Wrap up: Questions from the Classroom

Episode 18

Historian Bethany Jay returns – answering questions from educators across the country. Host Hasan Kwame Jeffries and the co-editor of Understanding and Teaching American Slavery confront teacher anxieties and counter misconceptions in our season finale.


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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So are you ready?

Bethany Jay: I’m ready. Let’s go.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: All right. Let’s do this.

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. And this is the final episode of our first season.

I’m your host, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and today I’m joined by Bethany Jay. She and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly co-edited the anthology Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. Throughout this series, we have featured scholars from that collection, and we invited Bethany back to help us wrap things up. We’re going to spend most of this episode answering questions we’ve received from educators around the country. I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy.

I’m very excited to welcome Bethany Jayback to the podcast. Bethany Jay, what’s going on? How are you?

Bethany Jay: I’m doing well. I’m excited to be here talking with you about this stuff.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We have wrapped up this season; we’re coming to the end. And so there’s really no better way to end this first season of the podcast than to have you with me here answering questions from our listeners.

Bethany Jay: Thank you for having me.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I wondered what was it that led you and Cynthia to get together to write Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, the book from the University of Wisconsin Press.

Bethany Jay: There are two big reasons. And the first is really a deep belief that we need to be talking about this history in our classrooms, and that that’s just not happening at this point. And in teaching slavery for about 10 years—and Cynthia has been at it a little bit longer than that, what we realize is that when we talked to educators about teaching slavery, there was always this sense that slavery was something that they were going to teach at one point in the curriculum. And we realized that that was causing people a lot of anxiety because they were imagining this moment where you’ve been kind of gliding along on a very nice narrative of U.S. history, and then, boom! Here’s two weeks of slavery that comes out of nowhere. And so we really created the book to change that approach.

I always say that I begin my American History courses saying there were Africans in Virginia before there were Pilgrims in Massachusetts. So we’re going to talk about African-American history, and we’re going to talk about slavery, and we’re going to talk about it throughout our course. And if we talk about slavery across the time and landscape of American history, if we include slavery as part of the American story right from its very start, then we start to build capacity in our students to understand the subject, to deal with its complexities, and the hard conversations don’t come out of nowhere and shock your students. 

Instead, they’re part of a sort of larger and deeper understanding of the course and the subject from the start. So I think the problem that we’re seeing as we’ve talked to educators throughout this entire process is that teachers feel anxious because they feel ill-equipped to teach slavery, and they feel ill-equipped to teach slavery across that sort of landscape of American history.

And this is natural because, for a large part, today’s teachers have been trained by the same system that we’re trying to change. So Understanding and Teaching American Slavery was created to provide content strategies and resources that will help teachers to include slavery across American history curriculum and the Teaching Hard History project picks right up on that as well.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Do you see ways of incorporating the material, the approaches that are in the book, as well as with the framework and with the podcast, into existing curriculum? Or does it require a total revamp of what exists? I mean, can teachers plug and play? And if so, how does that work?

Bethany Jay: The way we created the book, and the frameworks that are on the Teaching Hard History website as well, was really to address that exact issue. Because I think teachers are also thinking, I’m going to have to completely reinvent the wheel in order to incorporate this kind of history, into their classrooms. And that’s just not the case. 

Because slavery is so integral to every part of the American history curriculum, you don’t need to completely rethink your curriculum. So, how we made the frameworks and how we made the book was to say, “Look, here are the subjects that teachers are going to teach. When you teach immigration into the British North American colonies, talk about the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, you can talk about the Quakers in Pennsylvania, but also talk about the forced migration of Africans as part of the Middle Passage. When you teach the Revolution, right? Do your George Washington and your Bunker Hill, and all of the things that you’re used to doing, but also talk about African-American soldiers. Talk about those who—who joined the British [at] a chance for freedom, right? Talk about the Book of Negroes in New York. That you can plug and play certain examples. 

I think what teachers find, is that when they start doing that work of switching out an example, of being more mindful of how slavery is represented in their curriculum, it does end up changing the narrative that they’re telling, but it’s not necessarily a top-down approach of saying, “Look, I need to completely rethink American history.” It’s something that happens organically as you start paying attention to these different sides of the story.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, that really addresses a number of questions that we received. One from Aretha Brown on Facebook and that was, you know, “Before I could even teach this material, I have to sort of get my administration on board. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for how to get principals and assistant principals and the decision-makers within school buildings on board with the importance of teaching hard history, not in just a day or two, but really fully involving it and integrating it into the curriculum?”

Bethany Jay: I think one of the things that we’ve seen is the need for professional development around these kinds of topics. That teachers need to have time to talk with one another about strategies that they think will or will not work in their particular districts. They need time to sort of think about resources together as educators who are working in a particular community. You know, going to administration to support things like faculty learning communities or team teaching opportunities seems like a good way to sort of get support behind that. But of course, every district is different, right? And that’s not going to work everywhere. I will say that I think the approach that we were just talking about, of really saying, “Look, this is part of American history. So when I’m teaching American history, if I’m just teaching this as part of the curriculum in the frameworks that I’m being asked to teach, then it just becomes a part of my classroom.” Are you really asking to do anything different than you’re doing already? Does that make sense?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No, it does. It makes a lot of sense. It’s somewhat about how we frame it.

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: How teachers frame what they are doing in the classroom to get buy-in from those who are not in the classroom to actually hear what they would be doing. You know, Bethany, that actually ties into a question that we received from Liz Kleinrock via Instagram. And she asks, “How do you recommend engaging families as part of this learning process when they might be against teaching about enslavement in the classroom?” And that raised two issues for me because that’s really two different constituencies, I think, and I’d love to get your thoughts on both of these. Historically, slavery has been taught poorly in the classrooms. So for parents of children of color, particularly African-American parents or parents of African Americans, there is a good reason to be hesitant and skeptical when you hear that slavery is suddenly going to be taught, and there can be pushback from them about this. 

But then you have white parents, we see this coming up in Texas most recently, who are resistant to talking about slavery in the classroom at all, because they don’t want their children to feel white guilt and shame and all these other things. So both groups, they both wind up saying, “Don’t teach it.” Obviously, we need to teach it. So how would you address those two different constituencies that are approaching the issue from two different angles?

Bethany Jay: Those are tough questions, right? I mean, they’re—and they are in some place, in some ways, place-specific, right? And teachers need to know the communities that they’re teaching in. But the way I’ve really dealt with this is by using the advice that Steven Oliver offered in both that sort of chapter in Understanding and Teaching American Slavery and his episode here, which is, with families of black students who may be hesitant to have their children learning about slavery from a white woman like myself, the idea is to be clear about one’s intentions. I make it very clear to my students that I’m talking about this history because I care deeply about it. That we’re going to be examining it because it’s an integral part of understanding our common history. And I also make it clear that I know a lot about the subject that I’m talking about. And so that gains my students’ trust pretty quickly.

And then with those white parents who are hesitant to have their students learn about it, because of either white guilt or hostility or whatever it might be, making our intentions clear as well. You know, one of the things that Steven says in the episode is—is starting some of these conversations with the idea that none of us in this room are responsible for the history that we’re talking about, no matter what your background. What we’re trying to do is learn from it, right? And create a better future together. So being really clear about the intentions, not laying any guilt on anybody, I think can help to create a productive foundation for these kinds of discussions.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I think one of the issues that African-American parents would have with teaching this subject, is how do you teach the brutality of it in a way that is sensitive to the young people in the room? We had a question from Melissa Aguedelo from Twitter, who expressed her worry that focusing on the brutality of slavery would de-emphasize the fact that enslaved Africans built this country. “What’s the right balance” she goes on to say, “between talking about and teaching about the humanity and contribution of black folk who are enslaved, to teaching about the sheer horror of the institution itself?”

Bethany Jay: I thought that your conversation with Izzy Anderson on the “Resistance” episode with Kenneth Greenberg was one of the best examples of a real teacher dealing with that exact question. Feeling like she was in a difficult position, teaching a majority African-American student population in the Deep South, and really sort of grappling with this question of, How do I balance? Making sure that these kids are hearing this history somewhere. And if I want to make sure they’re hearing it, then it’s going to have to be in my classroom. But also thinking, I don’t want to just beat them down. And that question of resistance, and the way that she addressed sort of, “We’re going to talk about the horrors of slavery, but we’re also going to talk about the fact that, through all of this, enslaved people built cultures and lives and families,” right? And persisted. So it’s resistance in the face of slavery. And I think that’s such an important balance to strike. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it’s an important one for our students to hear in the classroom.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I was thinking about a conversation with my oldest daughter when she was just five years old. I’m telling her and talking to her about the brutalities of slavery. And then her response was like, “Well heck, I don’t want to be black,” right? Like just, “I can’t. That’s too much for me.” And I realized then that I had to strike just in that conversation, the balance between black beauty, black humanity and black pain. Because if you emphasize one over the other and you don’t strike that balance, you either get pushback, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” or you don’t provide the adequate context for understanding what was really an amazing struggle in human history. So it really is a fine line to walk, but it’s so critical that we actually do it.

You know, we received a question from Erin Annis on Instagram, who asks, “How do we counter the quote unquote ‘No one thought it was wrong’ question with regard to people owning other people?” Which reminds me of a very common question that occurs at historic sites. Our friends at Montpelier, James Madison’s residence, if you ask them, “What’s one of the most common questions that you get when you talk about James Madison as a person who claimed ownership over 100 enslaved African Americans?” And they’ll say, “Well, wasn’t he a good master?”

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Or, “He was just a man of his times.” Where does that come from? And what is the proper response to that?

Bethany Jay: I think it comes from this deep desire to have American history be completely celebratory and progressive.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm.

Bethany Jay: I once heard Colonial Williamsburg’s early tours being, “America started off great and it’s been getting greater ever since.” And I think it comes from the desire to sort of maintain that narrative and to maintain our heroes. Mount Vernon had a memorial to enslaved people placed there in the 1920s and another one in the 1980s, before they ever really started connecting the fact that those enslaved people lived on Mount Vernon meant that George Washington owned enslaved people. Somehow, those two narratives worked on parallel paths. They never intersected. And I think that’s the way we’ve been dealing with this history for a long time. Montpelier is the best example of bringing those two narratives together.

I think it’s still a sort of battle in many of our public history sites, and it’s still a battle in our classrooms. And when my students bring up a kind of “men of their time” argument: “Well, we can’t judge them, right, by our standards today,” my response is, “No, but we can judge them by the standards of their day.” And I usually bring up two examples. I bring up George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, who were in a continuous dialogue about slavery, you know, from the end of the Revolutionary War until Washington’s death, with the Marquis de Lafayette being a committed abolitionist and in favor of equal rights, and sort of dragging Washington behind him in some ways, right, into these conversations. I also talk about Thomas Jefferson and his mentor, George Wythe. Wythe, who was an enslaver, becomes an abolitionist of sorts after the Revolutionary War, ends up freeing his enslaved people and advocating for equal rights. Jefferson takes a very different path after the Revolution.

And so these are men who are in communication with each other. They’re not just living at the same time. They’re friends with one another. And we see that there are counterexamples that were present for Thomas Jefferson and for George Washington. And they each chose to sort of deal with those conversations and those examples in different ways.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And these are very much, as you point out, conscious decisions that they’re making to participate and to engage in the ownership of people.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And at the same time, they also have a conscious awareness, right? So not only are they engaged in dialogue in the defense of their actions, but we see sometimes in the writings of Madison, “Yeah, we’re gonna pay for this down the road,” you know? I mean, so they’re not walking through the world with blinders. They know this is fundamentally wrong. And yet ...

Bethany Jay: It’s like Jefferson’s “wolf by the ears.” Yeah.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Exactly. Very much so. I mean, they know they are handling fire. And yet they can’t put it down, partly because, I imagine, not only the personal stake, the personal financial investment that they have in it, that some people will acknowledge like, “Oh well, it’s hard to sort of put down what makes you money.” But then you can’t also separate that from the—their deep belief in white supremacy. So you know, in theory, they know it’s wrong. But they’re like, “Look, James Madison. He’s a third-generation enslaver. This is his life and connected with that is this deep belief in white supremacy.” And it’s hard to separate yourself from that because you don’t want to, because of what you believe.

Bethany Jay: And it is. It’s sort of, like you’re saying, very conscious ignorance. And I remember Paul Finkelman talks about an example of Jefferson receiving all Benjamin Banneker’s work on astronomy, and he dismisses it saying, ‘Well, that must be the work of his white mentor.’”

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm.

Bethany Jay: Jefferson’s smarter than that, right? We would think he would be better than that. Even when presented with examples of achievement, he sticks to his sort of white supremacist guns.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think you’re absolutely right. That has more to do with how people want to remember the past than how the past actually was.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m very much of the mind when thinking about that question that there is no such thing as a good master. I mean, the system itself is so inhumane and so corrupt, that even if you are less violent than somebody else, you still have to, by your very—the very nature of you participating in that system designed to exploit the labor of other people, the cornerstone of which is violence, you yourself have to be corrupted. You cannot engage, participate in any small way in that evil system and not be corrupted by it. Look, in my mind, the only good master’s a dead master. But that’s a story—this is why this is the final episode of this podcast.

Thinking about other questions that came up. One of the things that struck me were questions that teachers asked about the initial questions that students ask coming in. We all know that students don’t enter classrooms as empty vessels. Even if they haven’t spent a lot of time in formal instruction on American slavery, they still picked up things here and there. And Kinette Richards, who’s a middle school psychologist, shared with us a common question that she hears from middle school teachers and that is, “Why did Europeans enslave African people?” In other words, why were Africans the ones who wind up as the central labor force in this system of involuntary labor? It seems to me that that really opens up this bigger question of, “Hey, we got to talk about sort of the global Atlantic slave trade at some point. But how do you respond to that in a way that a student could understand?”

Bethany Jay: It’s a good thing it’s not a hard question, right? So I’ve used this in my classrooms as an opportunity to teach students about historical interpretation and really think about, you know, how different historians have studied the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its causes and the enslavement of African people. And my methodology for it is actually pretty, pretty specific in that I use a collection, David Northrup’s The Atlantic Slave Trade, where he’s got excerpts of all of the big thinkers about why were Africans enslaved. You know, you’ve got Williams, Jordan, Eltis, Davis in there. I have my students read those portions, and then together as a class, we dissect them. What are their arguments? What are their evidence? What are the ways that they agree or disagree with one another? And then together as a class, we come up with a sort of compiled list. Taking from all of those different sources, the various sort of economic, cultural and even coincidental reasons why African people were enslaved. We talk about the fact that Europeans were enslaved at different times as well. 

And it really sort of works well, because you’re dealing with these very difficult questions of race, and you’re dealing with them head-on, you’re dealing with them sort of at the beginning of the course, right, of—of your discussions, but you’re doing it in the context of historical arguments, right? Evidence about medieval thinking about race. The way that you’re having these conversations is very grounded in the sources that you’re looking at.

Where teachers get in trouble sometimes is asking their students, “Can you think of any justifications for slavery? Can you think of why African people might be enslaved?” That’s not what we’re asking students to do. What we’re asking students to do is say, “What have been the reasons historians found for why Africans were enslaved?” And I’ve found that that’s gotten us through some very productive conversations. I’ve done that work with world history students who were not majors in history—you know, freshman kids, diverse classrooms—and in every instance, it’s worked. To treat kids like adults. They can handle these sources, they can handle these difficult arguments, but work them through it as a classroom.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It seems that part of what you’re saying is, and this goes back to what you were sharing at the very opening of this episode, is that you just can’t drop in on American slavery, you know, halfway through a semester.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Or just pick it up in, you know, the 1810s, 1820s, or before the Civil War. But you really have to put American slavery in a global context. And that begins starting sort of in the colonial era, and before it really even touches these shores. Is that—is that right?

Bethany Jay: That’s what I try to do. And I try to also talk about Africa before Africa was embroiled in the transatlantic slave trade as well, right? Thinking about the great civilizations of Africa. We think about Europe and why Europeans and the English, you know, left England, and we—we reach back to Europe to understand immigration to British North America. Let’s reach back to Africa so that we can understand what was going on there before British North American migration.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, one of the things I think that does is that it helps humanize those people who will become enslaved.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm. 

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In other words, we think of slavery as an eternal condition when we drop off the element of “Africa before.” These are people who are coming from a people. Their existence doesn’t begin solely with this status of slave. I think that is critically important.

Bethany Jay: The other piece of that that I often hear is, “Well, didn’t Africans enslave other Africans?” right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ah. Of course.

Bethany Jay: “Weren’t Africans the ones selling enslaved people?” And that just speaks to our sort of larger misunderstanding of—of Africa as sort of one monolithic place, and not a vast continent filled with different peoples who may or may not like one another, right? But—but thinking about how does the trans-Atlantic slave trade change Africa? Like yes, slavery does exist in Africa before the Portuguese start buying people to work in, you know, the Cape Verde Islands. But the incredible demand for enslaved labor in the West Indies and South America and North America fundamentally changes slavery in Africa. So yes, African people engage in selling other African people to the slave trade, but that doesn’t mean that, you know, we all get to wash our hands of culpability. We need to understand the systems—right?—that operated within that slave trade and how the slave trade changed Africa fundamentally.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. And that European involvement. I mean in other words, there’s systems of involuntary servitude around the world.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But I think it’s also something that is explicitly unique about what evolves and becomes the Atlantic slave trade. And part of that is the dehumanization of those who find themselves caught up in it. I mean, literally being cast out of the human family in some ways, and that almost eternal status, or the attempt to make it an eternal status of the inheritance through birth of someone’s condition, this social condition.

So I think that’s also part of an important way to talk about the conversation. What do these different forms of involuntary servitude look like, and what are the distinctions that we can draw between the two? Because it’s not just simply oh, taking one person from one system and putting them in another. It’s a transformation, moving one to the other. And then the impact that that has on some of the demands for a population of involuntary labor.

Bethany Jay: Right, right. How do you talk with students about the fact that slavery ends, but this oppression continues. And thinking about the creation of those systems, right? These are vast, massive systems, and the culture that supports them—right?—the underlying assumptions and pseudo-science that supports them, doesn’t go away with the 13th Amendment. That’s what a—part of what makes all of this so hard to talk about, is that we’re still in many ways living with the structures that supported slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Bethany Jay: With the assumptions and stereotypes that supported slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Do you think that that’s part of the reasons for the hostility? For teaching it? That if you look too deeply, there is a concern and fear on the part of some, that it becomes an indictment. It becomes an implication that we then have to, if we’re being honest with ourselves, do a full assessment of who we are and where we are as a nation and as a people?

Bethany Jay: I do. I do think so. And I think it goes back to wanting to look at the founders as good slaveholders, right? Of—of wanting to sort of believe the—the celebratory version of American history, instead of really grappling with the nation’s more complete history. And when we’re talking about things that persist to today. So it’s also talking about making a change today, you know? Understanding slavery and its impact kind of compels us to want to do something more today. And I think that’s also threatening or dangerous in certain instances to people.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we had a question from Joe Schmidt along these lines. He asked: “Many students see history and slavery as something that happened in the past,”—as we were just talking about. “And something that is over and finished. A terrible thing that’s done.” And so he asked, “What are some strategies for guiding students to seeing the connections between slavery and modern-day events? Sort of the contemporary implications, or maybe even the legacies of slavery today.”

Bethany Jay: I’ve had terrific conversations with my students about things like, you know, mass incarceration of African-American men. And we start talking about that with Reconstruction, and it naturally happens, right? You talk about things like vagrancy laws, and students naturally make these connections. Convict labor. Again, they’re not—they’re not as sheltered as we think they are. They know more than we give them credit for, and they’ll make connections. At some point we were talking about stereotypes of African-American men in slavery. And one of my students made the connection to the way that Michael Brown was described by police. And it was in a very sort of mixed classroom, probably about 60 percent African-American kids, 40 percent white kids. And my white students were like, their mind was blown by this. And my African-American students were like, “Yeah. This is—this is every day—right?—that we’re navigating the different ways that people see us, as we go through our world.” 

And it was really this very kind of profound moment. I found that that has happened naturally with what my students are bringing into the classroom, as much as what I’m trying to sort of allow them to see or get them to see.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As you shared that story about Michael Brown, and Michael Brown of course was a young man who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014. I was thinking about Trayvon Martin and the Stand Your Ground bill. Trayvon Martin of course, a young man who was shot by a self-deputized sort of local—I don’t even know what you would call him. Wannabe police officer. But his actions, in combination with Stand Your Ground gun laws, are very reminiscent—and trying to police and patrol black bodies by non-law enforcement are very reminiscent, if you look at slave codes in South Carolina in 1740 coming out of the Stono Rebellion and revise where they literally say all white men are empowered to police black bodies, to police black folk, whether enslaved or free. You know, can carry arms, can stop, can detain. And if people refuse, they can kill. So there literally are echoes today of behavior that was institutionalized in law back then.

Bethany Jay: One of the misperceptions that I think many of my students have come to class with, is the idea that white privilege means that all white people’s lives are easy. And really just thinking, no, white privilege is partly just the freedom from those kinds of assumptions that people—right?—white people don’t need to worry about being shot for wearing a hoodie in the wrong neighborhood, or getting pulled over for driving through an affluent neighborhood, for the most part. White privilege is just not carrying the racial baggage of 250 years of American history with you everywhere you go.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think right along those lines, I mean whiteness bestows the privilege of not having to remember this history.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, you can forget it and your life can go on just fine. But for African Americans or people of color, they cannot afford not to think about their relationship as citizens to law enforcement. To do so runs the risk of putting them in serious physical harm and physical jeopardy. It also doesn’t help you understand the world in which you are in. It’s a privilege that African Americans, descendants of enslaved folk, just simply don’t have. They cannot not remember the past, because it’s still alive and present today.

Bethany Jay: That reminds me, just last night I was talking with my—my history preparation students. My students are going to be teachers, and we were talking about teaching the students who are in your classroom, right? Teaching the kids who are in front of you, and how do you reach them? And one of the texts that we were talking about was Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. It’s a great book.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Bethany Jay: But he quotes the poet Adrienne Rich, and he says, “The poet Adrienne Rich affirmed this sense of negation when she observed that, quote, ‘When somebody with the authority of a teacher, say, describes a world and you’re not in it, there is this moment of psychic disequilibrium. As if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.’” And that just hit home with me and sort of tying a lot of this together. Our responsibility as teachers to reflect the world that our students are living in, to make sure that our students are reflected in the history that we’re talking about in our classrooms. And even if you don’t teach in a classroom with a ton of African-American kids, to make all of your students aware of our shared past. And it just seemed to sort of bring a lot of these ideas together for me.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we had a couple of questions from educators who teach in overwhelmingly or exclusively white environments, and the question was very much along those lines: “How do I convince my students that this history and this aspect of this history, learning about the African-American freedom struggle and slavery, so not just the economics of the institution, but really understanding the full complexity of the entire system, including the lives of black folk, why should they know about that? Why should they care?” And it seems that that begins to speak to the importance of that. But are there some strategies for, not just the college level who you can lay something out and that really becomes clear to them, but even for younger white students in nondiverse, racially or ethnically diverse environments, to get them on board with this history?

Bethany Jay: Just making this history our history. The sense that somehow George Washington is a part of our shared past, but Harriet Tubman isn’t, right? Or thinking that learning about the average experience of a Revolutionary War soldier is part of our common past, but the average experience of an enslaved person is not our common past, is creating a very artificial understanding of who built this country and the factors that have gone into this country, right? I mean, if most of us look at our past, we’re not a direct line to George Washington, right? You know, most of us come from backgrounds of diverse, average people who don’t necessarily show up in history books. So you know, talking about the great varieties of people who have built the United States is reflecting all of our past, much more than just talking about the great white men who did things. I don’t know if that—does that make sense?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No, it does. It does. I mean, what you’re sharing with us, what you’re telling us is this is American history, right? Like, this is the history of all of us. And in some ways when you study African Americans, folk on the ground, folk who were enslaved, folks whose names we remember, folks whose names we never will but that were the labor force behind the growth and development of this nation, that that is fundamentally American. That we can dive deep and study and explore the African-American experience, but to do so is also to peek at, to look at the American experience from a very important angle. Because the two, in fact, can’t be separated at all.

Bethany Jay: Right. They’re completely intertwined.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is the last episode. Last episode, first season. Second season will be about Teaching Hard History: The Civil Rights Movement. What are some of the legacies of slavery that we should be paying attention to as educators as we move out of the era of slavery into the post-emancipation era and the era of freedom?

Bethany Jay: I think part of what we need to pay attention to is that the idea of the post-emancipation era is, in some ways, false. That slavery as we know, continues for many people, just in a different form. And that even for those people who live as free people, that there’s a lot of structural inequality that exists. And that that’s not just confined to the South. My students in Massachusetts like to think that we are free from the racial baggage that the South carries. And again, when you pay attention to African-American history across the United States and across chronology, you realize that’s not the case. So paying attention to structural inequality, paying attention to all of the ways that slavery persists in the absence of, you know, one person’s ability to own another. That we see all of the different ways that forced labor persists. Maybe “in the absence of slavery” is a better way to put that.

I was saying earlier, one of the hard things about teaching slavery is we want to draw a line at 1865 and say it’s over. But really, when we’re talking about the end of slavery, and when we’re talking about sort of real progress towards racial equality, we’re not talking about 1865. We’re talking about 1965, right? That’s a much shorter history that we’re dealing with.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that I think we do too much in the classroom, is we drop slavery just as you said, in 1865. Or we drop the discussion of it.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And in essence, slavery is a way of ordering society. And once the legal protections for that are removed, that does not mean that the desire to order society in a similarly hierarchical way disappears. And I think that’s important for us to understand as we move out as educators into that new era, that we do not just suddenly set aside the desire of white people in America to control black labor, and to regulate black behavior for the purposes of enriching themselves. And as a result of that, are looking back at what they had done during slavery to figure out, or to inform sort of actions, behaviors, practices and policies in this post-emancipation, post-slavery moment.

Bethany Jay: How do we accomplish that in the absence of—of legal slavery, right? In the form it existed before? And, you know, when we talk about the civil rights movement, it doesn’t make any sense if we drop slavery in 1865. 

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Bethany Jay: And that’s another thing that I think we do. If we pick up and we begin talking about slavery in 1820 or ’30—right?—is where I think most curriculum frameworks want you to kind of bring in a narrative of slavery, so that you can deal with it as part of the sectional crisis and you can end it with the Civil War. You know, if we do that, then slavery doesn’t make much sense. And in the same way, if all of the sudden African-American people reemerge in the 1950s to be reintegrated into a society, but we haven’t dealt with segregation, we haven’t dealt with Jim Crow, we haven’t dealt with the oppression of that era, then what context do our students have to understand civil rights, right? In some ways we diminish the accomplishments of civil rights by not discussing the contexts that they came out of.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that is so true. And when we get them in the classroom and they’re looking at us all confused, we can’t then look at them and be like, “What’s the problem?” right? Because we haven’t done right by them, just as you said, in terms of providing them with the context that they need to understand these important moments in American history where dramatic changes and shifts are occurring. Like, we cannot go from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King to Barack Obama. That line, without understanding and explaining not only the context of the times in which they lived, but what was happening in those moments in between, explains how you can link them. But in the absence of that, it just makes no sense whatsoever.

Bethany Jay: Right. I—my best friend is a kindergarten teacher, and she’s always wondering, How do I teach Martin Luther King to kindergartners who have no context for what King’s fighting, you know? And it’s part of her curriculum framework. She always finds she’s backing up and doing a lot of—a lot of work, you know, to teach Martin Luther King, you know, in January. Yeah.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No, it’s the same thing with, you know, by comparison, if you just drop Harriet Tubman on a student even at a young age, without actually introducing what slavery was first?

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Then it's like, “Well, what was her point?” Like, “What was she doing?” It’s like, “Oh, she’s this great person of resistance. Example of resistance.” But you’ve never actually explained what is she resisting.

Bethany Jay: Resisting. Yup.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it’s the same thing with sort of Dr. King, right? He’s just upset over some signs? Like, “No you have to really dig deep.”

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So I think there are real parallels between the pedagogical challenges that we face in teaching the hard history of American slavery and the hard history of the civil rights movement. And so I don’t think you can separate the two, both in terms of helping to understand one and the other, but then also understanding the best ways to teach it accurately and effectively.

Bethany Jay: I completely agree. Yeah. And I guess within the sort of large context of all of the sudden these big things coming out of nowhere, the fact that slavery is the cause of the Civil War makes more sense when you’ve understood the broad sort of cultural, political and economic context of slavery. And if in your classroom, you haven’t raised the issue of slavery before you talk about the Civil War, then slavery as the cause of the Civil War doesn’t make much sense, right? Understanding the Confederacy as a nation that was built to preserve slavery doesn’t make sense without the longer context of the social, political, cultural, economic benefits that slavery brought to the southern part of the United States.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the principal legacies, if not the principal legacy of slavery, is white supremacy. The beliefs that undergird the entire system. The justification that rationalized the enslavement of one people by another people. And when emancipation ends, white supremacy doesn’t suddenly evaporate. It still serves as the guiding principle, the guiding ideological belief in America. And it’s not just confined to Southerners or former slaveholders, it’s a nationwide national belief. And so when we look at discriminatory practices and behaviors in a post-emancipation period in the 20th century, early and later and even today, there are direct connections that we can make to a belief in white supremacy. 

Jim Crow is undergirded by white supremacy. Lynching, the use of racial terror to prop up the Jim Crow system, is undergirded by white supremacy. Some of the justifications for mass incarceration and the criminalization of black behavior that we see in the early 20th century, just as we see in the early 21st century, are guided and informed by a belief in white supremacy. And so there really is no discontinuation, unfortunately, between slavery and freedom. When we think about the links between the central ideology that undergird it all, which is this deep and abiding belief in white supremacy that goes back to the very founding and beginning of the nation.

Bethany Jay: And in fact, I think our understanding of the Civil War, both as historians and as Americans as it’s been represented in popular culture throughout the better part of the 20th century, our understanding of the Civil War has been one that was built to reinforce white supremacy as well, right? The Gone with the Wind narrative of the Old South, The Littlest Rebel and Shirley Temple, those are all white supremacist narratives of the Civil War as well. So we think of the sort of cultural resonance of these ideas.

I think one of the things that’s really impacting the way that teachers are approaching this subject is the kind of “gotcha” culture that we’re in. Where you feel like anything that you say can be live tweeted, when you’re having a fight with your spouse on an airplane, or there’s a snapshot that shows up on you, and everybody is afraid of sort of going viral. And I think that’s a lot of what’s kind of driving some of the hesitance to teach this history in our classrooms, is that teachers really are afraid that they’re going to say something and they’re going to end up, you know, a national news story. And there’s just a couple of things that I want to sort of address within that fear, because I completely understand it. But we need to sort of keep those viral examples in context. There are thousands and thousands of teachers who are doing this work every day, and the vast, vast majority of those teachers are not ending up shared on Twitter and Facebook and with an NPR story about them.

Teaching slavery does not automatically land you in the news, and it doesn’t automatically land you in your principal’s office explaining things. But—right?—you do want to be sure that you are teaching this topic in a responsible way, and the way to do that is to just familiarize yourself with the content, be intentional with the resources that you’re bringing in to your students. Make sure that your discussions are grounded in the historical facts and resources that you have on hand. And just start doing it, because what you’ll find is that a lot of that anxiety is anxiety that is understandable but misplaced.

Overwhelmingly, the only emotion I get from my students about this is anger that they haven’t heard it before. Anger that, “Why am I just hearing this now in my college classroom?” This is so important, and it’s righteous kind of anger that they come with. It’s not anger at me for talking to them about something they don’t want to hear. They want to hear this history. And again, we are fooling ourselves if we think that they’re not already aware of a lot of what we think we’re tap dancing around in our classroom.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think the reward for that is not only a more informed student, a more knowledgeable student, about both the past and the present like we have been talking about, but it’s also a more engaged student.

Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When you begin to unravel this critical component about, not only early American history but also modern American history, that helps explain so much, students’ eyes, once they get over the fact that they hadn’t been taught this before, their eyes just open up and they become sponges that want to absorb more and more and more. Not only, “If I haven’t learned this, what else about the American past and American slavery don’t I know? What else about American race relations and the African-American experience don’t I know?” But, “What else about America don’t I know? What else has been held back from me because of people’s political leanings or social sensibilities?”

And I think as educators, as teachers, like, that’s what we want. We want our students to be hungry and yearning to learn. And when you take a subject like American slavery that so many people have danced around their entire lives, and you just make it plain for them and accessible and lay out these fundamental truths about the American past, they get fired up to learn more. And there’s nothing better than having a student in your classroom or a class as a whole that’s just yearning for more of what you have to give them.

Bethany Jay: It’s true. And I think teachers think that they need to be the ones telling their students about slavery, and what’s great about the resources that are compiled with Teaching Hard History and with Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, is that they point you to the resources so that students can discover this history for themselves as well, right? And I think that takes some of the anxiety off, too. Let me send them to the sources. If they want to understand the slave trade, let me send them to the sources on the domestic or the international slave trade. That becomes key in my classroom.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And in many ways that, as you pointed out, that not only relieves some of the burden from you as an instructor, but that sense of learning on their own, that sense of self-discovery is empowering for the students who then will turn around—and this has been my experience, who will then want to learn more from me. It’s like, “Okay, I learned this here. So what else? Point me in another direction. Help me—help—help explain this to me.” I think that is so critical, because sometimes we can get in our own way, and we also have to deal with the biases that students will bring with them into the classroom. For whatever reason. And so sometimes we as instructors have to get out of the way and let the students, as you said, point them in the right direction so they can have a sense of self-discovery, and then come in and offer the assistance and guidance for further learning and further discovery, and deeper dives into this history.

Bethany Jay: Yeah, I like to think of it as guiding discovery, as opposed to imparting the history.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bethany, I have really enjoyed hearing your thoughts and answers to these questions. This has just really been a fantastic, thoughtful and thought-provoking way to wrap up this first season of Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. So thank you so much, not only for bookending this season for us, starting us off with those great two episodes on the Civil War, and wrapping up with answering these questions that have come up over the course of the season, but thanks especially for really laying the foundation for this podcast with your co-edited collection, [Understanding and Teaching American Slavery]. So thank you so much, Bethany.

Bethany Jay: Thanks so much for having me, Hasan. And thank you for the work that you’ve done throughout this season to give an additional layer of context and meaning to so much of the scholarship through these podcast episodes. I really appreciate it, and always learn from you. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thank you so much.

Bethany Jay: Oh, no worries. You, too.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Since you started us off, how about you join me in closing us out?

Bethany Jay: That sounds great.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bethany Jayis an associate professor of history at Salem State University, where she teaches courses on 19th-century American history, African-American history, and history education. She is also co-editor of the informative book that this series is based on.

Bethany Jay: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, with special thanks to the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publishers of a collection of essays called Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. Throughout this series we have featured scholars to talk about material from a chapter they authored in that award-winning collection.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We’ve also adapted their recommendations into a set of teaching materials, which are available at tolerance.org/podcasts. These materials include over 100 primary sources, sample units and a detailed framework for teaching the history of American slavery.

Bethany Jay: Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these online at tolerance.org.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thank you, Dr. Jay, for sharing your insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is the project manager. Our theme song is “Kerr’s Negro Jig” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie.

Bethany Jay: And if you like what we’re doing, please let your friends and colleagues know. And tell us what you think on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate the feedback.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.

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