Parents and caregivers are children’s first teachers and play a powerful role in determining what children learn about history and in shaping children’s perspectives and our shared future. Discussing the history of slavery in age-appropriate ways can help children understand how that history influences life today.
Slavery is the institution that made racism a part of our nation’s foundation. The legacy of slavery is present in many current systems that disproportionately affect Black children and families, from mass incarceration and police violence against Black people to poverty and poor educational opportunities for people of color. If we are to build a future together, learning about the history of slavery and white supremacy is essential for healing and reconciliation as well as for justice and equity.
The following recommendations for how to talk with children about the history of slavery and race in the United States also provide age-appropriate information to emphasize in conversations. For older children and teens, topics and details can be expanded.
Explore Indigenous and African cultures before talking about slavery.
The histories of Indigenous and Black people neither begin nor end with European encounters and slavery. So instead of beginning conversations with slavery, first explore the diversity of African and Indigenous cultures.
Africa’s rich history is part of Black history. Emphasizing the fullness of life and cultural experiences in Africa can help children make connections with the people impacted by slavery.
Help children to understand that Indigenous people have a variety of cultures and have always governed their own nations in the lands that are now the United States. And Africa is a continent that has always been home to many people, nations and cultures. African and Indigenous people were leaders, doctors, teachers, skilled artisans, farmers and artists before they were enslaved.
Discuss commonalities to build understanding of diversity and identity.
Along with the exploration of African and Indigenous histories, talk about commonalities across cultures to help children build empathy and understanding outside their own communities. Discussing “cultural universals”—such as art forms, music, social organization, celebrations and basic needs—encourages children to recognize how people are bound together by similarities.
Having conversations about race and identity prior to discussing slavery is important so that children do not associate Black history and racial identity solely with slavery.
Help children to develop a strong sense of self and identity while recognizing and honoring diversity in the world. Encourage and support children to express pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.
Use appropriate language and clarify meaning.
Language can shape our perspective of events and people. In talking about slavery, use “enslaved person” instead of “slave” to reinforce the humanity of people and highlight that enslavement is something done to the person. “Enslaver” is preferable to “slave owner” or “slave master” and emphasizes that an action and effort was made to enslave people.
Encourage children to think and talk about the meaning of freedom. Being free means being able to choose what your life looks like without interference from others.
Explain the meaning of equity: that the same freedoms are held by all people, regardless of their individual or group identities. And discuss how people often make rules to serve their own interests. This means that sometimes rules are unfair, but people can work to change them.
Center the experiences of enslaved people to provide a fuller picture of slavery.
While the history of slavery in the United States includes violence and incredible cruelty, it is also a history of survival, courage and resilience. Therefore, it is important to fully explore what that history means and center the people who were enslaved.
Focus on the strengths, humanity and agency of enslaved people by using stories from their perspectives and those of their descendants.
Help children understand that enslaved people hated being held captive and wanted to escape to freedom. People resisted slavery to try and obtain some freedom in the midst of their enslavement, and resistance took many forms, ranging from everyday actions like slowing down work to armed rebellion.
Although it was very difficult and largely impossible, some enslaved people did manage to escape. Laws made slavery legal and escaping illegal, so enslaved people were often hunted and returned to slavery. But many people who escaped slavery went on to fight for freedom for all enslaved people.
Encourage a fuller understanding of slavery by learning about the efforts of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.
Discuss slavery as foundational to the history of the United States.
The institution of slavery is foundational to the United States, not something that happened separately from the professed values of freedom and democracy. Enslaved people built the wealth of our nation.
As Professor David W. Blight explained, “Slavery is not an aberration in American history; it is at the heart of our history, a main event, a central foundational story. Slavery is also ancient; it … has always tended to evolve in circumstances of an abundance of land or resources, and a scarcity and, therefore, demand for labor.”
As ancient as the practice of slavery is, so too is the fight against it. People have always struggled against the wrongs of slavery, and for centuries and in all cultures, people have resisted. Therefore, not only is the history of slavery foundational to our nation but so, too, is the history of resistance to slavery. As Jalaya Liles Dunn, LFJ’s director, pointed out in our Fall 2022 magazine about the foundation of the United States, “From the time a limited form of democracy was introduced, abolitionists and activists across a 400-year span challenged the institution to expand—that struggle is foundational to our country.”
Help young children understand the meaning of slavery as when a person owns another person as property. The main purpose of enslaving people is to make money, and enslaved people rarely earn money for their work. When people are enslaved, their enslavers control their actions and can say where they move, what job they do, what food they will eat, what clothes they will wear, with whom they will live, whether they can learn to read and write, and much more.
Explain that Europeans enslaved millions of Indigenous people, and the rich cultures of Indigenous people persisted despite the colonial invasions. Many people are now working to support the resurgence of Indigenous languages and ways of seeing the world.
Millions of people were brought against their will from Africa and enslaved in the Americas. Enslaved Africans brought skills, food, music, clothing, language and religious practices with them‚ a cultural heritage that is still with us in our daily lives.
Slavery was allowed in many societies throughout human history and for hundreds of years was legal in what is now the United States. But people worked for generations and fought for the change that ended slavery.
Help children understand that enslavers exploited the highly skilled labor of enslaved people for their own profit. The forced labor of enslaved people built many important buildings and institutions. European colonization itself depended on the work of Indigenous people and, later, African people.
Discuss the honest history of slavery in age-appropriate ways.
As Jordan Lanfair, a Chicago teacher, said in this 2018 interview with Learning for Justice, “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams, but we don’t know that unless we know what our ancestors went through.”
The history of slavery is not a discussion of “two views” or a matter of multiple perspectives. Children can understand injustice and that there is no justification for enslaving another person. Understanding about our country’s history and present means knowing the honest history of how our nation was built.
Help children to understand that enslaved people had families—loved ones who enslavers could take away from them at any time. And enslavers often separated families to make more money or as punishment. Once separated, families were rarely able to communicate or reunite. After the end of slavery, many formerly enslaved people searched long and hard, often in vain, to find their missing family members.
Explore how enslaved people tried to maintain their cultures while building new traditions that continue to be important. For example, music was very important in the lives of enslaved people, and the music they created informs popular music today. Drawing from Indigenous and African oral traditions, enslaved people passed on stories, history, culture and teachings. Cultural practices, including crafts and food, that developed among Indigenous and African people continue to this day.
Point out to children that many people worked individually and in groups to end slavery. Once they escaped, many people who had been enslaved worked to change the laws that allowed slavery. And children need to know that not every white person agreed with slavery. Some joined groups that tried to convince people in power to end slavery.
Explain that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. People in the United States didn’t agree about slavery. Some believed it was wrong and should be ended; some didn’t mind it but didn’t want more people to be enslaved in new places; and others wanted to spread slavery to new states. People in the last group decided to secede from‚ or leave‚ the United States so that they could continue enslaving people. The United States, or the Union, fought the Civil War to stop some states from leaving. As the Union Army won victories, many enslaved people freed themselves by escaping; many also helped the Union Army, including by fighting as soldiers. When the Union finally won the war, slavery was ended by an amendment to the Constitution.
Connect past and present, and talk about race, racism and white supremacy.
Discussing race—particularly encouraging children to understand it as a social construction rather than a biological fact—can be an opportunity for thoughtful conversations.
Talking about slavery is not possible without discussing race, racism and white supremacy. Our identities can affect our feelings about these topics, so it is important to take time to consider our own identities and relationships to this history.
As Professor Blight points out, “Of all the reasons or justifications used to enslave other human beings, race was late to the long story. Racial slavery came out of the epoch of the slave trade, which of course lasted four centuries in the Atlantic, and likely longer in the Indian Ocean.” It is important to explore why slavery became racial and that it “was made so by people in historical time.” White supremacist ideology provides one of the deep roots of slavery and ongoing racism.
We can point out to children how Indigenous and African cultures are present in our society along with examples of structural racism that can be traced back to slavery and white supremacy. Help children understand how slavery and race are connected. Slavery came to be associated with Blackness, and white people developed racist ideas to justify enslaving people of color.
Explain how differences, whether real or perceived, can make some people feel that it is OK to treat others badly, to exploit other people and to believe that some people are better than others. And the power of ownership of other human beings made people feel that their imagined superiority was real. Explore how perceptions of racial differences remain in the United States today. These perceptions continue to impact whether all people are truly free.
Even though slavery became illegal, labor exploitation and the oppression of Black and Indigenous people has never gone away.
We are continuously reminded of the values of democracy—including freedom, equity and justice—by generation after generation of Black people who struggled and continue to struggle to make those values a reality for this country. That movement defines our nation and renews our democracy, and it includes countless people through the centuries: those who held on to a memory of freedom, who sought escape, who revolted and resisted, who lived and loved, who wrote and advocated for the abolition of slavery, who fought for freedom, who protested for civil rights, and who continue to fight for justice and equity. The Black freedom struggle threads the real ideals of democracy throughout U.S. history.
Learning for Justice Resources
To learn more about key concepts for discussing slavery in the United States and how to teach this history to children, explore these resources from Learning for Justice:
“‘All Our Terrible and Beautiful History’: Teach American History as a Human Story” by Professor David W. Blight
“‘We Are Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams’” by Monita K. Bell