seek ways to make slavery
A "Teaching Slavery" workshop at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture unearthed some issues that many Americans would prefer to keep hushed.
About 150 people crowded the small Langston Hughes auditorium Oct. 9 for one of the last events of an international symposium on the history of slavery, hosted by NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs and the Africana Studies program. In a room thick with heated opinions, speakers Gary Morris, Martia Goodson, and moderator S.E. Anderson focused on one main concept: the need to improve the way that U.S. public schools conduct the teaching of African-American history and slavery.
Goodson, a professor in Baruch College's black studies department, gave her braids an energetic toss and described the tendency of public schools to push African-American history to the side. She also thinks that African-Americans need to know that their past consists of much more than slavery.
"Something existed before that," she said. "And something existed after that. We're just not quite sure what. And we need to fill in those blanks before we can understand how to learn from them."
S. E. Anderson, a co-founder of the Black Panthers and author of the book, The Black Holocaust for Beginners, believes that the study of the slave trade has stalled because it cannot compete with the impact of more recent historical events.
"The figure of the Jewish Holocaust, that 6 million, is imprinted on our minds from the time we begin to study history," Anderson said. "And yet, no one realizes that almost 50 to 100 million Africans died during the 500 years in which slavery was an accepted economic practice."
Goodson told the audience that only Ohio, Missouri and New York require elementary, junior high, and high school educators to include slavery in their lesson plans. School boards in other states feel that teachers have the right to include or ignore topics they might feel uncomfortable teaching.
The speakers at the workshop believe the addition of a national public school curriculum could help alleviate some of the awkwardness that the mention of slavery still arouses.
When questioned by the panelists, many in the audience professed to know the history of slavery. But Anderson asked them to be specific: When did the Transatlantic Slave Route end? Who did the trading? No one responded.
The problem with teaching slavery does not rest solely on the lack of a national curriculum. Gary Morris, a former librarian and now director at Liverpool's nationally funded Maritime Museum, decried England's reluctance to make the teaching of slavery mandatory even though it could easily fit into the national curriculum.
"Slavery is history, it's central to everything that happened in five continents for four centuries," he said. "But right now, it's an option in a compulsory area. And it shouldn't be an option." Workshop participants expressed concern that African-American students had been made to feel embarrassed about their collective past.
One man, a retiree who had quietly sat through most of the workshop, suddenly offered: "Here's the problem -- most of the time we're not brutally honest," he said. "Most of the time, we mute our words because we've been taught to be polite in front of white people, to not say anything that will make them uncomfortable. Well, we just have to get over that fear."
Felisha Moraes, a New York City public school teacher, said she doubted that most educators would independently decide to teach a subject without incentive. She cited the case of one African-American teacher who won't even bother with Black History month "because it's not on the Board of Regents."
"Who's gonna teach the teachers?" asked Goodson. "I heard one teacher say that she wouldn't use Brother Anderson's book The Black Holocaust for Beginners because the pictures were too gross. Well, if the pictures are too gross, then what about he reality?"
A few of the audience members grasped for a possible solution to this problem: just flood America's educators with the proper background and knowledge, and then students will reap the rewards.
But Felicia Moraes does not believe that will help. "Don't expect your enemies to train you. You have to teach yourself.
Produced for the Web by Amanda Fung
"Breaking the Silence"