Episode 1, Season 2
American slavery shaped our modern world and most certainly the foundation and development of what is now the United States. The Smithsonian’s Eduardo Díaz and Renée Gokey discuss the importance of learning about Indigenous enslavement. And Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello explains all of the program’s classroom resources available for teaching this history, including a first-of-its-kind K-5 framework.
Resources and Readings
- Teaching Hard History: American Slavery
- Teaching Hard History Key Concept Videos
- Teaching American Slavery Through Inquiry
Director, Teaching Tolerance
- Ira Berlin, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations
- Ira Berlin, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States
- Kathy Swan, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Kentucky
- National Council for History Education
- Teaching Tolerance: Text, I Have a Dream by MLK
- Teaching Tolerance: Webinar, Beyond the Bus: Teaching the Unseen Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
- Teaching Tolerance: The Moment, Teaching the Truth about Confederate History
Director, Smithsonian Latino Center
- Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
- NPR Genevieve Valentine, Horrors Pile Up Quietly In 'The Other Slavery'
- Stephen Warren, The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America
- Christopher Columbus, Extracts from Journal
- Indigenous Peoples' Curriculum Day and Teach-In
- Native Knowledge 360°
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- NMAI exhibition, Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean
- NMAI exhibition, T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America
- Teaching Tolerance: Text, Indian Removal Act: Primary Documents in American History
- National Museum of American History, Molina Family Latino Gallery
- CARTER Center for K–12 Black History Education, Teaching Black History Conference
- Carter Conference 2019, Teaching about the Beauty, Power, and Resistance of Black History
- Dr. LaGarrett King, founding director CARTER Center, University of Missouri
- James Madison’s Montpelier (Ohio State University students' visit)
- Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania
- Barry Thomas, Director of Equity and Diversity, Omaha Public Schools
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I have always wanted to visit Colombia, to stroll through the streets of the walled city of Cartagena, to take in panoramic views of the capital, Bogotá, to commune with nature at Tayrona National Park, perhaps even to take one of those tours of Medellin that explores the life and times of the notorious Pablo Escobar. And this summer, things were actually lining up perfectly for me to steal away to Colombia, meaning that my mother-in-law was taking my kids to Disney World for an entire week at the end of July. But alas, it wasn’t to be. My girls made it to Disney, but I didn’t get to take my bucket-list trip to the gateway to South America. I did get to go to Columbia, Missouri, though. On July 26 and 27, the CARTER Center for K–12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, hosted its second annual Teaching Black History conference. Dr. LaGarrett King, the founding director of the CARTER Center, had invited me to deliver a keynote address, which I entitled “Teaching Hard History During Hard Times.”
I wasn’t scheduled to speak until the second day of the conference, so I spent the first day attending sessions. In the morning, I learned about Black Power children’s books, and about using young adult fiction to teach middle and high school students about police violence. In the afternoon, I sat in on a presentation by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, who skillfully deconstructed teaching slavery through children’s literature. It was a rich and rewarding day. When I spoke the next morning, I shared my experience from this past fall of taking students from The Ohio State University to James Madison’s Montpelier, to explore slavery and freedom in America. I talked about why slavery is hard history. Why it’s so difficult to think about, talk about, teach about and learn about. I outlined the typical responses to hard history: the purposeful historical amnesia, the attempts to rationalize evil and the creation of false historical narratives. And I concluded by explaining the five keys to teaching hard history effectively―knowing your history, knowing yourself, knowing your students, knowing your school and knowing your community.
My address was well-received, sparking thoughtful questions and a thought-provoking discussion that continued even after the session ended. As the conference attendees headed off to the late-morning workshops, I struck up a conversation with Barry Thomas, the director of equity and diversity for Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska. I didn’t know Barry, but he knew me. It turns out that he had been listening to the podcast. Barry started his career with the Omaha Public Schools in 2002 at McMillan Magnet High School. Four years later, he began teaching social studies at North High Magnet. And in 2012, he became the district supervisor for social studies instruction, responsible for supervising, coordinating and improving the teaching of more than 200 social studies instructors in the district. As we talked, I learned that Omaha’s public schools had not yet fully embraced a version of the American past that portrayed slavery as it actually was and that acknowledged that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.
“I have seen the propagandized instruction that we were all taught as students ourselves, maintained in the classroom,” Barry told me. “I have received phone calls from disgruntled parents who report that their children have had to analyze the pros and cons of slavery for enslaved Africans. The fact that anyone thinks that there were pros to being enslaved is absurd,” Barry continued. “Another parent,” he said, “complained about a slavery video game that a teacher found online that had some questionable depictions of the enslaved, and that fed into the white savior narrative.” But Barry explained that classroom activities were actually less of a problem than the attitudes of some teachers. “There is a nervousness and anxiety when we teach race,” he said, “states’ rights as a root cause of the Civil War is an emotional convenience, not just a manufactured lie.”
To help his teachers overcome their distress and uneasiness with teaching American slavery, Barry shared with them the Teaching Hard History framework and encouraged them to listen to the podcast. “The Teaching Hard History resources and podcast give teachers accurate depictions of ‘the peculiar institution,’” he explained, and “provides them with the facts that they need to ‘dispel falsehoods that they may be confronted with by students and parents who have bought into easy history.’” I immediately wanted to know more. What did the teachers think of the resources and the podcast? Did he think it made a difference in how they taught slavery? After all, that’s the whole point of this project: to help teachers teach slavery more accurately and effectively. Barry told me that the teachers he spoke with were amazed at the wide range of topics that we covered in the podcast last year, and that they were struck by the different approaches we use to examine these topics, approaches they had never considered before.
As to classroom impact, he said, “I didn’t specifically research correlation or causation, but I did note that I didn’t get a single phone call or email about someone doing something in the classroom that I had to go offer some support for.” Barry’s observation pointed to a positive shift having occurred in the city’s social studies classrooms regarding how slavery was being taught, and that was truly exciting to hear. I still really want to go to Colombia, to visit Cartagena and Bogota, and Medellin. But I’m glad that I closed out this summer in Columbia, Missouri, at the CARTER Center conference, listening to passionate teachers committed to teaching hard history. From them, I learned that there remains plenty of work to do, but I also learned that this project and this podcast are having a positive impact on how American slavery is being taught. That was our goal when we launched this project and debuted this podcast in January 2018. And it remains our goal today, a little more than a year and a half later, as we release a suite of additional teaching resources, and begin the second season of Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.
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. In our second season, we are expanding our focus to better support elementary school educators, to spend more time with teachers who are doing this work in the classroom, and to understand the often-hidden history of the enslavement of indigenous people in what is currently the United States. 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.
In this episode, we’re going to explore the new themes for this season and introduce some of the new Teaching Hard History resources that are designed to support educators. We will hear from Eduardo Díaz and Renée Gokey of the Smithsonian Institution, about the need to understand the history of enslavement of Indigenous people. But first, I had a chance to speak with Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance. She explained how the Teaching Hard History project has been expanded. Among other things, it now includes a first-of-its-kind framework for teaching about slavery to students in grades K–5. She also highlighted some of the new tools that teachers can use to paint a more complete picture of American slavery. I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy.
I’m so very glad to welcome to this episode of Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, the director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Maureen Costello. Maureen, it’s so good to have you with us.
Maureen Costello: Hasan, it is wonderful to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Maureen, we have been working together, myself with the Teaching Tolerance team and those who have been working on the Teaching Hard History project for almost two years now. And this has really come out of a vision, I think it’s fair to say, that you have had, as the director of the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, for how the Southern Poverty Law Center ought to be engaging education and teachers. Could you say a little bit about the work that Teaching Tolerance has done and then how the Teaching Hard History project fits into that work?
Maureen Costello: I’d be happy to. You know, Teaching Tolerance has been around for almost 30 years and we started out as a project that sought to reduce prejudice in classrooms across the United States and we’ve grown considerably since then. But one of the continuing themes that we’ve had has always been about the history of the civil rights movement, and the history of the struggle for racial equality. We are a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to fight hate, seek justice and to teach tolerance, there are those three pieces of what we do. We bring lawsuits to try to enforce civil rights. We also investigate hate groups across the country, and the most important work, in my view at least, is that we work with teachers across the country to provide information and curriculum, pedagogy, school-climate resources, to help them combat every one of the “isms” that afflicts our society. But certainly, racial justice has always been at the heart of what we do and it’s the vision of my team, of lots and lots of folks who turn to us for this work.
The way it began though, the Teaching Hard History project, is a few years ago, in 2011, we decided to take a look at how well the states were teaching civil rights movement. We became kind of convinced that the civil rights movement had kind of began to calcify in a way and then instead of remembering really all the struggles and the degree of work and the degree of sacrifice that went into it, and the opposition, that it had kind of boiled down to a sort of catechism of two names and four words. So most American schoolchildren can tell you: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream.’” And we thought, We have to make that better. So we started a project called Teaching the Movement. And we looked at the state standards who are teaching the civil rights movement, in fact, issued a report card, much to the dismay of many of my colleagues at the state education departments. And what that showed is that over 34 states received Fs.
They did a terrible job, and we, of course, were imagining that standards actually mean something because governors had just finished signing on to the Common Core standards and they had said standards really means something — they set a state’s expectation. And so we kind of said, “OK, put your money where your mouth is. If ‘standards’ means something, then how are your standards on teaching the civil rights movement?” So we were looking at that problem and we really studied it for a few years. In fact, we did two reports and we came up with a lot of resources. And some of the problems we recognized is that states were expecting the story of the civil rights movement to be taught without ever mentioning Jim Crow, for example, or without ever mentioning the tremendous opposition or basically, they were expecting the civil rights movement to be taught without recognizing what conditions made it necessary.
And finally, we kind of came to the realization that the problem went much, much further back. And that until we really dealt with the legacy of racism and the legacy of slavery, we were never going to be able to teach the civil rights movement well. And obviously, we were also never going to be able to really take a hard look at the current situations in terms of racial inequity. If we really want children and young people to grow into folks who can change the world, which, you know, is my unambitious goal, they need to understand how things came about and how we are still living with the inheritance of the past. And so it’s really recognizing that we just did a terrible job doing this that led to the project.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It’s so interesting to hear you talk about how we are wrestling with the inheritance of the past, which means both what we embrace and what we reject. So much of what we’ve been doing with the podcast and the guests who have been on, and the topics that we have been probing, has been not only looking at the past but looking at what we inherit from the past and in the present. And so it’s very interesting that the team came to this project by looking at something more modern and realizing that we were unable, and teachers and students, are unable to fully grasp such an important historical event in American history, like the civil rights movement, without understanding the ways in which the problems that folk were trying to address in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, et cetera, really had their origins in this earlier time in the American experience.
You know, Maureen, the podcast is just one element of the Teaching Hard History project. For those who are just sort of tuning in for the first time or have only been listening to the podcast, could you share some of the other elements, some of the other parts to the broader Teaching Hard History project?
Maureen Costello: I can, indeed. You know, the project is built on two sets of frameworks. One framework is for K–5, and that’s one of the new frameworks. And the other one is for 6–12. And the frameworks lay out kind of broad, conceptual knowledge. We have the 10 key concepts, which are based on Ira Berlin’s work, as you know. But also a series of summary objectives for 6–12 and essential knowledge for K–5 that says, “Here’s what we think students should know, when they should know it, and here’s how you can teach it.” What we hope is that the frameworks are flexible enough that any teacher could pick up the framework and rethink the way they teach the subject, and possibly the way they teach all of U.S. history. But that also, department chairs could pick it up, committees within schools, entire districts or even states, or textbook publishers, or anyone else, really can look at this and say, “Ah, here is an orderly system that traces this history of enslavement and racial oppression from the very, very beginning.”
Through certainly to Reconstruction, but by implication, if you know that story very well, you’re going to see modern echoes of it as well. So the framework are the skeleton upon which we laid a lot of meat. The materials that we’ve provided for teachers are student materials like a rich selection of leveled student texts. Some of them are original that we have commissioned, especially at the elementary level. Some of them are historical documents, but what we’ve done is we have selected them to support the items in the framework. We have put them on our site. In the cases where we’ve had to get permissions, we’ve secured the permission so that teachers can use them. We also have a learning plan builder tool onsite so that people can build their own lessons. We’ve worked with Kathy Swan and some other folks who are part of the C3 and we’ve created some IDMs. For the people who don’t know what IDMs are, they’re Inquiry Design Models, and they are complete units to explore a central question.
One of my favorites of that is "Why does it matter who freed the slaves?" And it really examines not only the real question of self-emancipation and the role it played, but it also raises that historiographical question of: Who gets to tell the story, and who takes the credit? So we have the IDMs, we have texts. We also have videos that we’re about to put out, and which will be out by the time this podcast airs, from really renowned historians across the United States discussing the key concepts.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The videos that are connected to the frameworks, are those just for teachers or are they just for students, or for both?
Maureen Costello: I think they’re for both. We actually made them with the intention that they’d be used in classrooms. And then when I saw them, I thought, I’d want to study this first as a teacher, because I think the stories are probably unknown to a lot of teachers and they give you a lot of starting points.” So both and.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Awesome.
Maureen Costello: Also, we have a lot of links to online databases because one of the most exciting things these days is the amount of information that’s available online. And that I just think, prompts inquiry. You know, if you look at a database of the transatlantic slave trade, and you see the patterns, and you see the movement of ships and the movement of people, I think it just sparks curiosity, and instead of answering questions, you’re asking questions; that’s what we want students to do. And of course, we know that there are databases now of plantation ledgers and of fugitive slave ads, and all sorts of things that are rich primary sources. So we’re kind of providing a map to those. We also understand though that a lot of what we’ve included in this framework is fairly recent scholarship. And if there are teachers out there like me who haven’t been in graduate school for 30 years, they need to have that recent scholarship.
So we’ve done a lot of professional development work too; this podcast is part of that and I’m really, really pleased with the way people have been so excited about it. But the videos are in a sense for professional development. We also have webinars on-site, so you can go in and take them on demand. And where we actually have in-person training on Teaching Hard History as well. So we’re really trying to make this a full suite of components that will address all the needs that teachers have. This is a hard topic, and we want to give as much support as possible without telling you, “Teach exactly this,” because we also realize that teachers are working in different districts. They have different state histories they have to teach, they may have different curriculum requirements, but the framework gives you that skeleton that you can follow to figure out how to make it work in your particular district.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, that’s one of the things that I have heard from teachers over the course of the last year and a half as I’ve traveled the country talking about the work that we’ve been doing, is that the information that has been available online, through the podcast has been so teacher friendly and teacher accessible, that they’re really able just to sort of dip in, dive in, pull out what they need and they’re ready to go. And we all know that that is so helpful to teachers who just don’t have the time to go back to graduate school and study this stuff up. And yet, here it is, including teacher plans for lessons and the like.
Maureen Costello: I’ve heard a lot of anecdotes too. Last year, we mailed copies of the framework and the report to 100,000 educators across the United States, all the way from the state departments of education down to U.S. history teachers in high schools and we got a lot of emails in response. And one of my favorites was from a teacher who said, “I just was looking at this one lesson that I’ve taught every year and I was getting ready to teach it again next week, and I looked at your framework, and I am completely revamping the lesson.” And it was wonderful to see that. So we’ve heard a lot of that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So what has been the impact over the last year and a half, from the initial rollout of the Teaching Hard History materials?
Maureen Costello: Several states have advised us that they are going to take the frameworks into consideration during their review cycles of standards and frameworks. We know that Massachusetts has done that. We’ve been told that Michigan has looked at them as well and certainly we’ve seen a lot of interest in Virginia. We’ve seen entire districts that have aligned their curriculum to the frameworks. In fact, I did a workshop last March, in March 2018, at UVA for teachers in northern Virginia and Maryland. I mean, they came from as far away as Maryland and Delaware to go to this workshop. And about a year later, in fact, it was March, I was doing a presentation at NCHE, the National Council of History [Education], you were there too. And not only were you on the schedule, and I was on the schedule, but there was another “Teaching Hard History” project on the schedule.
It turned out to be from teachers in Montgomery County, Maryland, who had been at that UVA workshop, went back to their district and brought together another group of teachers and completely revamped their curriculum, the U.S. history part of the curriculum that taught about slavery, to follow the framework. So we’ve seen entire districts be changed, revise their curricula. We know that it’s being used as reference to revise standards in frameworks in some states. It’s been cited by the news media. It’s been cited by scholars, and at least one Democratic candidate for president has cited it in his plan for racial justice. And finally, in Illinois, a state senator who was proposing a bill to mandate the teaching of African-American history and slavery in K–12, cited our report; that bill has passed. And in Connecticut, such a bill is already under consideration now and that legislator has also cited our report as evidence. So in a short year, it’s gotten a lot of traction.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: A lot of traction, indeed. And I don’t think anyone would be too upset if we just rested on our laurels and said, “Look, we’ve put a lot of work in. This is reaching the people that we wanted it to reach. Let it do its work, and we’ll just see what happens.” But that’s not what we’ve done. In fact, the team, especially down there, has said, “No, we’re going to build on the initial iteration of Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, and expand it, make it wider and dig deeper,” and that’s what’s coming out very soon. Could you say a little bit about the expansion to the Teaching Hard History materials, and you mentioned some of the videos and some of the professional development stuff. But really, what was the thinking or the emphasis that went into building this out, if you will?
Maureen Costello: One of the things I’ve learned as director of Teaching Tolerance and doing other kinds of projects like this is that nothing is ever final. As soon as you put it out there, you start hearing from people about how it works in the world. And that’s one of the things that we heard: We need this at the elementary level and we always knew that we needed it at the elementary level. Very, very few educators in elementary school are history specialists. They’re usually reading specialists or math specialists, or special education specialists. They don’t have a lot of room in the curriculum for history, although they do often cover the story of slavery through literature. So we knew that we needed to provide a framework for elementary school, also partially because so much of the narrative gets laid down in elementary school. My earliest memory of learning something in elementary school, was learning that Columbus crossed the ocean blue in 1492. It got hardwired into my brain. And I know that there are kindergarten students out there today who are learning about Harriet Tubman, leading her people out of slavery who haven’t a clue about what slavery is.
So we wanted to make sure that if hardwiring was going on, it was going to be hardwiring that high school teachers and college professors could build on instead of having to unteach what had happened earlier. And the second thing that we got a lot of feedback about and we also knew was an issue, was that the history of enslavement on this continent, in what is currently the United States in the Western Hemisphere, is not simply a history of chattel enslavement of people who are descended from Africans. It is also a history of Indigenous slavery. Both of those things, the K–5, and the integration of Indigenous slavery, needed more time. We needed more experts at the table, and we decided that they would be part of phase two. So phase two is the K–5 framework, which I’m very, very excited about. As far as I can tell, and given everyone I’ve spoken to and all the experts who have worked on this, this is literally a first-of-its-kind attempt to bring this kind of structure and order to such a difficult topic in elementary school.
And the Indigenous enslavement piece, really most of the scholarship in that field has been within the last 10 or 12 years. And so it was also bringing in the right voices. It’s a vast topic. There are so many Indigenous nations in what is currently the United States. It is a widely varied experience, but it actually makes an interesting connection between the past and the present because the enslavement of Indigenous peoples preceded the trans-Atlantic slave trade and it lasted longer. The 13th Amendment did not apply to domestic nations, which is what American Indians were considered. It’s also not chattel slavery [necessarily]. It could be things like debt peonage or something that looks like indentured servitude. And in that sense, it’s a much more modern definition of slavery. And of course, we know that today, 40 million people around the world are involved in some form of slavery, which is some form of coerced labor.
And so including the story of Indigenous slavery not only fills out the picture, which was truly unknown to me even as a history teacher for many years but also makes these connections to the present and reminds us that exploitation of human beings is not something that just happened in the past.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That sounds like one of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of the listeners and those who have engaged with the materials, a lot of the things that they have said to me is that they have not only learned how to teach this subject, they’ve learned what to teach. I mean, this has been one of the strengths of this whole project, is that it’s been teaching teachers. And I think those teachers who really approach the work that we have been doing as students themselves, as people who are learning, I think they really get the most out of it. Maureen, you were in the classroom for 20 years before you moved into this aspect of sort of education. Did you pick up on some new stuff through this process and through the work that we’ve been doing?
Maureen Costello: I picked up on so much new stuff that, it’s just been incredible. So much that I didn’t know or that I thought I knew and just didn’t think about how to teach. A good example is from early in the first season, and the whole story about the New England, New Bedford particularly, and its role as kind of a grocer to the sugar colonies. And the ideas there were so specific, they are wonderful, that I actually built a workshop activity out of it. But there’s just, I realized that I still have so much to learn. I feel like what we have provided for teachers is this marvelous opportunity to take graduate-level courses in the subject via podcast, via the videos and we have Annette Gordon-Reed, Christy Coleman, Ibram X. Kendi, Adam Rothman, Martha Jones, Edward Ayers, Tera Hunter, Daina Ramey Berry doing videos that we can use in our classes. But frankly, I think they’re master classes in how to think about such a difficult topic and personalize it.
And I’d just like to say that I think the podcast has been so powerful and that because sometimes this is a difficult topic for educators to figure out how to deal with; white teachers often are dealing with their own sometimes fragility, but also just discomfort around talking about race. We’ve had teachers talk to us about the fact that they feel uncomfortable acknowledging that as white people, that they’ve benefited from a society that was based on racial oppression. You know, there’s been a lot of discomfort and one of the things I think happens with the podcast is that you’re sitting there in your car or you’re taking a walk, or you’ve just got your phone plugged in and it’s just you, and Hasan, and whoever your guest is. And there’s time to kind of think about it and process it and think about how you’re going to use it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Speaking of those videos, they really are phenomenal. Are there a couple that stand out to you personally that really struck a responsive chord with you?
Maureen Costello: To some degree, every one of them does. Annette Gordon-Reed, who did two of the videos, I think she helps answer that question about the past being a different place and sort of not being a different place at the same time. She’s so careful when she talks about the founders to discuss the world in terms of what they believed. So she really confronts this notion, this presentism that we often encounter in students who want to believe that people in the past thought the same way we did. And I think that she does that really, really well. Edward Ayers talks about family separations in a way that just kind of catches you and you suddenly realize, Wow, this is really what this meant. The things that are most human to us, that really define us, our connection to our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our aunts, our uncles, and the ability to believe that those are eternal in some way, that they can be broken that easily. And he just boils it down that simply.
He says, “If a student asks you what slavery meant, it’s that you could be separated from your family at any moment.” I think that’s just incredibly profound. Tera Hunter talks about the infant, Rachel, who’s just about a year old, who is sold at auction and the person who’s charged with bringing that infant to the auction is an enslaved man. And it turns out that the decision to sell Rachel was made while her mother was pregnant. They are the kinds of stories and videos that just, I would hope make you see the world differently.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things that we have done in expanding the materials for Teaching Hard History is to move beyond this idea that America is shaped and slavery is shaped solely by the British, that this is simply a sort of British colonial thing, ignoring the French and ignoring most especially the Spanish, and even the role of the Dutch for a certain extent, in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Could you say a little bit about the importance of moving beyond this Anglo-centric, British-centric understanding of the origins and development of slavery in what we now know as America/the United States?
Maureen Costello: Well, I like the way that you said, “What we now know as America/the United States,” because we tend to think of the colonial period is the 13 colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard, which was only the British colonies. But every part of the United States that we live in today has had its own colonial experience with those different powers. And all of them enslaved Indigenous people at some point in their history, and in many cases, even after they cease to be under the control of colonial powers. And so we really need to shift this idea that “colonial” only refers to the British colonial experience. And we also have to realize that we’re talking about hundreds of years of European involvement in exploiting people across the continent, and enslaving them and look at the ways that that shaped their cultures, their behaviors, what became the system of chattel slavery and how wealth was produced. That’s one story.
And you know, again going back to my own teaching, even with thinking about the British colonies, the typical story was that the British came, in — particularly, in the Carolinas, and with rice cultivation, they attempted to enslave the local Indian tribes and that the Indians basically were, turned out to be bad slaves. I mean that’s kind of the conventional wisdom. They die, they are weak, or because it was their home territory, they figured out how to like get up in the middle of the night and go off someplace else. And so the conventional wisdom in a sense, in a lot of textbooks, is that they tried with Indigenous people to enslave them, but it didn’t work and that’s why then, European colonists turned to Africans. But in fact, they tried. They succeeded. And when I say “they,” it is the French, the Spanish, the British. They devised myriad forms of labor exploitation. They reaped massive amounts of wealth, and they developed notions of race that we still live with today.
So Indigenous slavery is part of the story and it’s the part of the story that has been much more erased than the story of the enslavement of people descended from Africans. And I think a really good time to teach that is in November, when Thanksgiving is approaching. The person that helped the Pilgrims, who most of us know as Squanto, but whose real name was Tisquantum, was helpful to the Pilgrims because he spoke English. Well, how did he speak English? The reason that Tisquantum knew how to speak English was because even before the Mayflower arrived off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, Tisquantum had been captured, had been brought to England and had been enslaved, and had managed to get back to North America, but had picked up the language while he was in England. He was one of many Indigenous people who had been plucked off the shores of what we now called the Atlantic Seacoast, prior to the English landing at Plymouth Rock, prior to Jamestown settlement, prior to all of that and who had already spent time in Europe as enslaved people.
So that throws a whole different light on that story, and it’s a light that we should shine on the story, and we should ask the question, why do we tell that story without that particular piece of information? So even before the pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, before the Mayflower drops anchor, there is a history of Indigenous enslavement that they are going to encounter, and how does that shape the story? Those are questions we should be asking.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I really love the idea of connecting the past to the present in that way, since Thanksgiving, or some call it Thanks-taking, as a nationally recognized and observed holiday. And so you can put the present into context in this way to make the past a little bit more relevant.
Maureen Costello: And maybe also ask ourselves the question of, why is this traditional story that we’ve whipped up so appealing?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That’s a great question. What does it do for us?
Maureen Costello: Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Today.
Maureen Costello: Exactly. And then how does the way we talk about history do for us today, which also sheds light on the kind of arguments about the Confederate monuments and whether ethnic studies should be in school, that these are ultimately stories of representation and power.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely, absolutely. What would you say that we should learn about the present from studying slavery in the past?
Maureen Costello: That things as they are, don’t just happen naturally, that they were created by decisions and choices made by people in the past. And that choices and decisions made by people in the present and the future can create new things. That’s the simplest way of looking at it. But as I’ve looked at many of the stories and themes that we’ve unearthed in Teaching Hard History, I see those kinds of cycles of history, ideas, the control of the black body, the desire that leads us from enslavement to Jim Crow, to debt peonage, to mass incarceration. The talk that’s required of children, I can’t remember what guest it was on the podcast, but she talked about the fact that at some point, every young enslaved child knew two things, maybe by the age that they were six. They were loved by their parents, that they understood that they had the love of family, and that they could be sold away at any moment.
And you imagine parents or care keepers, if there are no parents there anymore, whatever members of the community are taking care of those children, letting them know that and there’s a straight line between that and the talk that African-American parents have to have with their sons today, and their daughters. Our beliefs about how to explain the wealth gap, the education gap, all that are so much still echoing the beliefs of the 19th century. And more important, I guess, I’m speaking very broadly and very philosophically here, but that belief in American exceptionalism: that we somehow are a nation outside of history, founded in an idea that’s always been struggling to just get better and better and closer and closer to that ideal, is a complete denial of how much we’ve all benefited from the oppression and elimination of people. And it hurts to acknowledge that that’s the case, but if you don’t acknowledge it, we’re going to hurt ourselves even more because we’re just believing in a fantasy that does not match the reality.
We are human beings, like every other historical group of human beings in the history of the world, which means that we can do horrible things to other human beings. And we’re not going to prevent horrible things from being done to other human beings in the present or in the future unless we acknowledge that that’s something that we are capable of and that, as Americans, we’re not uniquely exempt from it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think all of the work that has gone into the Teaching Hard History project, these new videos combined with the elementary framework as well as the additions to the framework as a whole, expanding it out to incorporate these various elements of the enslavement of Indigenous people, really speaks to this broad idea that you’re laying out of the importance of this history, not only to understanding fundamentally how American history actually was, but really so that we can see these myths for what they are, being myths, this myth of perpetual progress and American exceptionalism. Let me ask you, Maureen, the Teaching Hard History project has really touched and reached a lot of teachers. It’s doing good work. They’re taking it into the classroom. What is your hope for this expanded version, including the second season of the podcast?
Maureen Costello: Well, one thing I hope it does is that it puts an end to the news stories that I read all the time about mock slave auctions and simulations of the Middle Passage. What I hope is that we start learning to do a better job teaching this very, very, very hard history. But I also hope that as part of a larger kind of picture, that as a nation, we come to grips with our past and that has two pieces. One is that we recognize that the story of this nation is the story of many, many people, black and brown people, Indigenous people, people who were captured and brought here, people who were incorporated into what the country is now, that it’s all of those stories and that we’re stronger because of all of those stories. And so I hope that in education will raise up the stories of the Mexicans who became Americans and the Indigenous people who managed to survive despite incredible odds, that all of that becomes part of the fabric.
And the other piece is that I just hope that we start having a conversation about how do we right the wrongs of the past? I think that we’ve already seen that reparations is being discussed. And this is not me saying we need to have reparations, but we sure as hell need to have that conversation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What advice would you give to teachers who are looking at the materials, who are visiting the website, who are listening to the podcast, for how they ought to approach teaching the hard history of American slavery?
Maureen Costello: Let your students know where you are in relation to that history. If I were teaching it today, I would start out by recognizing and acknowledging that my position is as a white woman, who has inherited the benefits of white privilege and who has in fact, probably benefited from the wealth that was built by enslaved people in this country. And I would also further acknowledge for myself, that even though my ancestors were European immigrants who came after the period of enslavement was over, that that does not really make a difference because I inherited this story as an American and I inherited the wealth, and I inherited the history and that we’ve all inherited that history. But that for teachers to acknowledge kind of who they are, what land they stand on, what their own position is, and probably that they also are learning as well, and that they don’t have all the answers. I think that this topic more than any other requires humility, requires listening and requires courage.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Maureen Costello, thank you so much, not only for joining us for this opening episode of the second season of Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, but for your leadership at Teaching Tolerance, and for really helping and making sure that we get this information about American slavery, about how to teach it accurately and effectively to teachers so that they can do the job that they are committed to doing. Thank you so much, Maureen.
Maureen Costello: Thank you, Hasan.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: American slavery shaped the modern world and impacted the life of every person living on the four Atlantic-facing continents and nearby islands. Students deserve to learn this complicated but essential history, a history that includes the millions of Indigenous people who were enslaved by European invaders, settlers and their descendants. Eduardo Díaz is the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, and Renée Gokey is the teacher workshop coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian. They begin their conversation by telling us about their personal discovery of this often-hidden history.
Eduardo Díaz: My name is Eduardo Díaz, I am the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which was established in 1997, to ensure Latino presence at the Smithsonian Institution.
Renée Gokey: And I am Renée Gokey. I’m a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, although my family has other heritages as well. And I am the teacher workshop coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian, both developing learning experiences, teaching experiences for students and teachers. Eduardo, can you describe your personal journey to learning about this history and how that journey has shaped your approach to this work?
Eduardo Díaz: Thanks for the question. I am of Mexican descent. My parents are from Mexico, but I was born in the United States. I am a mestizo, which means that I am of mixed blood, most prominently European, probably Spanish, even the last name, and Indigenous of unknown origins in Mexico. And I’ve always wondered about that. I am also a product of the Chicano movement, which was a movement of Mexican Americans that paralleled the civil rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s. And the Chicano movement was, in many cases, very much about an exploration of Indigenous roots and a rejection of European or Spanish roots. Folks were giving their children names — Tizoc, Xóchitl, Nahuatl names — and there was really an earnest effort to explore these traditions, these roots, visit Mexico, become grounded, start learning how to dance Native dances from the main nations in Mexico. And so I wasn’t really too engaged with that part of it, I became more interested in the political angles of things.
So not surprisingly, after I graduated from undergraduate school at San Diego State, I went to law school because I thought that was the route to serving my community. But I always had this lingering question about my own Indigenous background. So, I happened to be at a bookstore in my neighborhood called the Potter’s House. It’s an old-school, lefty bookstore that one might associate with someplace like Berkeley, California. And there was this book on the shelf, The Other Slavery, and at the time, I just kind of wanted to get my cortado and forget about it because I just was not ready to pick up a book with that kind of title. But it just kept on speaking to me as I went back the following week, and I said, “OK, this is enough. Just pick it up and check it out.” And as I started to read this book, written by Andrés Reséndez, who’s a history professor at UC Davis, which is incidentally, where I also went to law school, I was just engaged.
I read the book, and I just flipped through it very, very quickly. It was a page-turner for me. And I thought, Wow, I work at the Smithsonian, I don’t know that we have ever dealt with this issue. We have obviously dealt with the issue of African slavery at the Smithsonian, we have a museum dedicated to the African-American experience, and of course, plenty was going on in the exploration of that particular slavery, but nothing that I could recall had ever been done on what is now known as the “other slavery.” And so I had a conversation with the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, where you work, of course, and also the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And I said, “Guys, what do you think? I think this is something that we need to explore.” So they embraced it. I think both of them read the book and were equally enthused and agreed with me that this was something that we really did need to look at.
So part of it is a personal journey, but the other part is it’s very professional, on the other end too. I mean, I work at the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian is about the increase and diffusion of knowledge, that’s been the mission of the institution since day one, and it is viewed as the nation’s museum. So if we are the nation’s museum, then perhaps we ought to explore this little-known but major aspect of the national narrative, which is about the bondage of Native peoples, either through slavery itself, indebted servitude or debt peonage. So Renée, tell me about your journey.
Renée Gokey: Well, I grew up in Oregon. So my family is from Oklahoma on my father’s side, and the other side of my family is from actually California. And so I had a very similar experience, I think, to a lot of people growing up in Oregon, in a public school. You know, we learned about the Oregon Trail. We heard a little bit about the California missions. And we heard very, very little about slavery, in association with the California missions. And I heard nothing, of course, about my own Native history and culture. It didn’t really exist in public schools. And our museum’s really been embarking on trying to uncover and really see where teachers and students are and what they’ve been taught. So we have also done a textbook study of 23 of the most widely used textbooks in K–12 classrooms. And we found a very similar story. There are sort of 10 big stories that are told about Native peoples. And what we found is they’re often incomplete. Sometimes they’re even inaccurate, and they’re very, very rarely from a Native perspective.
And so my experience was very similar. And it wasn’t really until I was much older, and recently really, that I read this book by Dr. Stephen Warren called The Worlds the Shawnees Made, Migration and Violence in Early America. And for the first time, I was confronted with the role that Shawnees played in the slave trade, particularly in the 1700s, where my community, Shawnees, are originally from Ohio, but really moved to these frontier areas, I learned, where the English were vying for power, the Spanish in Florida and so kind of all these areas. And so the Shawnees actually went to these places as a form of resilience to try and act as middlemen in the slave trade. And we were both capturing slaves and selling them to the English and Spanish, as well as adopting them into our community or there was actually torture in our community, where our people would use that as a form of retribution for deaths in our own community. So we either adopted, had this retribution factor in our community, or we actually sold people to other communities and the colonizers around us.
And actually, this led to a lot of the Confederacies forming in the Southeast because some of the bigger nations also came together in these new Confederacies in ways to survive as well. So it’s a very complicated story that I’m uncomfortable with, I’m also at the same time intrigued by because it’s something that I knew nothing of. And so I guess it’s personal in that there’s just so much that our communities are interested in, engaged with revitalizing our languages and all of these issues today. But we really need to understand this history in the full spectrum of the human experience, and it humanizes us even more. And we know that we’re working very much against a lot of stereotypes that have been propagated through our school systems and things like that. And so we need to work against that, but we also have to understand ourselves and our roles and what this means for us today. So it’s been an ongoing journey for me as well, and I have a lot more to learn.
Eduardo Díaz: I think we all do, actually, a lot to learn. Your work in education at the National Museum of the American Indian, so why in your view, do students need to learn and why do teachers need to teach about the history of Indian slavery?
Renée Gokey: I think we need to understand ourselves and understand some of these moral dilemmas that we’re faced with even today. And I think that these are based on past experiences where people had choices in their history. And I’m not saying there’s one way or another way to think about these choices, but I think it’s important to understand that we’re all, as a society and as individuals and as communities, part of these decisions that are going to affect the world around us. And so understanding those histories is really important and this has completely been a hidden history. And so it’s really easy to just brush past this and not understand the full complexity of Native people, as well as their interaction with all the communities around them. This was a very tumultuous time period for our communities, and really for everyone. And so I think it’s important to examine those and for teachers to feel more comfortable with this content.
I think it’s going to take some work to get teachers prepared for this. And that’s why a framework to understand how to teach more about these difficult topics is really important and also learning as we go, setting up safe spaces in classrooms where there’s certain norms where respect and facilitated dialogue and these pedagogical practices that we’ve been working on can be put to use. So I think it’s an ongoing learning process as well. How about you, Eduardo?
Eduardo Díaz: Well, I’m not an educator, nor have I ever been a teacher. But I do think you hit on it. I think these are the stories — these are narratives that need to be elevated. These are obscured histories which need to be discussed and we need to infuse them into the American narrative. I think students and teachers, especially after Reconstruction, were quick to obscure the experience and histories of enslaving folks of African origin. But it has since been recognized that, of course, slavery is a foundational story to telling the American and I would say continental history. And so its impact on largely every aspect of our nation’s history has been pretty well defined and pretty well known. However, the story of enslaved American Indians has been quieted over many years, practically to the point of whispers, if not just silence, and hushed aside and especially relative to those who have inherited it as a legacy. And so I always think it’s important to teach subject matter from a first-voice perspective.
So I think the Smithsonian and particularly in an institution like the National Museum of the American Indian, and even the Latino Center, has the responsibility to create opportunities for people to hear about history, directly from the people who have been the most affected by it. I think that it’s our responsibility. I think that’s our mission. And if we don’t do that, I think we betray that mission. And I think the students need to hear it, right. Students need to hear it directly, in a way that’s appropriate for the age group. And teachers also have to have the guts to teach material that they may feel uncomfortable with or that they feel might offend some students or perhaps they don’t know much about it. I think this is the point: that the National Museum of the American Indian has the resources, has the tools, has the people to be able to help teachers get to that level of comfort and confidence to be able to handle the subject matter and work with students to ensure that it is a learning experience that really resonates.
Renée Gokey: How does thinking about this history inform the work that you’re now doing at the Smithsonian, Eduardo?
Eduardo Díaz: When somebody ask me what my job is, my response is “My job is to transform the Smithsonian into a Latino-serving institution.” And my view is, the only way we can do that is to have our content experts at the various museums and research centers of the Smithsonian, conducting the research, organizing the exhibitions, building the collections, informing public and educational programs, also informing digital content that goes online, mentoring and publishing, if possible. And so it is very important for us to understand that Latino history is American history, period. Latino art is American art, period. Portraits of Latinos are American portraits, period. And so this history is part of us because so many of our community are mixed heritage. We have to remember that when African slaves escaped their masters in the Caribbean, and they ran into the hills or into the swamps, who did they run into? Native peoples, you know? “Monte adentro,” they say. “Cimarrón de monte adentro,” means “an escaped slave or a maroon.” “Monte adentro” means “mountain way in in the hinterlands.” So “Eso era un cimarrón de monte adentro,” so, that escaped slave went into the hills and who do they associate with?
And as I always say, well, slaves didn’t go back to Africa and the Spaniards didn’t bring any senoritas. So let’s just do the propagational math here. So I think it’s just thinking about miscegenation, or “mestizaje,” is a very natural thing that we, at the Latino Center at the Smithsonian, are thinking about all the time. And if you’re Mexican, Mexican American, the chances of you being a mestizo are pretty good. And so there’s just that very basic genetic code question that you are curious about. Who formed you? Who were these people? Who were your ancestors? At least, you know Renée can say, well, she’s Shawnee, right. I can’t even tell you what Native group I am descended from in Mexico. I have no clue. And I don’t know that I’ll ever get to that point. For me, the key is, and I think for a lot of Latinos, those of us who are of Indigenous backgrounds, to understand and come to grips with our indigeneity from an Indigenous perspective, versus a Latino perspective.
Because Spanish is still dominant in our language in some cases. And the Latino identity, or Chicano identity, in my case, is what pervades. But it’s still very much a Latino perspective. It’s not an Indigenous perspective. And I think for many of us, we have to find a way not to discard that Latino part, but to engage with the Indigenous part in a way that’s more serious, that’s more intentional. That’s more honest, and a way that really forces us to be open and accepting of that part of who we are. So I think we are bound to tell this history in the only way we know how to do it at the Latino Center at the Smithsonian, and that’s straight up with facts, and not to shy away from the difficult stories and it’s all mixed up. It’s the heritage of African slavery, the decimation of Native populations in the Americas, and the arrival of Europeans and the whole notion of first contact.
Again, going back to who’s going to be using this, teachers, I think can find creative ways in which to tell the story in a way that’s going to register with their students, in a way that’s really going to resonate and that will stick with them. So Renée, how does thinking about this history inform the work that you’re doing at the American Indian Museum?
Renée Gokey: We tackle a variety of content, but what we found is that often, we have to take a few steps back and really meet teachers where they are when teaching and learning about native peoples or Indigenous people, so even something as simple but important as checking our language, and giving some guidelines on terminology and kind of understanding some of the assumptions or the biases that we might have in our language. For example, with the term “Indio,” that’s considered derogatory. And our museum is called National Museum of American Indian. So it’s confusing for people. And so we try and give some feedback on the history of why our museum’s called National Museum of American Indian, which comes from the collector itself and the legislation that was passed. But we also look at the first time that the term “Indio” was used. And it was used, as far as we know, according to primary sources, in the journals of Cristóbal Colón or Christopher Columbus. When he landed on Hispaniola, he took a lot of notes, and he held a journal. And so I think it was October 14, that that term “Indio” was applied.
And so we try and give teachers some guidance on both the history and origins of these terms, and then give them some preferred terminology, and talk about why it could be problematic and why it is problematic to use that term. And then we complicate the story and I say, at least from my own family experience, my grandmother grew up in Oklahoma, being called “half breed,” which was also a derogatory term. It’s something that you would call dogs. And this is how she grew up going to boarding school and some of those pretty tough experiences. And so she called herself an Indian because Shawnees didn’t call themselves Shawnees in the 1920s and 30s. So my grandma, that’s the experience that she had, and so I try and be authentic and real and tell that story.
And then I talk about how today, we’re really reclaiming those terms, and we’re calling ourselves by our names. And some communities have been involved in that for quite a long time but other communities are really going and reclaiming these words that we call ourselves and not words that were put on us by the colonizer. So an example: Ohkay Owingeh, San Juan Pueblo.
Eduardo Díaz: It used to be San Juan Pueblo.
Renée Gokey: It used to be San Juan Pueblo. So these are really important, because the ability to name things and the ability to put things on a map, those are colonist practices. And so it’s important for us to kind of talk about some of that. So because that’s a frequently asked question, we address that and we have teachers think about terminology, even when it comes to teaching about American Indian removal, which I’ve done a lot of. And so we have these online lessons that we use primary and secondary sources to answer this question: What does it mean to remove a people? And when we’re discussing these resources, and we’re looking at exhibitions that help us tell more complete narratives, we also look at the term “ethnic cleansing.” And we talk about how it actually does meet the definition of ethnic cleansing when you’re looking at American Indian removal.
So there’s power behind these words, and I think that it’s really great teaching and learning opportunities to have these conversations, not only with teachers — but for teachers to have these conversations in their classrooms with their students. In terms of slavery in particular, we have what’s called Indigenous Peoples’ Curriculum Day and Teach-In, and we hold that before Columbus Day so that teachers are prepared in the local D.C. metro area to address these issues around Columbus, and slavery really starts there. And so we have a session, we have a keynote, and we’ll have several breakout sessions in which teachers can choose. And one of those sessions is a dialogue and a role-play around Columbus Day, and if he should be put on trial. So these are some of the ways that we start to address and find these entry points into talking about slavery and the other broader topics that teachers need support on.
Eduardo Díaz: We started a program looking at Taíno groups. Back in 2011, Taínos are the larger group that Christopher Columbus “discovered” when he arrives in the Caribbean. We started small with a symposium. So we brought in scholars and community members from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, from the Dominican Republic, from Jamaica—Jamaica, of course, the Taíno name—from actually Belize, because there was a relationship with the Garifunas. And the first symposium was really the myth of extinction because the narrative is the Columbus narrative and the Spanish narrative is Columbus arrives, the Spaniards come, they wipe out all the Indians in the Caribbean, there are no more Indians in the Caribbean. That’s the myth.
And so we continue to explore this notion of indigeneity in the Caribbean. And finally, we’re able to open the show on “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean,” at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. And when people ask me about that show, I say, “Well, basically, it’s the flip side of the Columbus narrative. It’s looking at first contact from an Indigenous perspective versus the traditional European perspective, so I think it’s very important that we at the Smithsonian flipped the narrative and we have to do it to be able to round out the story. And working with American Indian [museum], of course, for me has been a godsend. This is the only place we could have done it, obviously. It is a Native story but we’re also part of that story, because so many of us, particularly those members in our community who are from the Caribbean, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, in particular, this is their story. And so we needed to tell it.
Renée Gokey: Well, I was just going to add to that. So one of the ways that we’re also working with teachers is so often I mean, I think something like 83 percent of the workforce, the teaching workforce is white females. And so a lot of times, a teacher will come to us and say, they kind of exoticize — sometimes Native Americans, not all, but here and there we’ll get a comment. And what we’re really working to do is have teachers recognize their own culture, and start to break apart their culture, because everybody has culture and kind of expand their thinking around culture. And then they can start to teach about Native people in more inclusive ways and more complex ways.
And so that’s a really important thing is to start with yourself. I remember one teacher, we were doing an activity where we kind of sort different primary and secondary sources and we look at false narratives. And we kind of define that. And we look at incomplete narratives and talk about some of the characteristics of those. And then more complete narratives where we hope to provide first-person perspective and some documents and journals and quotes and art pieces that help to tell these more complete narratives from Indigenous perspectives. And this teacher, all of a sudden, she was engaging with the activity, and she threw her hands on the table, and she said, “I get it, we tell the stories that make us feel good about ourselves.” And so we’re also these people who were taking identities and shifting and changing sometimes. We’re using terminology in ways that can help us elevate ourselves and society. And so these are really important things to really talk about and look at some of the assumptions and biases that we have in using this terminology and who has the ability and who has a representation to be able to share those because we’re not all the same in that respect at all.
Eduardo Díaz: And kind of follow up on that, what do you say to the teacher for perhaps being intimidated or maybe feeling ill-equipped or not confident to talk about indigenous slavery in the classrooms? What do you say to them that relieves them from being intimidated or feeling guilty or just not feeling equipped to tell the story?
Renée Gokey: Well, to be honest, I haven’t taught on this topic. And so in terms of content, and in terms of pedagogical approaches, those are things that we’re still kind of working on but I would maybe go back to some of the practices that we know do help teachers and help them feel supported. And first, it’s based on just Teaching 101, which is relationships, building respectful relationships where teachers feel comfortable asking questions, and building that respect and sharing and being part of the learning community as a facilitator. So I guess my own philosophy has really shifted.
We do want to bring in content experts and curators, of course, but we also want to set up situations where teachers feel comfortable asking new questions, and the facilitator’s also learning alongside the teachers as well. So I think that providing a nice array of primary and secondary sources, where teachers and students can really confront the sources and grapple with history, that can be contradictory because even when we tell more complete narratives, it gets more complicated, right? So then we have contradictions sometimes, where one community says this, and another community says that or one family says, “Well you don’t necessarily represent a whole community’s perspective,” which is true.
And then we have to find ways to provide more complete narratives because we don’t want to put too fine a point on the incomplete narratives that are out there. We know there’s a lot and we know we’ve been dealing with stereotypes and incomplete stories and narratives about Native people for a long time. But what we need to do is counterbalance that with more complete narratives and a plethora of resources that teachers feel that they can turn to that are accurate, that are authentic and that can really help be relevant to students in their classrooms. So I think connecting it with contemporary issues is really key, connecting some of these broad ideas and these moral questions with the lives of students today, and there’s a lot of issues in which we can do that.
Eduardo Díaz: I think in terms of the areas that need to be explored, we need to begin with a historical grounding, right? This is the slavery that was practiced in the Americas. It led to the development of some customs and some edicts. There were economic factors, as we know, because slavery’s a business at the end of the day. There was inter-ethnic complicity, as we’ve discussed. There were wars that were fought over this. The geographic spread of Indigenous slavery was immense, not only in the Caribbean, but as we know, throughout Latin America, the US colonies, including the Philippines, and most states, we need to go deep into the areas of removal, reservations, Indian schools, boarding schools.
And I think that a comparative analysis with African slavery and the diaspora is something that would be important to do, I think, because people recognize and they know about African slavery, so I think that the comparative analysis would help it resonate with them. And then there’s family histories and traditions, looking at genealogical and genetic research, which in my case is what drove me to the subject matter as a mestizo very much about looking at identity formation and mythologies and religious conversions and cultural practice, euphemism, stereotypes as Renée has mentioned the importance of unraveling.
And then I think so much needs to be done in the area of research relative to the artifacts or the records of enslavement. So the documentation, what’s the invisible archive, what about material culture? We have not even scratched the surface, I bet, at the Smithsonian. And that’s something I think we need to really look at. And then there’s art and creative expression as a way of dealing with this. So one of the things we’re doing is organizing a one-and-a-half-day symposium on the subject in 2021.
We are going to be bringing together scholars, of course, and community members to talk about geographic reach and the history and the aesthetic and culture and treaties and wars, and so forth, and inter-ethnic complicities and whatnot. So that’s going to be an opportunity really for us to go deep into the subject from a variety of perspectives, and to also bring artists as well into the picture so that they can also reflect from their creative standpoints on the subject. Looking at slavery, aesthetics, and cultural resurgence and multi-genre traditional and contemporary art practice to the point that Renée brought up about the importance of showing how this subject resonates in a contemporary way.
I mentioned we’re doing a symposium in a couple of years, and one of the things we’re going to do is ask people to respond to an image, right? So one image might be a photograph in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History, which is of a Mexican, I’m quoting, this is how the photo caption reads, “Mexican boy captured by Comanche Kiowa Alliance.” OK, the exhibition at American Indian in New York, the Cannon exhibition” Wow, you could pick two or three images, paintings of his, T.C. Cannon, and ask a scholar or an artist to riff on that from the perspective of slavery. And it would be an extraordinary discussion, I think. I think all of these things that I’ve just sort of outlined are things that need to be looked at as a complete package of exploration into this subject that we are referring to as Indian slavery.
Renée Gokey: For our sort of pedagogical approaches, we found that poetry and art are really effective tools to start to bring about conversation. So they can be a really nice catalyst for conversation, and just get teachers and students thinking in new ways, and listening and hearing from other perspectives on the same artwork. So sometimes we don’t sit teachers down, for example, and say, “We’re going to talk about cultural appropriation today.” No. Instead, what we do is we look at some artwork, we look at some contemporary artists, and we even use our hands to make things ourselves and have conversations and then it will come up maybe, “Well, you know what, should I be using dream catchers in my classroom?” And so then we’re ready with some conversations around that. And so I think that that can be a way to — I don’t want to say a backdoor into approaching difficult subjects, I think it’s also important to hit it head-on. If you have the content, and you have the skills, and you’re ready for that but I think that it can be a really powerful way to talk about difficult subjects through poetry and art. We found that to be effective.
Eduardo Díaz: It seems that oftentimes, Native people in the United States, we owe these communities or, “We’re sorry, we took your land, decimated your populations and your buffalo herds and moved you and so forth, took away your language and whatnot.” But then in the exploration of this whole issue of Indian slavery, do you come to the... you learn that Native peoples were complicit and active, very active in the slave trade? I know we always point our fingers at the Comanches, who were like supreme at their business of slave trading. And in fact, it was a business and they enslaved other Native groups, even in Mexico and were running slaving raids into Mexico to provide the supply of human labor in the United States, and brought them back across the border. And it was a business. It was a business and Native peoples were engaged with that business, as you mentioned with the Shawnees and their role. That kind of disrupts that whole narrative about we have to be kind to Indians, and we have to be empathetic, and we messed them over. We got to make it up to them. You know what I’m saying? And it’s like, “Well, OK, but when we deal with the issue of slavery, if we do the whole truth and the whole history, there’s some very uncomfortable conversations that are going to come up here.”
Renée Gokey: Yeah. But at the same time, though, I think we have to acknowledge what was the context that made this happen. What was the context? There were so many challenges and Native communities were so disrupted due to disease, and due to forced removals, even before the 1830 Jacksonian policy of Indian removal. Native people were also removing themselves. So this was a very tumultuous period. And so yes, we don’t want to sort of get into this finger-pointing or saying we should apologize or we shouldn’t apologize. But I think what we do need to do is provide context. And so we do need to really look at the context in which this was happening and the kind of challenges that people were having. It doesn’t make it OK, but we need to provide that context.
I think apologies actually go a really long way. I say that because just a few weeks ago, I was giving a tour on removal, and there was a sort of quiet moment where I was just telling both my personal experience, some with my family or my heritage, and then the larger American story of removal. And a teacher from the back of the room said, “I just want to say that I am really sorry.” And I don’t say it with... because it was actually a kind of an important moment, everybody sort of felt it in the room. And people were nodding, and it was a really important moment, actually. And I can’t accept that apology. I didn’t endure any of the removal or anything like that. But our families still carry some of those stories. And there were so many different policies. So I just think that it’s really important to understand these and it’s so little taught, even basics like boarding schools, that’s not taught. You ask a group of 30 teachers in any given workshop and about two people raise their hands, that even know that boarding schools occurred, so I think this is a chance to really kind of widen our eyes and help us all wake up.
Eduardo Díaz: Yeah. I agree. I had mentioned the book The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez. I wanted to quote from a book review that was done by Genevieve Valentine at NPR, just a short paragraph, which I think is relevant to what we’re talking about here. And it reads, “It’s unfortunate, though inevitable, that some of the facts under discussion have lost historical resonance amid the longstanding cloud of white defensiveness. The fact that some Native American nation sought to maintain autonomy by adapting European horse culture and becoming slavers themselves is an object lesson in the trickle-down horrors of colonialism. Rather than self-contained billiard balls colliding with one another on the frontier, as Reséndez puts it, sometimes he writes as if he knows that any engagement with Indian slavers is doomed to erase some of the nuance of his research.”
You’re right, I mean, slavery was not practiced at this level before contact and before European colonialism that some tribes “got with the program.” Oh, boy. Anyway, lots to explore.
Renée Gokey: Another thing that I would add is that sometimes these types of subjects can bring about strong emotions, so they bring about anger or guilt or shame. And I think one way to deal with that is find ways for anyone, teachers and students, but just people in general to be empowered to rectify some of these injustices that are around them today. So how can we look at some of the issues that are important in society today, we were really... when we’re teachers, we’re really guiding students to be better human beings.
We’re guiding them not only to mentally accept or grapple with information, but really to improve their civic society, to improve our civic society and move towards a more perfect union. So how do we do that? Sometimes we have to heal. And sometimes we have to kind of really grapple with our own situations, and be intentional about the types of conversations we have, and when these emotions arise, how can we set up learning communities where we can actually tackle injustices today. So I think that that helps a little bit with some of the empowerment that we can find when we feel like either we have big gaps in knowledge, we don’t have a personal connection to this, maybe some people would say, “That was 300 years ago, how does that affect me today?” Well, let’s look at the issues that do affect you today and let’s talk about some of those dilemmas and debates today.
So I think that this kind of full humanity not only in talking about Indigenous people and Latinos and mestizos and other people that are part of these conversations, and Europeans and African Americans and Africans, but also the myriad experiences of humanity. And so I think that those are really important things to grapple with as well.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Eduardo Diaz is the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, whose mission is to increase and enhance the Latino presence at the Smithsonian Institution. He is particularly excited about the establishment of the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History. When it opens next year, it will be the first permanent exhibit space dedicated to the Latino experience on the National Mall.
Renée Gokey is the teacher workshop coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian. She is currently expanding the museum’s Native Knowledge 360 initiative, which offers educators and students new perspectives on the history, cultures and contemporary lives of Indigenous people through online content. The museum also provides many teacher professional development opportunities across the country, including the National Teacher Institute each summer, which you can learn more about at americanindian.si.edu.
And Maureen Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance and a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s senior leadership team. Before joining Teaching Tolerance, she led Newsweek’s education program. A former history teacher, she believes passionately that the past informs the present, and that studying the past makes us better citizens.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare their students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance offers free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these online at tolerance.org.
Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of what is currently the United States, or how its legacies still influence us today. Now in our second season, this podcast is part of an effort to provide comprehensive tools for learning and teaching this critical topic. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K–12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can find these online at tolerance.org/hardhistory.
Thanks to Ms. Costello, Mr. Diaz and Ms. Gokey for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our executive producer. Our theme song is “Different Heroes” by A Tribe Called Red, featuring Northern Voice, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie. If you like what we’re doing, please let your friends and colleagues know. Tell us what you think on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate the feedback. I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.