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It’s Not So Black & White

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Discussing racial issues can make students and teachers uncomfortable. Here, an educator shares her wisdom on teaching about slavery and other race-related issues.

 In October of 1998 public broadcasting stations aired a four-part documentary, Americans in Africa, that explored the central paradox of a democracy that declared all men equal but enslaved and oppressed one group to provide independence and prosperity for another. The filmmakers worked for nearly ten years, interviewing scholars, studying historic documents, and poring over personal narratives to produce a compelling examination of this central, painful, and extremely complex issue in American life.

With far less time and far fewer resources, classroom teachers across the country are faced with explaining the same issue. Your task is more difficult because your audience is children.

Slavery is a topic that makes many of us uncomfortable. Yet, black-white race relations in the United States have been forever shaped by slavery and its social, psychological, and economic legacy. It requires discussion. How should we approach the topic with children?

Too often I hear from young African-American students that they feel embarrassment in school when slavery is discussed. Ironically, slavery is one of the few ways the black experience is included in their schooling, even during Black History Month, a time of celebration. Uncomfortable with the portrayal of their group as helpless victims, students squirm as they feel the eyes of white children looking for their reaction to this subject.

In my professional-development work with white teachers, they sometimes remark how uncomfortable they, too, are with this example (and others) of the painful history of race relations. As one elementary teacher said: “It is hard to tell small children about slavery, hard to explain that young black men were lynched and that police turned fire hoses on children while others bombed churches, killing black children at their prayers. This history is a terrible legacy for all of us. The other day [another] teacher told me that she could not look into the faces of her students when she taught about these things. It was too painful, and too embarrassing. . . . If we are all uncomfortable, something is wrong in our approach.”

Something is wrong. While it is necessary to be honest about the racism of our past and present, it is also necessary to provide children (and adults) with a vision that change is possible. Where can we find this vision? We can look for it in our history, we can create it with our colleagues, and we can demonstrate it in our classrooms.

The Africans who were brought here as slaves were not just passive victims. They found ways to resist their victimization. All whites were not bad, and some black resisters found white allies. Concrete examples are critical.

For young children, examples can be found in picture books. One of my favorites is Faith Ringgold's Aunt Harriette’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (Crown Publishers, 1992). This story is told from the point of view of a young black girl who travels back in time and experiences both the chilling realities of slavery and the power of her own resistance and eventual escape. White people are presented in the story as enemies (slave owners) and as allies (hosts on the Underground Railroad). This dual representation is important for all children, regardless of color.

A white friend of mine often told her young son the story of how Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in 1955 and sparked her whole community to take a stand against racist whites during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The story was one of the child’s favorites when he was just four years old. Then one day he asked her, “Are all white people bad?” Now he was five, and already seemed to be feeling bad about being white.

I recommended talking more about what white people had done to oppose injustice. Jeanette Winter's book Follow the Drinking Gourd (Dragonfly Books, 1998) highlights the role of a white man and other white allies who offer assistance along the Underground Railroad.

When discussing a sensitive topic such as slavery, make sure all are treated respectfully as individuals. Follow the rule yourself, and don't allow children to be treated as if they represent an entire racial group.

When you feel uncomfortable or notice students squirming, acknowledge the discomfort. Let them know it is normal. You can say, “It is hard to talk about the time when there were slaves. It can make us all feel bad. Sometimes I feel _ .” You can fill in the blank yourself; feelings of guilt or anger are common.

Let students see themselves as agents of change and healing. Although slavery ended a long time ago, we still face racism today. By treating one another with respect, students are fighting racism.

Encourage them to note examples of bias and stereotypes in their reading. Children can learn to question whether derogatory depictions of other people are stereotypes. They can learn to ask who is doing what in the story's plot, and why; who is in the role of leader and who is taking the orders; and who has been left out of the story altogether.

Social studies and history curricula rarely emphasize examples of black or white resistance to slavery or racism. You're not alone in your discomfort with the topic, or your search for solutions. Share your concerns, frustrations, success stories, and resources with colleagues and friends.

Coming to terms with past and present injustice is often cause for anger and guilt, frustration and despair. All children, regardless of color, need to find the hope in this history. We must not insensitively sanitize the pain of those caught in the bind of oppression. We need to celebrate the strength of the human spirit to go beyond the roles of victim and victimizer. In doing so, we may inspire one another to do likewise in the struggle against the contemporary injustices we face.

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  • Subjects:
    Social Studies, African and African American, Curriculum Development, Slavery, Underground Railroad, Abolition, Civics and Government, Equality, Fairness, Justice, Civil Rights Movement, Human Rights, Pride and Self-Esteem, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences, Movies, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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