Slavery as a topic needs no introduction to most Americans. But it does need an introduction to children; and how the facts of Negro Slavery in America has been taught to school children has often been as fraught with tension and controversy as other spheres what used to be known as "race relations."
So, the foundation of this nation was built on the backs of enslaved workers, who were mostly Black, setting the tone for a racially sensitive American society. The institution of slavery is considered in history, as a form of man's inhumanity to man, and its impact still lingers. Congress went so far as to apologize, in 2008, for the racism that was born out of slavery and its successor Jim Crow. But the subject that once divided a nation is an important part of our history. So it was not surprising that the lesson plan of a white Virginia elementary school teacher introducing her fourth grade class, last month, to the issue of slavery provoked a furious response.
What raised eyebrows was the six year veteran's approach. She conducted a mock slave auction in which she required and made her class' African-American students and mixed-race students to play the role of the human property to be sold, and her white students to be the "buyers" of their classmates of color.
The reaction from parents and educators was blistering, and the teacher faces disciplinary action.
Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the noted historian and educator, and former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, believes punishment is appropriate because the exercise may constitute a violation of the Black students' civil rights. The lesson, in her opinion, was "misguided." Berry also believes it may challenge the rights African Americans worked so hard to gain and preserve. "Under the education amendments and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," she said, "you are not supposed to do things in federally funded institutions, [such as public schools] that discriminate against people based on race," she said. "This might be characterized as discriminating against the students, if they are told they have to be the slaves."
Berry and others have said that the consequences of making young students play "masters and slaves" in an exercise of discrimination are hard for children to bear. An African American fourth grader in Ohio reflected the feelings of confusion and shame during such an exercise in his classroom where he was one of those forced to play the "slaves." Apparently, in March, another white teacher, this time in Ohio decided to re-enact a slave auction in her class. The teacher did not choose slaves and masters strictly according to race, but the random method she used ended up with one of two black students on the faux auction block. The boy, in describing the incident to a local television station in Columbus, said that when classmates started "bidding on people it made me a little mad." The 10-year-old refused to participate any further and his mother claims her son was "humiliated" by the experience.
The youth of these students had many people in the community upset, but the lack of racial sensitivity remains the biggest issue. Berry said that it's, "insensitive to Black students to have them act out the behavior of slaves and have their peers, people treating them as if they were, examining them, trying to assess whether they'd be a prime field hand." She added, "it boggles my mind that a teacher wouldn't think it through enough to realize that's not an appropriate lesson."
Educator and Historian Judith Bentley, a historian, was equally disturbed by the divisiveness of the lesson. She is the author of "Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett & William Still: Collaborators on the Underground Railroad," written for adolescents, which tells the story of two unlikely friends – Still, a free Black man, and Garrett, a white Quaker – joining together to help Blacks escape slavery. Bentley wanted to share the story with a young audience because she feels it is important for children to know their history. Her book has also been used in classrooms as a teaching tool. Bentley, who is white, sees the value in teaching through experience, but believes the incident in Virginia proves those teaching about slavery especially those not from the black community should tread carefully. Bentley said that some whites are likely just not that sensitive to how the discussion of slavery makes Black children and adolescents feel. "That insensitivity can undermine any lesson plan," she said. But she champions the idea of re-enactment, if done right. She said, "I certainly understand the desire to teach through experience. But I think it's very hard to do."
One educator who made it look easy is Jane Elliot. She is the author of the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment that has garnered praise over the course of four decades. In 1968 after Martin Luther King's assassination, Elliot, then an elementary school teacher in Iowa, addressed her all white class about the issue of race to help them understand what King had died for. She asked for their participation, then segregated her young students according to eye color. Blue eyes were deemed to be superior and brown eyes inferior.
Unlike the Virginia re-enactment the rules of division were arbitrary in Elliot's case. According to Bentley, that's why that lesson was successful. It eliminated race as a factor. Bentley reiterated, separating children by race reinforces the racial problems that hide in the plain sight of society. In teaching the valuable lessons of slavery, a teacher must know their audience and establish an appropriate plan of action along with sensitivity training.
Dr. Sharon Draper, a Milken National Teachers of the Year, an honor established by the Milken Family Foundation to reward outstanding educators, is the author of the historical novel "Copper Sun", based on the slave experience. Draper believes proper planning and preparation are a must in confronting harsh lessons of the past. As an African American educator, she promotes educational building blocks as much needed tools to help children absorb lessons that carry heavy baggage along with them. "I think the information [on slavery] should be given at grade four." She explained, "it's like you're not ready for trigonometry in grade four but you are learning multiplication and division so that you're ready for it when you get there." Similarly, she said, children should "learn the building blocks in grade four about slavery, so that by the time [they're] in eighth grade, [they] you can [understand] the detailed intricacies."
Draper added, however, the re-enactments were not building blocks, they were in fact "inappropriate" lessons that were doomed to fail. She wants kids to succeed in learning and believes in their potential.
Like Bentley's "Dear Friend", Draper's book "Copper Sun" was written for adolescents. To help students grasp the material, it includes a companion piece with the novel in the form of preliminary questions for teachers to ask the students before students receive the book or even the topic of slavery as a way to build up to the lessons the literature provides.
Moving forward, these educators hope the two controversies have alerted educators and parents to a fundamental point: that when it comes to teaching children about slavery, proceed with caution or simply don't go there.
Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger for GrayCurrent.com