Episode 13, Season 1
A listener’s question leads to a meaningful moment. And now we want more! Take a listen, then email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us your story about teaching hard history for an upcoming, special episode.
Resources and Readings
- Learning for Justice, Black History Month: Teaching the Complete History
- Learning for Justice, What Is White Privilege, Really?
- Learning for Justice, Black Oppression and Resistance
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My people! This is your host, Hasan Kwame Jeffries.
For several months we’ve been talking about ways to better educate students about the history of American slavery—and we’ve said a whole lot. But now it’s time for us over here to be quiet and to listen to you! Teachers and educators, what new ideas, suggestions or techniques have you tried since listening to podcast? And what happened? How did your students react and respond? Did the experience raise new questions for you? These are the sorts of things we’re interested in.
So, we want you to send us your questions and stories. You can email them to email@example.com. Seriously, send us your stuff—tell us what you’ve been doing. That email address, again, is firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re going to answer as many of your questions as possible in an upcoming episode of Teaching Hard History.
Remember, back in Episode 5, the exchange I shared with a middle school educator who was wrestling with how to teach American slavery? Her frank and honest inquiry, and my response, is the kind of exchange we hope to have with you.
The message began: “Good Morning Mr. Jeffries…”
Izzy Anderson: “Good morning, Mr. Jeffries. I am a school librarian in the Arkansas Delta. In addition to being a librarian, I also teach a small gifted and talented literacy class, which is made up primarily of black sixth grade boys. My students do not get a full year of social studies at my school, so I’m modifying my curriculum to teach black history to my students this month, and probably for the rest of the year. I am starting with slavery, so I’ve been listening to your podcast for ideas.”
“I am a white educator, and I’m concerned about teaching history in a way that is honest and true but avoids traumatizing my young students. My students live in an area of the country that, in many ways, is still experiencing the reality of Jim Crow. I think it’s really important for them to understand their own history, but I don’t want to do an information dump on them without also caring for their hearts. I’d appreciate any suggestions you might have. Izzy Anderson.”
“I have nine boys and one girl in this class. I was going to do a quick overview of black history, but I realized that my kids don’t really know anything about slavery, and they also don’t have a concept of a timeline. They don’t understand the distance between Martin Luther King and slavery, or how long slavery had been around. They just didn’t know anything about it, so I was, ‘Oh, we have to stop here,’ because slavery is understanding the black experience, and their experience in the world as black people that live in the deep South.”
“Black people whose grandparents, and great-great-grandparents didn’t leave during the great migration after slavery. They’re the ancestors of the people who stayed here, and so I was like, I feel like they really need to understand slavery and that experience in order to understand where they came from. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m not the person that should be teaching them about where they came from. I’m not the person who should be teaching them about this trauma, but I’m the only person that’s here who’s going to do it, so I have to figure out how to do it right.’”
“My concern was that they were just going to be like, ‘This is horrible, and it makes me feel really bad, and I feel really bad about this,” because obviously conversations about slavery, and being like, “Your ancestors were slaves, your ancestors were abused and murdered for a really long time, and mine weren’t.’ It’s a really hard conversation to have, and I was really worried—okay, if I’m gonna lay this out on the table for them, am I going to traumatize them? Am I going to give them all this horrible information, and they’re going to hear about all this horrible stuff, and all this rape and stuff as sixth graders, and then they’re just going to have nightmares, and it’s going to be horrible, and I’m going to get angry calls from parents because their kids can’t sleep?
“Should I whitewash it a little bit? Should I sanitize it a little bit for them, because they’re young, but still have the knowledge that nobody else may ever teach them about this again, and that sanitized version of it may be all that they learn about it? Should I just put it out on the table, and assume, or hope, that it’s something that they can cope with? I feel like I need to talk to somebody who actually knows about this, and so that’s where I ended up finding this podcast, and then reaching out.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I knew exactly where Ms. Anderson was coming from, both as an educator, and as an African American who had mostly white teachers in elementary and high school. I appreciated her candor and concern, as well as her commitment to teach more than what was required. So, I messaged her back: “Hi Izzy, thank you very much for your thoughtful note. I suggest beginning the conversation in the present by explaining to your kids that you have to look to the past to understand current times. That will help get them interested, and don’t avoid talking about the harshness and brutality of slavery. No one who watches television is unaware of violence, but it needs to be explained that slavery was so brutal because black people were constantly resisting in every way imaginable.”
“Explain to them how central slavery was to American growth, and you can’t emphasize enough that there is real pride to be found in this history, the pride of surviving a horribly unjust system, the pride of knowing their ancestors resisted, the pride of knowing that black people were right in their insistence that slavery was wrong, and the pride of knowing that the enslaved never gave up hope—they never surrendered their humanity. Be clear with them, too, about what was right and wrong, about who showed true strength and courage, and they’ll get it. It’s not going to be easy, as they will have a range of reactions and emotions, but affirm those feelings. Tell them, ‘Yes, this makes me mad too,’ and always redirect them toward drawing inspiration from the enslaved who endured, who fought, who survived despite all odds. Good luck.”
Izzy Anderson: “And that really gave me a direction to go in. I’m going to focus on resistance movements. I’m going to focus on the development of culture in the face of people who really didn’t want slaves to develop culture. Not to avoid those really, really tough topics—that our kids are exposed to violence and things in their real lives, and in media all the time. For us to assume that they can’t handle it is probably not giving them enough credit, and that I can tell them about these things as long as I frame it in the context of resistance, in the context of survival. Of being like, okay, yes, black people endured this, but they also survived it, and thrived, and created a culture and resisted all the time.”
“If I teach it to them, all these things to them, in that context, then it’s going to be really powerful for them. That’s the direction that I’ve taken it. Once I really dove in and started to have these really scary conversations with kids, and telling them about these really scary things, they handled it much better than I thought that they were going to. They expressed that they were really happy to know this, and they took out of it what I had hoped that they could take out of it, which is this anger, but it’s a righteous anger.”
“I think looking at the people who change the world, there are often people that have righteous anger. I think if I can engender that, or help kids develop that anger—because there’s a lot of things now that they should be angry about—if that anger can be formed in a base of history and understanding of the world, then I hope that kids can go out, and my kids can go out and be advocates. That anger that I see in them is the right kind of anger. It’s what I wanted, and it’s what I want to continue to develop as I keep talking to them about these things.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Two days later I received another message from Ms. Anderson, an update on what had been going on in her class.
Izzy Anderson: “Thank you so much for such a long and thoughtful message. Since I’ve read it, I’ve been really leaning into letting students express their emotions as we read and learn.”
“What I didn’t expect is the amount of anger they are expressing. They’re angry, wondering, ‘Why haven’t I learned this before?’ and I think the anger is righteous. My job now is to help them express it constructively.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: “And that’s the thing,” I wrote back, “Your students’ reaction, their righteous anger, is consistent with the reaction of my students in college, both black and white. When they are exposed to the truth in a thoughtful and honest way, they get pissed off, but not at the truth teller, but rather at those who withheld the truth from them. Now you have to capitalize on that anger,” I said. “Use it as motivation for them to learn more about what others aren’t going to teach them. I promise, you will be the teacher who they will remember because you told them what others wouldn’t. Peace, Hasan.”
What I love about hearing Izzy’s question and story again is how much we can learn from each other’s experiences in the classroom. Because we all want to do a better job of teaching the hard history of American slavery.
So, email those questions and stories to email@example.com. We’re looking forward to reading them.
I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.