TIPS FOR TEACHING DIFFICULT HISTORY
Start by acknowledging that this is difficult history.
Many young people find African American history depressing. Hip hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs said,
“If you study black history, it’s just so negative, you know. It’s just like, ok., we were slaves, and then we were whipped and sprayed with water hoses, and the civil rights movement, and we’re American gangsters. I get motivated for us to be seen in our brilliance.”
Combs reminds us that the whole story—the long arc of the African American experience—is important. We all want to be seen in our brilliance! Fortunately, there are plenty of examples in African American history. Still, we acknowledge that, as Beyonce wrote in the September 2019 issue of Vogue,
“Connecting to the past and knowing your history makes us both bruised and beautiful.”
Michelle Obama tells us why this work is important. In Becoming she writes,
“So many of us go through life with our stories hidden … We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American. That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”
We are no longer satisfied with history as written by the victors, as the old bromide goes. Writer James Baldwin sets the stage for a productive educational experience for our students. He wrote,
“To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”
Reources we recommend to support teaching difficult history are
- Understanding and Teaching American Slavery (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016)
- “Learning for Justice,” (formerly Teaching Tolerance) a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tolerance.org, particularly their frameworks for teaching about slavery for grades 3-5, and for grades 6-12.
- “Race: The Power of Illusion,” PBS. Online companion to California Newsreel’s 3-part documentary about race in society, science, & history.
What Not to Do
We do not recommend role playing or using games to teach students about this history.
At no time should any students be asked to place themselves in the role of enslaved person or master, or to calculate the value or act out an exchange of an enslaved person.
Connecticut’s Difficult History
- The founding of Connecticut began with displacement and violence against First Peoples and adoption of slavery involving violence against and forced arrival of Africans by white colonial settlers.
- Nonetheless, orient your students to the three main groups of people who were here at the founding of Connecticut. By understanding that at least three groups of people with very different stories founded Connecticut, students will begin their understanding of American history with less of a white-centric perspective.
- The Native Americans, who had been here for at least 10,000 years and were a constant and dynamic presence through the colonial period—and to the present.
- The European traders and settlers. In Connecticut the settlers were primarily British Puritans and the traders included the Dutch and other Europeans
- The Africans—both enslaved and free—who, though small in number, contributed mightily to the economic success of the developing colony.
- This material will elicit many feelings in your students. Tell your students that no one in your classroom is responsible for slavery and violence against Africans or the death of Native Americans and their displacement from their land. There should be no blaming or shaming in the classroom.
- We mourn and are sorry for those whose lives were lost due to the cruelty of slavery and war.
- Explaining, understanding, and accepting is not the same as condoning.
- As Baldwin says, we accept this history however, it’s what we do with it that matters. We are responsible for understanding the errors of the past, why they happened, and how each of us can make our world a more equitable and humane place that respects all human rights. We must respect people, our neighbors, and our fellow students who are not like ourselves.
- Courageous men and women throughout history, of all races, in Connecticut and elsewhere have worked to make society more equitable for all. They are role models for us.
Slavery in a Global Context
- Slavery did not begin in the U.S. Slavery was practiced in Ancient China, and Ancient Greece, and Rome.
- Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans all enslaved and were enslaved at some point in history, including before European contact, as part of war or as an economic choice.
- Other modern slave societies in the Americas included Brazil, Cuba, and British and French colonies in the Caribbean. Many European countries were involved in the slave trade.
- Unlink any ideas students may have about slavery and race. History tells us that slavery has not been tied to one race. From Understanding and Teaching Slavery, p. XIV: “Probably the majority of human beings who ever trod the earth lived and labored in some kind of coerced relationship. … No peoples, however defined—by lineage, nationality, religion, and color—escaped enslavement at one time or another.”
- Ideas about race—at any point in history including today—are made up, constructed, and illogical.
Slavery in the American Colonies
- Slavery took different forms. In African and Native American societies, slavery wasn’t generally a permanent status the way it was in the American colonies.
- In the American colonies, slavery did become tied closely to race and racist ideas.
- In the American colonies, slavery was different in the north and in the south however those differences do not ameliorate its extreme cruelty. Venture Smith’s story makes this clear.
- From Understanding and Teaching Slavery, p. XIV, “The origin of modern plantation slavery was singular: the planter’s near insatiable appetite for labor.” Slavery got a foothold in New England as elsewhere due to shortage of labor and because it was an expedient solution. Colonist’s first choice was indentured workers but they couldn’t get enough indentured workers.
- In the early colonial period, Native Americans were enslaved.
- British colonists made an economic choice that superseded the moral choice—that’s why it surprises us that white ministers were slave holders.
- Verses in the Bible were cited to show that slavery was o.k.—This teaches students to beware when a historical document is used to justify what society today understands to be wrong (including the U.S. Constitution).
- By the mid-19thcentury, the moral choice began to outweigh the economic choice—but it took a Civil War and 600,000 war dead to get there.
- English settlement in New England was about creating a new society, replacing and not becoming part of the society and culture that was already there. The Puritans’ religion motivated their actions.
- Slavery was never explicitly legalized in the Connecticut Colony. The first laws in Connecticut proscribed rights of enslaved people and required slave owners to be responsible for people they owned even after they had become free so that they would not become a burden on the town. In other words, the colonial leaders were only interested in maintaining the orderliness of the towns and minimizing the towns’ fiscal responsibilities. Slavery was later explicitly outlawed in Connecticut (by the gradual emancipation laws of the late 1700s and finally in 1848.) You can find Connecticut’s laws about slavery in Part IV and in the Primary Source Library.
- Slavery was enforced by violence and whites’ willingness to use extreme violence.
- In addition to direct involvement in slavery, Connecticut’s economy depended on the slave economy in other colonies and in the West Indies. From Understanding and Teaching Slavery, page 97: “By 1775 nearly 80 percent of New England exports went to the British West Indies” to feed and house enslaved people there.
- Equally true and important to emphasize, enslaved people exercised their agency and humanity at all times and resisted slavery and its process of dehumanization. Slavery did not define people: it was a status forced upon them—which is why it’s important to use the term “enslaved person” instead of “slave.” The humanity of every person in history must be kept front and center.
- Africans resisted in many ways:
- By staging revolts on 1 out of every 3 slave ships.
- By “self-emancipating” through a variety of means (running away, buying their freedom if that was an option)
- By maintaining and creating their African culture—the legacy of which is a unique African American culture that has contributed mightily to American culture—including jazz, hip hop, gospel/spirituals, and more.
- Native Americans resisted, persisted, and maintained their own culture, contributing words, concepts, and life ways to American culture.
- Many enslaved people were not successful in escaping slavery and many died because of the horrible conditions of slavery. There often was not a “happy ending.”
- Africans resisted in many ways:
- Not every white person held the same views in the colonial period. Venture Smith’s story shows us that in a society that held predominantly racist views, Venture had business relationships that showed he was trusted and respected and that he was able to trust some whites. He was cheated by some white people but he was also cheated by some black people.
Reflect and Learn How to Use It
We know that the legacy of slavery and the racism that continued afterwards in Connecticut and the United States is not behind us.
Consistent with the social studies frameworks’ recommendation to take informed action, how can each of us make our world a more equitable and humane place that respects all human rights? How do we show respect for people, our neighbors, and our fellow students who are not like ourselves?
The goal is not to erase difference and become one “colorless” or “color blind” society. We start by being open to other cultures than our own, by acknowledging that other cultures are American culture, and that (referring to the Michelle Obama quote) there isn’t just “one way to be American.” Are we listening to other voices? Are we making a place at the table, in the room, in our neighborhood?
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