Teaching Hard Lessons: American Schools’ Avoidance of Slavery

This Fall, I had the privilege of teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel I’ve read and taught time and again, and one that never fails to overwhelm with awe, silence, and turmoil.

Towards the middle of the novel, Sethe, a runaway slave, is found by her former master.  Rather than see her children be taken into slavery, Sethe kills one of her children, a daughter.

I choose to read the scene out loud to students, the classroom resonating with images of baby’s blood, fear, horror, and despair.  We argue over Sethe’s love for her children, a love that gave her the strength, if indeed it was strength, to draw the teeth of a saw along the throat of her babe.  I’ve done this for years.  Dozens of students have visited school after they’ve graduated and have recalled this specific read-aloud as one of the most powerful moments in their high school education.

And time and again, my students, almost all of whom are Black, say things like, “I knew about slavery, but I didn’t know about slavery.”  And their eyes water.

This specific read-aloud moment came to mind recently as I read a piece on how difficult it is to teach hard history, particularly the history of American slavery. 

According to the article, “nearly 90 percent of teachers agreed that ‘teaching and learning about slavery is essential to understanding American history.’  Many reported feeling uncomfortable teaching slavery and said they get very little help from their textbooks or state standards.”  Specifically, these textbooks and standards present “lessons [that] focus on politics and economics, which means focusing on the actions and experiences of white people.”

I, thankfully, didn’t teach Beloved in my first year of teaching.  That would have been a disaster.  Teaching this history, particularly as a White educator, requires deep introspection, reckoning, and the humility to ask for support.  I am blessed to be surrounded by colleagues of color who were, and are, patient with my ignorance and naïveté and take the time to educate me, something that they surely do not have to do.

I had to think about how to present Beloved, its story, and its history in a meaningful way that not only honored the power of Morrison’s work, but also honored the very real people who not only experienced the dehumanization of slavery, but sought myriad ways to demonstrate and protect their humanity.  Further, I had to teach the story in a way that also acknowledged the generations who came after, including today’s, that continue to feel the effects of 400 years of chattel slavery right here in the Land of the Free.

I supplement Morrison’s words and her characters with sepia-toned images of slavery in the United States.  We read of Sethe’s chokecherry tree of scars along her back, and then sit in silence facing the undeniable realness of a slave named Gordon.  We read of Paul D, a friend of Sethe’s, being punished by his slave master by being forced to wear a bit in his mouth, and then face the shocking image of spiked collars that were used to punish real people right here in America.

I write these words on President’s Day, a day of patriotism that inevitably casts our founding fathers in an impenetrable nimbus of purity and infallibility.  Let’s just do a quick fact check.

George Washington “father” of a nation conceived in liberty, slave owner.  Thomas Jefferson, writer of “all men are created equal,” slave owner.  Patrick Henry, utterer of “give me liberty, or give me death,” slave owner.  John Jay, figurehead of law and justice, slave owner.  James Madison, fourth president of the United States, slave owner.

It comes down to humanity.  The most important stories in history can be diluted by statistics and impersonal, omniscient narratives spoken from a birds eye view from up on high.  To teach this history, to tell this story, I had to bring it back down to earth and focus on a single truth – these were people.  This happened here.  This is our past, and it is inextricably connected to our present.  This is us.

What do you think?

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Zachary Wright

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