Parents, do you know what your schools are teaching about slavery? What do you know about it? Do you think it is a valuable part of American history or a cruel and painful period that should be minimized or forgotten for the sake of “moving on”?
The movie “12 Years a Slave” [See video below] got me thinking about the following statement: Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. Those who don’t know (or don’t care to know) the ravages of slavery are inclined to twist or trivialize its truth to appease their own guilt, discomfort and/or ignorance. This goes for black folks, white folks and every other American. Some chose not to see this movie for those reasons. Others find the subject too violent, exploitive or enraging. And there are some who could care less.
When you sweep slavery under the rug, you allow others to alter the facts to suit their conscience. This tampering of truth is often passed on to our children through our schools.
I ask these questions because as a writer who also moonlights as a college adjunct and substitute teacher, I have witnessed the ignorance and “misteaching” of slavery. Just a few days ago, a veteran teacher and I talked about slavery as a teachable moment in history. She said to me, “Some blacks volunteered to be slaves.” That statement of course, was grossly incorrect. My professionalism briefly took a backseat to sarcasm as I raised my hand and exclaimed, “ Oo, pick me! I wanna be a slave!”
She nervously chuckled and sipped her tea. I quickly softened my tone and reiterated the truth about how we were captured against our will, shipped, beaten and sold like cattle. She told me we sold ourselves. Wait… Was she insinuating that slavery was black peoples’ fault? Imagine what she taught her students.
Another teacher I assisted last year, was giving his fourth graders a lesson in Illinois slavery. (Yes, Illinois was once a slave state). Among other things, he earnestly said to his students, “Unlike the South, slaves in Illinois were treated like employees.” I gave him a “Whatchu-talkin’-‘bout-Willis” stare. So did the little black girl I was helping in his class. She knew what was up. Even the white students knew what was up. A blond pigtailed girl exclaimed, “But Mr. (Bleep) employees get paid; slaves don’t.”
I gave that student a mental high five as Mr. (Bleep)’s, face flushed. He saw my reaction and called me out. “Ms. Edye, have YOU ever lived down South?”
“Actually I have,” I confidently answered in my “educator” voice. “In Charlottesville, Virginia, five minutes away from Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which I frequented on school field trips. My mother, an activist and organizer, trained University of Virginia students to peacefully protest against discrimination at school . She even knew Dr. King!”
The students’ “Oo’s and Awesomes” surprised me. Did I earn some major cool points? Hecky yeah! I segued into the subject of slavery and how terrible it actually was whether down south or in Illinois. Kids were separated from their families and sold to other plantations, never to be seen again. Just imagine being separated from your mom and dad, treated inhumanely and beaten. Certainly employers don’t do that.
I felt blessed that the teacher called me out so I could keep it real. And he didn’t buck me when I did, though today he avoids me in the hallway.
A few years ago, I read in the community newspaper how a few black parents complained about how American slavery was taught in our diverse but predominantly white schools. Admittedly, it was a risk I took to give my kids a better education. But I quickly learned I had to stay on my P’s and Q’s to counter any cultural whitewashing that are oftentimes bundled with “good education”.
Which brings me to you, dear parents and educators; if you’re brave enough to take a glimpse of what slavery was really like, I urge you and your mature teenage students to see “12 Years a Slave”. Not only is it a brilliant cinematic depiction of one facet of history, it’s the closest thing to truth I’ve seen about slavery. Maybe if more parents and teachers see the movie, it will help keep it real and change the dialogue in our schools.
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