In the New York Times magazine’s yearly edition on college education there was an essay by Edward F. Baptist entitled, “Teaching Slavery.” I keep coming back to it, reflecting on my own teaching experiences these days. In his essay, Baptist discusses the challenges of teaching slavery to today’s college students. He characterizes his teaching experience in the last 25 years as the challenge to overcome “….a bubbling bowl of white resentment.”
Baptist identifies the schools where he has taught undergraduates and allows that the passage of time and diversity of the classrooms makes a difference. Things were better at the University of Miami than they were at the University of Pennsylvania. These days, now teaching at Cornell University, Baptist writes that things are better than they were at Penn but still notes that, “Resentment of the topic of slavery hums at a relatively low volume…”
In one respect, I teach at the opposite end of the spectrum from Baptist. He has college students and I teach 7th grade. In another respect, our demographic is similar. In terms of privilege, the students at my independent college prep school are likely as well off as the undergrads at a place like Cornell, perhaps even more so. In terms of diversity, however, my classes are distinct from Cornell and look a great deal more like the nation as a whole. In most of my diverse 7th grade classes, whites are not the majority.
Baptist’s lessons on slavery are likely building on the previous knowledge of the institution that his history students have acquired. I’m at the other end of the spectrum, laying the foundation for that knowledge. My 7th graders care a great deal about fairness and in this respect slavery is at first quite easy to introduce: it’s so clearly unfair. Of course, it’s more than that, and I don’t neglect the complexities.
I teach my 7th grade history students that studying history is the process of discovering more complete truths of the human experience. When I introduce slavery to a room full of diverse faces I make very clear that none of us are slaves and none of us own slaves. We know that such a thing is deeply wrong. I explain that none of us are personally responsible for slavery in the United States, but that we are all living with its inheritance and as citizens are therefore responsible for understanding its complexities. I emphasize that this is a collective enterprise. I explain the introduction of slavery in the American colonies as a racist solution to the desire for cheap labor. My students and I never forget that slavery was driven by racism.
Talking about such a horrifying topic with 12 and 13 year olds is sometimes a challenge. The pain and discomfort of understanding slavery sometimes shows on their faces; I can be overwhelmed by that horror. So I tell them this as well: there are moments of greatness in our history; there are moments of great disappointments. Together, they make up who we are. Our history is imperfect because people are flawed. From this foundation, our self-knowledge moves forward. We can work as a class to understand our nation. Instead of resentment, we have community and the sense that it is our world to both understand and repair.