Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why We Can't "Save" Teaching Slavery until Our Civil War Unit

Update: June 2020 - This post has been updated to include some new resources that have come out since I first wrote this in 2014. See those at the bottom. Many teachers, perhaps especially white teachers, are uncomfortable teaching about slavery. As a white teacher myself, I have concerns about how my students of color react to lessons about these topics. Before delving into some of the topics below, I highly recommend the podcast "Seeing White."  Being uncomfortable does not give us a pass on teaching this material. It is our collective ignorance and amnesia of African American history that perpetuates the problems we still have in our country. See this new resource from the National Museum of African American History and Culture for help with talking about race in general.

Unfortunately, slavery is a topic almost invariably “saved” until just before the curriculum reaches the Civil War.  Doing so, however, oversimplifies both slavery and the causes of the Civil War. Including slavery as a topic earlier in the year gives students a better appreciation for the diversity of the slave and slaveholding experience. (For excellent background on this check out Peter Wood, Black Majority,--see below for a "cheat sheet" on this, Donald Wright, African Americans in the Colonial Era, or the first two chapters of Peter Kolchin's, American Slavery).

Teaching about the early history of slavery in what became the United States also creates the opportunity to teach students about important problems in historical thinking.  Our images of slavery as existing mostly on large cotton plantations obscure important truths.  Because we know how the story goes--there will be a Civil War, slavery will be eventually abolished, and racism will still exist-- we take for granted certain things about slavery. Just because we know today that slavery became the dominant labor force in the American South doesn’t mean we should assume it was inevitable.  Re-read that last sentence: slavery BECAME the dominant labor force. It might not have been, right? Shouldn't students know that? And most students don’t even realize that slavery existed in the North at all. Which raises the issue, if slavery existed in the North, why did it decline in the North after 1776? And what does that say about the American Revolution?

But I am racing ahead.

So below are a few classroom teaching ideas for teaching about this period. I think it is important in order to dispel several myths about slavery held by many students:

1. that slavery was a new thing that started in what became the U.S. and only existed there
2. that slavery was always tied up with race
3. from the beginning, slavery was only in the South and all Northerners opposed slavery, while all Southerners supported it.

idea #1. Below is a chart one can reproduce or put on screen/board in order to generate a discussion.  I have included potential answers.  I have found that students are able to figure out most of the answers on their own, and so it is useful to do this with a partner or in small groups. Alternatively, you can use it as a whole-class discussion. However you do this, be careful about the messages you are sending. This is raw history, filled with trauma. Talking about slavery as a solution to the labor problem is historical; but this is one of those moments when teachers have to step in to acknowledge the pain of this history. Stories abound in the national news about teachers who made these errors. (See here or here for examples.)

white indentured servants
Native Americans
advantages as a labor force
- same race & culture (dispels the myth that owners prefered those of different background)
- no transportation costs
- more readily available
- plentiful
- more difficult for them to escape (both because they are visually different looking, but also where would they escape to?--can't easily get back to Africa)
- students aren't likely to figure out this one on their own: had a greater immunity to disease than Native Americans
disadvantages as a labor force
- limited; labor scarcity
- eventually had to give them their own land & freedom
- could more easily escape to rejoin their communities
- very susceptible to disease)
- very expensive
- language barriers

Idea 2. Here is another technique useful as a way to make students do the thinking.  You could simply tell students the information below, but if you give it to them on separate cards to put in order or in the format below, they have to use logic.  This technique could be used with lots of other topics.  I have chosen to use punctuation and capitalization as a clues to help students, but depending on their ability, you could omit those clues.  I also have learned that it is best to tell students which one is #1.

Put the sentences/phrases below in the order which makes the most sense.  Put the numbers in the blanks next to each phrase.

__4__ the worse conditions became for Africans.  The individual became more expendable.
__2__ Colonists, therefore, needed to import more slaves from Africa.
__7__ Restrictions on freedom led to greater resistance from slaves and more interference from whites.
__3__ The more slaves there were,
__1__ The need for slaves rose. (This one is sort of the result of decisions made by the chart above)
__5__ Racial tension increased.
__6__ Colonists passed laws to ease their fears about the number of Africans.

An interesting question: what does this little exercise above suggest about which came first, racism or slavery? I think students would be interested to know that historians disagree about the answer to this. See this lesson plan for resources to teach this topic (and thanks to Siobhan O'Connor whose comment below introduced me to this resource).

Idea #3. Once students understand how increasing numbers of African slaves led to the need for greater social control, you can show them examples of some of the slave codes. Here is a link to primary sources re: slave codes: And here is a link to 3 slave codes and my ideas on how to use them. And some useful info on codes in Virginia including a useful chart and another one.

Idea #4. One of the debates historians have had is whether or not it was possible for blacks to retain African customs and have any freedom--however limited-- given the harsh experience of slavery. I like to use this image (also a link to other teaching ideas on colonial slavery) in a very simple. Have students decide whether the image lends support to the idea that African customs and a certain amount of independence were possible by analyzing the image. Be careful that you do not imply or suggest that there was a positive aspect of slavery. And you can discuss with students why such a painting might have been painted in the first place. More info on the painting here.

Idea #5. Another common myth that students have--well, less of a myth than just ignorance, perhaps--is that slavery is something unique to what became the United States. One look at map #1 on this website should dispel that idea pretty quickly. If we are to make our U.S. history class a little less U.S.-centric and more international in focus (I know that seems contradictory) this is a good place to start. Maps such as these demonstrate that slaves didn't come from "Africa"--they came from specific areas within Africa. And the majority ended up in Central America, the West Indies, and Brazil, not the future United States.

Hope this helps give you some ideas!


Teaching Hard History: American Slavery - produced by Teaching Tolerance. There is also an accompanying podcast.
1619 project - a curriculum project inspired by the Pulitzer prize winning series in the New York Times in 2019
Washington Post articles about slavery and the teaching of it
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Thanks to Sioban O'Connor's comment below for introducing me to this resource, useful for African American history in every time period, not just slavery.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture - amazing resource
Historian Peter Wood on the shift from indentured servitude for blacks to an inheritance of slavery.
See also my later post on teaching slavery before the Missouri Compromise

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