by Marsha Rakestraw

In February 2018, a Bronx teacher allegedly had a few of her black students lie on the classroom floor and then put her foot on them to show them what slavery felt like.

In January 2018, a Wisconsin private school asked fourth graders to list “three good reasons for slavery” (and three bad ones).

In 2015, McGraw-Hill received numerous complaints about a World Geography textbook that referred to enslaved Africans as “workers” and “immigrants.”

Clearly, we are struggling with how to help students learn about the complexities, nuances, and ethical repercussions of historical slavery in the US and how it informs white supremacy and racial injustices today.

A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project revealed a “widespread failure to accurately teach the hard, and nuanced, history of American slavery and enslaved people,” finding that “slavery is mistaught, mischaracterized, sanitized, and sentimentalized—leaving students poorly educated, and contemporary issues of race and racism misunderstood.”

Teaching Tolerance surveyed 1,000 high school seniors across the US and more than 1,700 US social studies teachers. They also reviewed 10 commonly used textbooks and analyzed 15 sets of state standards.

Among their findings of what 12th graders knew were:

  • only 8 percent could identify slavery as a primary cause of the Civil War
  • only 32 percent correctly named the 13th Amendment as the formal end of US slavery
  • only 46 percent identified the “Middle Passage” as the transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to North America
  • only 22 percent knew that “protections for slavery were embedded in [America’s] founding documents”

One of the report’s conclusions was that:

“Slavery is taught without context, prioritizing “feel good” stories over harsh realities; slavery is taught as an exclusively southern institution, masking the complicity of northern institutions and citizens in America’s slave-based economy; slavery is rarely connected to white supremacy—the ideology that justified its perpetuation; and slavery is seldom connected to the present, drawing the arc from enslavement to Jim Crow, the civil-rights movement, and the persistence of structural racism.”

To help educators learn and teach about this critical topic, Teaching Tolerance has created a comprehensive framework, which includes:

  • key concepts and summary objectives
  • primary source texts
  • six sample inquiry design models
  • a podcast series of “lessons we should have learned in school through the voices of leading scholars and educators”
  • a student quiz to help with formative assessment

It’s vital that teachers embrace the challenge of helping students grapple with the hard truths and complexities of slavery in the US; how that foundation continues to influence policy and culture today; and how we can use our skills as solutionaries to help create a more just and compassionate world for all.


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