I’ve been visiting a second-grade classroom this year and talking to the students about early American history. Back around Thanksgiving time, I gave a talk about Pilgrims and Wampanoags–that was pretty easy for elementary school consumption. I put together a bunch of PowerPoint slides sixteenth and seventeenth-century drawings and photographs of the re-enactors at Plimoth Plantation, and I invited them to tell me about the similarities and differences they saw between English and Indian material culture: housing, clothing, and food. My talk in February was more difficult, because I talked to them about slavery in American history.
First, I drew a timeline from 1600 to 2011 on the board, and showed them exactly how long Africans and African Americans lived in slavery in Anglo-American and U.S. American history (1619-1865). I drew another line to show the years of segregation and Jim Crow (1865-1964). That pretty well covered the whole timeline, which was impressive and quite literally jaw-dropping information for them to take in. Then, I read them a wonderful picture book that illustrates the institution of slavery in terrifying terms that children can understand immediately: the theft of children from parents. Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson is based on the true story of Henry “Box” Brown and his self-emancipation from slavery in 1849.
I was unprepared for the question-and-answer session afterward, when the students really wanted to know why. Why did white people think they could do this to black people? Why did anyone ever think slavery was acceptable? Going into long explanations about the fact that many people in the medieval and early modern periods were unfree laborers, or talking about the global and imperial conditions that made slavery a common experience for many people through world history didn’t really seem to be the way to go with second graders.
The teacher had the children all write me thank-you notes on that fat-lined elementary school paper that is lined only on the bottom half, leaving the top half open for illustrations. In the notes for the slavery lecture, the students all made a curious choice: either they wrote about an appalling fact about the violence of slavery and then included only happy-faced historical people in their drawings, or they wrote that they had learned something relatively neutral but illustrated their notes with images of violence or conflict. They seemed unable or unwilling to include both verbal and visual information that was uniformly negative or upsetting.
Here are a few examples:
- Dear Mrs. Historiann, Thank you for coming to our classroom to teach us about slavery. I learned that they went through lots of pain, illustrated by a smiling white master whipping a smiling slave.
- I learned that white people sold black familys, illustrated by a smiling white person standing next to a smiling black person on an auction block.
- I learnd that slavery is not ok hear But ok back then, accompanied by a very detailed illustration of a slave market showing people making specific bids for slaves, the auctioneer shouting “sold for $500,” and slaves in a cart screaming “No!!!”
- I learned that slavery wasend only in the USA. Egipt had Izrealeans for slaves, illustrated with black and white children and adults smiling and holding hands.
I’d love any suggestions you have for dealing with the why question for early elementary students. Clearly my lesson was successful–most of the children wrote more than just “I learned slavery was bad,” or “I learned that slavery was wrong,” and they now have some context for understanding the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King’s work, which seems to be the focus of most elementary school African American history lessons. I understand why–teachers and school curricula want black history to conform to the message of uplift students are supposed to get from their American history lessons. It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach about wrongs being righted or overcome than to teach about the persistence of oppression.
One fascinating fact about this second-grade classroom: when I showed up to do my Pilgrims and Wampanoags talk, I brought a bunch of slides but was prepared to buzz through them in 10 minutes or less if the students didn’t seem interested. Much to my surprise–and absolute delight–they sat there and listened intently to me and to each other for forty minutes, and when I cut off the presentation there were still lots of hands raised eagerly in the air. My presentation on slavery took about the same length of time as the first lecture. I congratulated them on sitting through a college-length lecture and told them that they were more attentive and better behaved than most of my current students, so I had better see them in college in another 11 years or so.