questions or comments. But I knew that we could hold each other accountable for our mistakes and comfort each other when needed. Before the unit began, I would also check in with my students of color to allow them the time and space to prepare for the unit. I explained to each of them individually what we would be covering and asked them what they might need to feel safe and understood. I also acknowledged that, as a white teacher, I might fall short and not be able to meet their needs personally, but that they had the right and were encouraged to seek whatever resources they needed to learn the material in a safe environment, including but not limited to seeking emotional support. This part of the process proved invaluable as I often received difficult and important questions that students were uncomfortable to ask in front of their peers, such as: “Why was skin color so important to slavery?” and “Why did Africans allow this to happen to them?
As the unit began, I asked each student to lean in to the discomfort, first by expressing what made them uncomfortable about the subject. I believe this helped each of them to see, in the broader sense, that everyone struggles in some way with having to learn about this painful part of American history. It also enabled students whose ancestors may have been enslaved to speak more candidly about what they were thinking and feeling going into this unit. Lastly, I explained that my goal was to help them understand this part of our history not only as a matter of horror and shame, but also as a time of remarkable resistance and hope. As the editors at Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, note in their issue on Teaching Hard History, we need to center the black experience. “Our tendency is to focus on what motivated the white actors within the system of chattel slavery,” they write “But, whether discussing the political, economic, or social implications, the experiences of enslaved people must remain at the center of the conversation to do this topic justice.”
I encouraged my students to question the curriculum and ask why I chose each story and the perspectives from which I taught. If it wasn’t already clear, I wanted them to know that all history and all teaching is biased and they should always feel free to question the stories we tell about our nation and how we choose to teach them.
The question I struggled with, though, was: Where do I begin? I still do.
Teaching the horrors of enslavement and the systemic oppression of a people based on their race is critical to understanding the American story, but in isolation it can create a narrative for students of color, specifically African-American students, that their ancestral story begins in a place of despair. As journalist Shaun King notes: “We must never allow black history to begin in slavery. Just like no point of white history ever begins in the lowest point in white people’s history. Black history must never begin in a place of pain and oppression.” This is a perspective I had not thoughtfully considered or allowed to influence my practice in previous years. As a teacher, I must acknowledge my shortcomings and adjust my curriculum in the future.
I know from student achievement and student feedback that after the unit’s completion my students had a strong factual and conceptual understanding of enslavement. If I am honest with myself, however, I centered the American story as one of oppressor vs. oppressed, using the excuse that I didn’t have enough time to teach it all. I was proud of teaching the many forms of resistance to the institution and practice of slavery both in micro and macro ways, as well as the exceptional stories of African Americans whose names are remembered in history. But I also must acknowledge that the story I presented to my students was incomplete. It is not enough to prime the enslavement unit with a brief conversation of Africa’s diverse, advanced, and nuanced history in a general context. If I want all students in my classroom to understand both the pain and the beauty in Black history, and therefore in American history, I must not begin at the lowest point. While this perhaps implies that the year-over-year scope and sequence of the history curriculum must be examined, which it should, it is also critical that enslavement be taught with a more nuanced picture of African-American history within the unit.
As my educational journey continues, I find that embracing both the privilege and the history of my race are necessary to becoming an effective educator for each student I encounter. While I can accept my flaws on a human level, I also know that I must continuously work to uncover my blind spots because they continue to prevent all of my students from accessing a truly anti-bias curriculum, and at worst can endanger my students perceptions and perspectives.
Moving forward, I will continue to seek feedback from peers, students, and parents about their experience with the unit. Additionally, I will continue to look holistically at my entire course to examine the amount of time I spend teaching about different racial and ethnic groups and genders — the perspectives with which I present history to my students. Most of all, I know that if I teach this unit again, I will begin with stories and experiences of Africa before colonization. Those stories are essential for students to effectively learn the deep injustices and heroic resistance that came next.
Brent Locke is currently writing early childhood curriculum on social-emotional learning and trauma in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with an international development company. He was most recently teaching social studies, leadership, and cultural responsiveness at an independent school in McLean, Virginia, where he also served as the Dean of Students and Social Studies Department Chair. He previously taught elementary math, science, and social studies in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the Teach for America program. Brent has a Master’s in Education Administration and Leadership from George Washington University.
 This came as a suggestion from Teaching Tolerance’s Issue on Teaching Hard History. See link in Resources section.