How it’s done. Tamara Spears teaches middle school Social Studies in New York and Jordan Lanfair is a high school English Language Arts teacher in Chicago. Each has been developing additional lessons about slavery for years. They share their experiences.
Earn professional development credit for this episode!
Fill out a short form featuring an episode-specific question to receive a certificate. Click here!
Please note that because Learning for Justice is not a credit-granting agency, we encourage you to check with your administration to determine if your participation will count toward continuing education requirements.
Subscribe for automatic downloads using:
Apple Podcasts | Google Music | Spotify | RSS | Help
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In the late 1980s, New York’s Board of Regents did something very few people expected. Together with the commissioner of education, they created a task force to determine if the state’s social studies curriculum adequately reflected the pluralistic nature of American society.
The task force was a veritable who’s who of scholars of color. And with great care, they examined the curricular materials used in New York’s public schools. What they found was disturbing. In a report entitled “A Curriculum for Inclusion,” they concluded that African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans were, as a whole, negatively characterized in the existing curriculum. They also discovered that the contributions made by these groups to U.S. society and culture were almost completely omitted. As a remedy, they suggested revamping the entire curriculum so that it reflected the multicultural experiences and contributions of every American.
I was in high school when the task force released its report, just chillin’ at Brooklyn’s finest public school—Midwood High School at Brooklyn College. Midwood is in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, a working-class neighborhood that produced the Fu-Schnickens, Special Ed and the Notorious R.B.G.—Biggie’s from around Bed-Stuy. So I can attest to the truth and accuracy of the “Curriculum for Inclusion” report. The black experience was almost entirely absent from my classes. Subjects like slavery were reduced to the unfortunate personal practices of a handful of men way down South somewhere. And when slavery was over, well, it was just over.
The “Curriculum for Inclusion” report came some 20 years after the height of organizing efforts by black Brooklynites to gain greater curricular control over the schools in their neighborhoods. In this sense, “A Curriculum for Inclusion” was long overdue. But it was still the Reagan era, so the report was also very much ahead of its time.
When the report was made public, political conservatives lost their collective minds. They accused the task force of “contemptuously dismiss[ing] the Western tradition” and of contributing to the “reduction of history to ethnic cheerleading.”
Bowing to political pressure, New York’s commissioner of education shelved “A Curriculum for Inclusion.” A few years later, another task force reached similar conclusions. But once again, the findings report infuriated the “Western tradition” crowd, so its recommendations were also largely ignored.
I am often asked, what was it about my early education that sparked my interest in history? Inherent in this question is an assumption that there were subjects covered in my elementary and high school classes that whetted my appetite for more. And in a sense, there were. But my historical curiosity did not stem from what I was learning in the classroom. It was, instead, a result of what I was not learning. I was not learning about slavery and its legacy in a way that made the slightest bit of sense to me given the stark racial inequality that I saw every day as I rode the subway to school. And I was not learning anything about enslaved people or their descendants—nothing about my people or me. My education as a kid was neither inclusive nor accurate.
In recent years, state social studies standards, including those in New York, have improved significantly. Although far from perfect, they provide many more opportunities than when I was in school to teach subjects like slavery. As I have watched these developments, I have often wondered what it would have been like to have sat in a class at Midwood High School where subjects such as American slavery received significant and substantive attention. Would I have chosen a different career path if I had been satisfied with what I was learning about America’s past and present?
But as I listened to Jordan Lanfair and Tamara Spears, the dynamic pair of high school teachers featured in this episode, talk about the exciting ways they teach the hard history of slavery, I became convinced that I still would have pursued a career as a historian. But I would not have done so to fill glaring gaps in my education; I would have done so to broaden and deepen what I had been learning. My motivation would have been positive, not negative, which I am convinced is the way it ought to be.
I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode we explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery.
Jordan Lanfair is an English language arts teacher in Chicago. Tamara Spears teaches social studies in New York City. For several years, each has been developing lessons about the history of slavery for their students. So we brought these two educators together for a conversation about their experiences. In this episode, they share their approaches to lesson planning, discuss the reactions of their students and reflect on the challenges they have faced along the way. They also offer practical advice for teachers who are just beginning to revise their curriculum.
I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy!
Jordan Lanfair: I am Jordan Lanfair. I teach ninth- and tenth-grade multicultural literature at an IB school on Chicago’s South Side.
Tamara Spears: I am Tamara Spears. I teach sixth through eighth grade out in Coney Island in Brooklyn.
Jordan Lanfair: I’ve worked with students from all across the spectrum, all over the world, but I’m really excited this year to be working with another predominantly black school. And definitely, I love working in my hometown. I’m a Chicago boy through and through, so ...
Tamara Spears: I’m mostly working with black and brown students, and I’ve been teaching social studies for my entire teaching career. So how do you approach teaching slavery with your students?
Jordan Lanfair: So, one of the things that I’ve been really big on, is I don’t teach slavery as an individual unit or, like, just one lesson. I don’t have a slavery curriculum. I have a curriculum, right? But it just so happens that you can’t talk about American history as it is without teaching black history. We kind of interweave our history and the history of black and brown people, but we intersperse it throughout the year. And so I really get a start with it when Columbus Day rolls around. We’ll use Columbus Day as an entry point to talking about the slave trade because we get to learn about his role in starting it. And from there, we’re able to move into more complex conversations about… what was slavery? What is its legacy? How do we remember those who survived slaves? And how did they shape America?
So that’s our entry point. That is a tangible day on the calendar that we can point to. So that’s something that I use annually. And we talk about other holidays: St. Patrick’s Day, Pulaski Day we have in Chicago—because all these days are days that were given to immigrants, ethnic groups that are white now but weren’t at that time, and those holidays kind of helped make them white. And then we kind of parlay into talking about Juneteenth, which is our real Black Independence Day. And so we use current events to use our historical knowledge, to use our literary analysis skills, our writing abilities, the things that they learn in my class to challenge the current system.
And so those conversations help ground us in who we are as a country, kind of what we celebrate, why we celebrate it, and then they give me the gusto to kind of change some perceptions about the history that we think we know, and what we can move into from there.
Tamara Spears: That’s pretty similar to how I incorporate the slavery curriculum. It’s interwoven, interspersed throughout the story because, like you said, it is American history. They can’t be separated. So black American history is American history. My course overall objective is to what extent do the ideas and experiences of American history shape the American society today? That’s the way that I weave it in, so each stop that we do on the curriculum train involves something about black Americans.
So, I start talking about slavery really with the Native Americans, and talking about Bartolomé de las Casas when he was suggesting that, instead of using the Native Americans, they use Africans. I also go back into West Africa with the Three Kingdoms, because in my school curriculum they don’t really cover it. We go through, like you said, with Columbus, colonial times, revolution, the invention of the cotton gin. And then when we get to the Civil War, I do stop the formal slavery, but then I start talking about, what are the legacies of slavery? Because that’s the thread that runs throughout my entire curriculum. What are the legacies of the things that we study?
I do use the current events that are happening today. So when we were talking about what was happening in Charlottesville, we started talking about, well when did these monuments actually come up? So, I do go through Jim Crow, we talk about World War I and World War II—how did that influence black thought? The Great Migration? And we go all the way through to the civil rights movement.
Jordan Lanfair: When I ground it in literature is I always start with, like, To Kill a Mockingbird, because that leads me to Jim Crow laws, which leads me to lynching, which leads me to talking about Emmett Till, which leads me to talking about “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, which, you know—it opens up all these doors for conversation. So that I still have students who in their heart of hearts never want to read To Kill a Mockingbird again, but they also can talk about all the issues around it. And so it’s always a lot easier for me to give them an entry point and work backwards. Unless I’m talking about, like Columbus Day, in—in which case I’m working forward.
Tamara Spears: So, my curriculum is more social studies-based, because it’s not a humanities class. But I do incorporate readings from outside. I make sure I have a heavy mixture of primary and secondary sources. I feel like primary sources are what the kids can really build their facts on, because when they’re making claims, I stress evidence. Not just evidence from secondary sources, but read the primary sources yourself. Do the history work yourself. So I have a heavy focus on documents and stories as well. So we read some of the narratives. We talk about, okay, what was it actually like for them? Why would they be skilled at growing rice? What were they doing back in West Africa or Central Africa or wherever they came from?
So I try to focus on the actual doing of the history. You know, we can read a text—even though I don’t use textbooks in my class, but we can read a textbook, they say, “Okay,” and they take that as the truth, the holy grail. But I’m trying to get them to see that they can do the work themselves. We have a few documents. Some of them, you know, you have to modify so that the reading they can actually understand what’s being said, but I mostly focus on the document approach. And then each period we go to, taking them through, “Okay, what are the documents from that period? What are the claims that people are making? What claims can we make ourselves?” That’s pretty much the way I focus on giving the kids in there doing the work themselves.
So we’ll start with the Middle Passage. Of course, we can look at the famous image of, you know, them placing the enslaved into the boat, but also, what are the numbers like? Where did people go? So we look at charts. We’ll look at graphs. We’ll say, “Oh! Only 4 percent actually came to, you know, what was North America—becoming America—[50 percent] went to Brazil.” And then that gives them also—this is a side thought—the connection of the African diaspora, and how it—South America, Central America, also the Caribbean. But if I’m thinking about other sources, we look at actual documents. Like, Josie Jordan recalls an outbreak of “malitis,” which is a story about how a group of enslaved people basically tricked their master into giving them some extra food. So that is a primary source that students will look at when we talk about, how did people resist, and in what ways can people resist slavery.
Jordan Lanfair: How do you think your students have handled these somewhat difficult conversations, these bigger topics?
Tamara Spears: I have never taught any other students besides black and brown, but my students range from sadness to rage, pity, denial and we even have apathy and sadness. Those are the emotions that they come with. And I—you know, I give them space and I let them know that you can feel what you’re feeling, but we’re not going to sit in any one emotion too long because we need to analyze these documents and read these stories about how people resisted these things that were happening to them.
Each year I see they have very skewed ideas—even being black and brown—of what is racist. What does that mean? And when I bring up systematic racism, they really have no clue what I’m talking about until I break it down to them and they say, “Oh yeah, I can see that.” So they know, but they just don’t know that they know.
I really had to go in and create a whole, I guess, mini-unit. Well, what is race? Because a lot of our students are products of the colorblind era, where if you say a color black or you say somebody’s white, they think of that as racism. So I really had to go back and do a lot of the work myself and come up with a mini-unit that was appropriate for the age. Talking about what race is. What is racism? How did these things develop? And that’s how I got into this whole… Okay, I have to go back as far as I can, to West African kingdoms. And even going back that far, I didn’t have a lot of information myself, so I had to do some homework. And still, to this day, I’m still looking for resources of what can I use to show that these were human beings who had lives before they came over here.
So when we do the Great Migration, they really get into—especially, you know, Chicago being one, New York is one of the other ones, they get into that. When we do World War I, talk about the Harlem Hellfighters, they get really excited about the fact that there’s a street that you wouldn’t even know was named after the Harlem Hellfighters. And we can go there and see the street and then talk about them. So they get pretty excited as well as the other range. So that’s pretty much how my students react emotionally to it. How about your students? How do they feel when you teach, and how do you approach?
Jordan Lanfair: Whenever I work with my black students, you know, the kids who look like me, and even brown, there’s just this great rage at not being taught it. Because when I’ve worked with Latino students, one of the spins that we’ve also put in is that the civil rights movement supported the workers’ rights movement, you know? Cesar Chavez, you know, had communication from Martin Luther King. I mean, even the 504 protests, you know, for Americans with Disabilities, got support from the Black Panther Party. So, there are… there’s always this great betrayal that they kind of mention feeling. That they’ve been in school all these years and they’ve never gotten accurate history or in-depth history in the way that they got to see themselves, and they kind of feel lied to. It can all just feel like this unbearable pain. But giving them the opportunity to challenge and to resist and to fight and to grow helps them take that pain and turn it into action.
And it’s always interesting because, when you start with Columbus Day in October, and we mentioned—and I mentioned Juneteenth, we inevitably end up talking about elections. And so one of the things I always teach about is, I teach the election, but I teach like, how are schools funded? What is an election? How do you vote? And whenever we talk about school funding, that’s another entry point. It’s because my kids have always realized Chicago’s one of the most segregated cities that you’re going to find. And they realize, like, my school is like this because of where I live. I live here because this is where, you know, people came or were forced to live. They came because of the end of slavery in the South and the racism. They were in the South because of slavery. So like, we kind of draw that line that, kind of where they are now and where we exist is that this cross-section of, you know, our own history and contemporary politics and issues. And so I try and build an action for them so that they feel not just this great weight of history, but that they can do something about it.
You know, when I taught the Holocaust, I would also try and pair it—not one-to-one unit pairing, but I teach the Holocaust in units. I try to teach slavery in units so that we can talk about who we are as people, right? And because one of the big things that I like my kids to know when they leave my course is: monsters don’t exist. People do. Monsters are, you know, these mythical things. They’re hard to stop. You know, we will—some people are like, “Oh well, Hitler was a monster.” No. He was a man, you know? You know, these slave masters, they weren’t monsters. They were people.
And so it was this attempt to get kids to see that these were people that did these things. Monsters are difficult. They’re… monsters hide and are terrifying and are unbeatable. People can be changed and people can be stopped.
Tamara Spears: So it sounds like you’re getting into, you know, the big concepts that you want them to take away. Would you say that those are the concepts you want them to take away from the overall study of it?
Jordan Lanfair: I think there are always a few. One of the things that was really cool to do this year was read To Kill a Mockingbird and go see Marshall. And I think the big takeaway for that was, the law is supposed to be… you’re supposed to be equal before the law, but people aren’t. You have to fight. That was the big takeaway, right? We got to read—for my seventh-graders, we read Number the Stars and The Diary of Anne Frank. And then we looked at the pyramid of hate from the Anti-Defamation League, and they outlined the ways that you get to genocide, right? There are these steps that every oppressive regime has followed, and it ends in genocide and mass murder.
And so my students looked at that, and then unprompted they looked—they just went, “That’s what happens to black people,” you know? It’s—you know, it starts with, like, name-calling and things like that. And then it works its way up to violence against property, violence against people and, you know, then it ends in murder and genocide. And they recognize that. And so that was a big takeaway, you know, being able to utilize the Pyramid of Hate to understand what happens if we don’t stop these behaviors early. So I think, depending on what I’m working with and on, I have different takeaways. But I do want them to be able to see how we are informed by history and their roles and responsibilities in shaping the future.
But what about you? Kind of like, when you look at your units, you know, or when you look at kind of what you worked on, what do you want them to see or know?
Tamara Spears: Well, I would say when I’m—I guess because I did say in the beginning, you know, it’s interwoven within whatever time period we’re in, but my overall takeaways for slavery itself is that it’s the foundation of this country. Not just for racial beliefs and the way we, you know, are socially segregated, I guess you can say, but also for the economic growth of the country. And I probably wouldn’t be too far off if I said Europe and the world at that time, it really was central to the development of growth.
Being in New York, I also focused the kids on, “What was New York’s role in this? What was the complicity? Why were we profiting so much off of something that we claim was only happening in the South?” And you know, those two things I really try to help them see. And the last thing I also want to focus on is the resistance. A lot of times they’re like, “Oh,” you know, “all of this was happening to them, and they didn’t do anything about it.” And we have to talk about the ways in which people resist. And when we go through each of our units and, like, say, when we get to World War II, because you did mention the Holocaust, and people will say, “Well why didn’t they just, you know… when they were in the camp, why didn’t they just overthrow the soldiers?” And it’s that same concept. What are the different ways that people can resist in the situation that they are in? What are the active ways? What are the passive ways? What are the ways they still hold on to being human? And that in itself can be a resistance.
So, I really focus on foundational for America, not only racially but economically, and the resistance that people had. And then I tie it all together with the idea of individual racism, as well as systematic. And how do we start to see things move from this is my individual thought to this is the institution of slavery. This is the legacy of the institution of slavery. So really, I guess that would be four concepts I try to get the kids to really see.
In my curriculum, slavery starts with the Middle Passage. It goes into the Civil War. And the New York curriculum, which is Passport to Social Studies, they do a pretty good job with slavery being the cause of Civil War. But I felt like something was missing. And then the incident with Trayvon Martin happened, and the way that I teach, you know, I start with current events and I go backwards. And that really messed with my head, and I said, “Well, how can I get these kids to see that the things that are happening today are legacies of the things that happened in the past, specifically slavery and the creation of race as we see it today, and white supremacy, and all of those things?” How can I get the kids to see that this is just not something that sprang up with Trayvon Martin or even Rodney King or Emmett Till?” Like, these things go way, way back.
So the Trayvon Martin murder was the point where I said, “For this next curriculum I really need to delve deep for these students—and for myself—to really look into the legacy of slavery, and how come it’s not something that we talk about much.” And this idea of race and white supremacy, and how did it build?
Jordan Lanfair: I think I’m similar in that, on some guttural level, there was something about Trayvon Martin’s murder that I think every black person kind of remembers how we felt. And it’s in part because you got to hear the 9-1-1 call. Like, I remember that. And I think we also remember where we were when we heard, you know, not guilty. We heard no indictment. When we—and so something about having to have those conversations really made me start thinking about—I was uncomfortable to have it, honestly. You know, I think now it’s so much easier to be as unapologetically black as we want to be, but it was hard. It was hard thinking about our history and trying to get other people to appreciate and understand. It was hard to—at least in my heart—try and get other people to grapple with their own history, and their—their family’s history, and their family’s role in the enslavement of black people and the persecution of Native people.
And it’s grown over the years. And the thing is, it never quite looks the same every year. There are always some things that I try and hit. So, I always try and hit Columbus started the slave trade. Columbus Day shouldn’t be celebrated. Juneteenth is a real holiday, and we enjoy ourselves and have fun, but we need to be critical of our country because if we actually love it, we’re gonna be critical of it. And that’s a lesson I got from Kaepernick too, you know? I think that was the—the major push for me, that my job as a teacher—because I’m not—I’m just not one for going to rallies. That’s me. Like, I have anxiety and big issues. And so I sat with someone once and was like, “I feel like I’m not doing the movement justice because I don’t go to these things because, you know, I have a friggin’ panic attack.” Like, “Well, what are you doing?” Like, “I’m teaching.” Like, “Well, what are you teaching?” And that was my challenge.
You know, why are they kneeling for the national anthem? Okay, well here’s why. Do you think we should sing the national anthem? Do you know that there’s a verse in it that, you know, mentions slavery? Okay, how do you feel about it now? Why are they doing this? Challenging those perceptions through education, through the resources we bring in, through the deep conversations and perspective, that’s kind of my part of the movement. And so that’s what got me into it and past my—my discomfort was realizing that, like, this is my lane. This is what I do. This is what I’m good at. This is what I enjoy doing. And so here’s how I serve the movement at large.
Tamara Spears: I like how you bring that up about, you know, being part of the movement. After what happened in Ferguson—Mike Brown—I was up on Twitter, like, night after night after night, losing sleep, crying, all these things, trying to follow along with the people on the ground. And then, you know, in New York we had, like—like you said—a rally, protest. And I went to it, and I was like, “Well, can I really afford to put my body on the line when I need to get in that classroom and work with the 60-odd minds that I need to help shape?” So, like you said, teaching for me is my path to being in the movement.
Jordan Lanfair: Mm-hmm.
Tamara Spears: I can’t necessarily go out to every rally or, you know, go to D.C. when they’re doing something, or even go to a place like Ferguson. But I can work with the kids. And when you talk about Kaepernick, you know, there was—there’s an issue when the, you know, when they come on and we got to say the pledge and kids are looking at me and I’m like, “You know, you don’t have to stand if that’s something you don’t feel like you have to do.” And then you have another teacher that says, “Well, you better stand.”
And then when we study in social studies—when we read, say, for instance, Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and those connections that they can make, and then you look at veterans’ tweets on Twitter. What are the veterans themselves saying about the issue? To me, that all leads back into, how do we use the curriculum to be current with the students? So that they can see that this is just not something you study and you leave in school. Like, you’re not going to leave what you learned about slavery in school. You’re going to use it to your advantage to know what is going on today.
Jordan Lanfair: Yeah.
Tamara Spears: I think for me, like you just said, that’s—that’s two of the reasons that I got into really focusing on—heavily on—how do we teach slavery? So, doing that work, Trayvon Martin and, you know, all the things that came after that, was really what was the impetus for me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. I’m your host, Hasan Kwame Jeffries. Teaching Tolerance recently launched another podcast called Queer America, about how to teach LGBTQ history in your classroom. It’s hosted by professors Leila Rupp and John D’Emilio. You can find our sister podcast Queer America in iTunes, or visit tolerance.org/podcasts. Once again, here are Jordan and Tamara.
Tamara Spears: So, I think you were talking a little about how it has evolved over time.
Jordan Lanfair: Over time, I think one of the big things that we kind of lock on to is the sense of community. That’s one of the things that I like to talk about. There is some camaraderie in survival. And there is this thread that brings us all together because we have survived and because we continue to survive. And that is to be admired. That’s to be cherished. You know, we still, of course, we’re living through the effects, like you said, of slavery. And so you know, when we look at the violence in Chicago, we… we take it from both a personal place because, you know, my brother was killed in Chicago, you know? And that’s always going to be a thing to me. So we look at it from a personal place. You know, many of my students have lost people. But we also look at it from a “How did we get here? Like, where is the violence happening? Where isn’t it happening? Where are, you know, a lot of our reports of police brutality? Where aren’t they? Why do you think that is? What does that mean for us?”
Tamara Spears: For me, that’s one of the things that has evolved over time: helping the kids see the connections. My first teaching year, I basically did a really good job of letting the kids know slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and that was pretty much as good as it got. Now I feel like I’m much more methodic and intentional about where I start and where I go. What’s the ending? What is the goal? And how did we get here?
Like you say, you know, about the violence in Chicago, a lot of people are like, “Oh, you see? It’s black-on-black crime.” But we never talk about why, and what is happening with the institutions there, with the closing of schools and the building of this huge police academy, and just thinking of those things and, like you said, how does it actually affect the people there?
Jordan Lanfair: When we talk about the Great Migration, when people left the South, Chicago was one of the black meccas. The running joke is: Do you know how much our ancestors had to hate racism to come to Chicago? Like, it gets negative 12 degrees. That’s what they wanted. That—that was preferable to life in the South.
But that always lets us talk about, you know, the Great Migration because a lot of my kids have families that are still in Arkansas and Mississippi and, you know, Kentucky. We’re like, “Well you know, you do realize that there was this time when everyone just kind of went north?” And they went to Harlem, and they went to Chicago, and that drastically altered how the South looks and how the North looks. And, you know, what’s going on. But that also lets me teach about the Southern Strategy.
And so one of the really cool things that I’ve been able to do is use 13th—Ava DuVernay’s documentary.
Tamara Spears: Mm-hmm.
Jordan Lanfair: To kind of talk about, you know, black depictions and media, and what is the 13th Amendment and, you know, how does it feed into the prison-industrial complex? But it lets us have those conversations because we talk about the 14th Amendment and, you know, voting rights bills and what makes a citizen, and how it all still kind of had to end on this abolishment of slavery, and how we were ill-prepared as a country to kind of handle that.
Tamara Spears: My great-grandfather was a sharecropper in Denmark, South Carolina. He made his way, as they say, on the midnight train to New York, and became a janitor. After about a year, he was able to bring up his wife, my great-grandmother, as well as my grandmother and eight other children. Seven of their own, and my great-grandmother’s nephews and niece. Previous to him coming up, his sisters came up. And so as you can see, it’s that whole idea of the Great Migration. And I tell the kids, you know, “to me that’s fascinating that my great-grandfather was able to get away from being a sharecropper, come up to New York, work as a janitor, then bring up a whole family with basically ten people.” And they lived in the little janitor’s quarters. They were on East 10th Street, I believe.
And then after that, a couple of years, they were able to buy a house. They were the first black family out in Crown Heights. And what happened was the white flight. After they saw black faces arriving, a lot of the white families disappeared and it became a mostly black people block. And to me that’s—that’s very fascinating. I tell the kids: “We look down on certain people and the jobs that they do, or the reasons they come over, or how did they get here? But this is the movement of people. This is the story of America—of people coming here to make a better way.” And I interweave that story and have pictures—I show them the pictures and they’re like, “What? That’s crazy!” And they’re always fascinated in just how our individual stories are part of the American story, are part of the black American story.
This is part of an oral history. And I ask them to go back, ask your family, you know, find out how did you get to New York? What generation New York are you? Like, I tell the kids I’m only second-generation New York because of this story. And a lot of kids also come from the Caribbean, and they tell their stories about how they got here, and how their family worked night and day, and then they became where we are today. So interweaving that story of the Jim Crow era, the Great Migration, my grandfather was in the Korean War. So making sure that they can see I see myself in history. So then, how can you see yourself in history? How about you, Jordan?
Jordan Lanfair: Okay, listen, there are a lot of great Dad stories, but this is not my best Dad story. So, my daughter is half white. And so, once when we went to Florida I didn’t put sunblock on her. I’m like, “I don’t need sunblock,” and then I walked off. Because I don’t. Because I have a lovely melanated complexion, but my daughter’s a bit lighter. And she burned just a little. I’m like, “Okay.” It was this entry point that was big for me to think about. She’s gonna not be white enough to be white. And for some people, she’s not gonna be black enough to be black. And so she inhabits this completely different world that I have no clue about. And so it really made me start thinking about, you know, my family. And my mom is 53. And so I was like, I started doing the math. I’m like, “Oh wow!” Like yes, schools were integrated but, you know, they weren’t happy about it. They—they were still fighting it. But she has older siblings. I’m like, “Oh, they went—they definitely went to segregated schools.”
And my grandma died and she was 80. I’m like—and I remember her telling me like, “Oh yeah. You know, your grandpa came home one day and he just said, ‘We got to go.’” And that was from Little Rock, Arkansas, in, like, the early 1920s, or—well 1930s-ish. I’m like, “Huh. Okay.’ And so I messaged my mom once. I’m like, “So great-grandma would have been a sharecropper.” She’s like, “I believe so. And if I’m not 100 percent on great-grandma, great-great-grandma would have either been a sharecropper or a slave, just because of how the years worked out.” I’m like, “Wow. Here I have this daughter who inhabits this completely different world. I have this mom who inhabits this completely different world. This grandmother, this aunt, this uncle—all black, living in the same country, but navigating spaces differently, navigating what it means in this world in such different ways.”
For me, my daughter—you know, the great love of my life, she’s gonna have this incredible duality within her. So, really, every day honestly makes me reflect on, how am I fitting in this world? Because I’m not going to inhabit the same world she does, and I don’t the same one that my mom does and all this. So it’s this constant conversation about, like, who am I, and who is she going to be, who am I preparing her to be? And because my daughter goes everywhere with me, I mean, she comes into my classes. And these are conversations that I kind of have openly when I worked with Latino students. One of the big things for them was, “I don’t speak Spanish. My parents do. Like, my parents are from Mexico or somewhere else.” And that’s different for us. Like that’s hard for me to walk in this world and, you know, then they talk about their past experiences.
Tamara Spears: You just reminded me of something when you were saying about the integrated schools. So, when I was in college, we had—I took an oral history class and we had an assignment, you know, pick a topic, interview people. And I was interviewing my mom and my dad about busing. And they had some very interesting stories about being bused out of their neighborhood to a neighbor—another neighborhood where they would be chased with bats and made sure they get on the bus at the right time, because if you miss the bus, you know, who knows what might happen to you?
And so even that current history can be reflected, even though it’s not directly slavery. And just a word about oral history, or even any kind of project that we would give our kids or teachers would give their kids relating or pertaining to slavery, you know, not—not saying, you know, “Go back to your family and find out who was a slave.” That may not be the right way to go about some type of oral history project.
Jordan Lanfair: No.
Tamara Spears: But making sure that, if you do an oral history project, keeping it within a topic that all of the kids could explore. And then if those type of stories do come out, then hey, even better. But not focusing on, you know, “find out if your ancestor was a slave” type of thing.
Jordan Lanfair: Yeah. You know, just going and directly asking about traumatic events or America’s shame—not things that I would recommend for people. But I think one of the cool things that—it’s always great to do with oral history—and sometimes I just make it homework—is just go ask about a moment that was important to someone in your family, you know? Like, it’s those moments that you can, on your own, you can go look at the context, right? Like, sometimes when my aunts or uncles or, like, my grandma would talk about, “What I remember that we used to be able to walk home from school, and then we’d go have lunch at home, and then we’d go back to school.” And they would, you know, be able to describe the neighborhood and all this. And, you know, that’s her great moment. And me being able to be critical, I go back and look at the time frame and I look at the school and I look at the neighborhood, and it was like, “Yeah, you could do that because you lived in a segregated neighborhood. Like, there was redlining around there.” But that doesn’t necessarily matter when you’re just thinking about these moments sometimes.
And so I think, like, one of the great access points we have as teachers and as people in—in gathering oral history but just in having great conversations—is looking back and thinking about moments that are important. And then we can put the context to them later. But to get that firsthand account—and with context, with time, I’m able to add those layers, but my entry point is still this person. And so I think these conversations are always interesting, especially when we have them with family members but like, “Well, what do you remember from school?” It’s like, “Oh well, what it—like, what did you study? What was the neighborhood like?” And then getting to add those layers on. That—that’s always interesting for me.
Tamara Spears: Which is to me, I guess, a good segue, you know, what advice would you give teachers considering expanding their curriculum regarding slavery, or Jim Crow era? But specifically slavery, what advice would you give them?
Jordan Lanfair: Hmm. I mean I think it’s twofold, wouldn’t you? Like, because we… we serve different clienteles. Or maybe I’m wrong in that. But like, we have black people—and specifically black people who are going to teach slavery. And we have—actually three, then. We have white people, and we have non-black people of color who are teaching about slavery. And I think each of those groups has a different kind of responsibility. They have a different entry point, but they also have a different history and experience with America, with black people, with racism. You know, we have different power dynamics in there. And so I think the number one rule is, find your entry point that’s authentic, right?
Like, if my entry point is, you know, I’ve worked with the children of migrant workers, so let’s say that was an entry point. I got a lot of quality work when we mentioned—when we talked about the workers’ rights movement, when we delved into their history, and then showed how it linked with the civil rights movement, and then worked backwards at what was going on, you know? As a black person, I can honestly—I could just head it on, you know? Like, that’s my history, that’s my family, that’s my experience with racism, with institutional and structural racism, with, you know, people asking, can they touch my hair? Can they touch my daughter’s hair? So, I’m able to handle it, you know, especially when I work with black classes, I can just go right at it. I wouldn’t suggest that for some people.
I think white teachers have to take a lot of care, and they need to know their stuff. And I don’t just mean their curriculum, I don’t just mean their dates and their facts. They need to be able to understand what role their privilege and their history has played in the formation of this country. And because of the formation of this country, the oppression of people of color and the continued and systematic murder and oppression of black people. Like, that’s just the reality of it. So you have to have that in mind, and that has to inform your decisions. But I don’t know, maybe I’m seeing it—maybe I’m seeing those three different groups, and that’s not quite how to look at it. What do you have? Like, what would you recommend for people who are, you know, considering teaching slavery, or kind of dipping their toes in the curriculum planning?
Tamara Spears: I think those three groups are pretty distinct, you know? So I would agree that there would be about approximately three different groups of people approaching this. But I think, regardless of the group, you have to learn. You have to spend the time to know the content. A lot of people are like, you know, “Skills, skills, skills.” But not knowing the content, not knowing the content knowledge, will hamper you. Because they say when you’re doing public speaking, one of the ways to be confident is to know what you’re talking about.
Jordan Lanfair: Mm-hmm.
Tamara Spears: And that goes for teaching, too. So I would say, learn, learn, learn, regardless of if you’re white, if you’re black or, you know, some other race that’s not white or black, any of those things. You still have to learn. You still have to know what you’re talking about before you go in. I would say the next thing is, have a plan of knowing how you’re going to deal with your own emotions, whether that be rage, whether that be denial, or whether that be apathy because you feel like you don’t have any skin in the game. You have to be able to deal with, not only your emotions, but the emotions of the kids you will teach. So when you’re having discussions, be mindful of, is the question you’re asking going to just make the class explode? Or is it a question that they can get some academic knowledge out of it? And if it would make sense to have a conversation. So thinking about the way that you frame questions so that there—there’s not like a powder keg and you’re just setting things off and you don’t have a way to bring it back.
So I guess having a safe space is crucial. So starting from day one. If you’re a teacher that likes to have discussions, you would already know that you’ve got to create a safe space. But if it’s something that you’re not used to, if you’re used to just lecturing, then you have to create a safe space if you’re going to have a question—or even not questions. Even if you are a lecturer type of teacher, you still need to create a safe space because what you’re saying is going to impact those students that you teach, regardless of the race that they are.
Also, developing activities that are not just the student listening to what you have to say. Make them think, make them write, make them discuss, put them out there so that they can start developing their own thoughts. There’s a lot of influence nowadays. People are out there saying all types of things and, you know, that whole fake news thing. That idea that you can just say whatever you want to say, and don’t have any facts or base knowledge. Or when people present you with the facts and you say, “Well, there’s alternative facts,” you know? So giving the kids the opportunity to work with facts, work with secondary sources, work with primary sources. Use sources from today. Pull up the latest tweet from such and such person and really dissect what they’re saying. And I guess that—that would be my last thing. Make connections with today so that the kids can really see the relevance.
Jordan Lanfair: Yeah, I mean fake news, but I think without going too deep down the rabbit hole, the thing that I’m very, very adamant about with my students: Those things are dangerous because we have people actively trying to rewrite history. You know, like when we had Texas trying to rewrite textbooks to talk about, like, the happy slaves, or omit slavery completely. That’s dangerous. When we had that computer game that was gamifying a slave’s escape. Those things are dangerous. And so, I think that’s the big thing about what we do and what we have to keep in mind and know and be really preaching to people, is that the stakes are high even when they seem like they aren’t. Like, you may just view it as an activity or a lesson a day or a reading you had and a really cool idea, but when you have someone come out and say that the Ku Klux Klan, “Oh, I thought they were great until I found out they smoked marijuana,”—these are actual quotes—it’s like, if you don’t have the wherewithal, the come—the competency to understand who and what the Ku Klux Klan is and was and what they’ve done, that goes over your head.
If you don’t have the historical context to look at voting blocs and then understand why gerrymandering is a thing, why it’s hurting us, and why voter disenfranchisement is hurting us, why these activists, why you know, Obama’s foundation, why Eric Holder, they’ve come out and spoken on the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. If you don’t teach and understand these things, it’s dangerous for you as a citizen. And I think that’s the—the big push is, at the end of the day where—we aren’t making students, we’re making citizens. They’re students in our class, right? Like, I teach slavery and Jim Crow and I teach, you know, the civil rights era, and I teach these things because they are curriculum now, but they’re lives as well. You know, I taught The Hate U Give this year, which… talk about a book that in an accessible way talks about the legacy of slavery—but it’s because the stakes are so high, right? We’re constantly trying to make better citizens. Because at the end of the day, that’s what our kids are going to be.
And so you have to go into these lessons, you have to go into this preparation, this—this learning that you’re talking about… this capacity-building, understanding that your curriculum better make better citizens and better people. Through having them check their privilege, through having them look at their history, through having them engage with primary and secondary sources. Because if our only goal is to have some great activities, we’re not doing our ancestors any bit of good. We’re not doing our country any bit of good.
Sorry. That was my soapbox. I sit down on it now. But like, that’s kind of why we need to do what we do.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Jordan Lanfair teaches ninth- and tenth- grade multicultural literature on Chicago’s South Side. And Tamara Spears teaches social studies to sixth- through eighth-graders in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, with special thanks to the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publishers of a collection of essays called Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. Throughout this series, we have featured scholars to talk about material from a chapter they authored in that award-winning collection.
We’ve also adapted their recommendations into a set of teaching materials—which are available at tolerance.org/podcasts. These materials include over 100 primary sources, sample units and a detailed framework for teaching the history of American slavery.
Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these online at Tolerance.org.
Thanks to Ms. Spears and Mr. Lanfair for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford, with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is the project manager. Our theme song is “Kerr’s Negro Jig” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie.
I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries—Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.