Teaching Hard History

By Jessica Shim

Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 oil on canvas 59 x 34 x 6 inches©Titus Kaphar.

“How are you currently teaching the history of American slavery?” read the question on the projector screen. I was privileged enough to be sitting in a Teaching Tolerance workshop called “Teaching Hard History – American Slavery” hosted by Maureen Costello (Director, Teaching Tolerance), Monita Bell (Senior Editor, Teaching Tolerance), James Perla (Carter Woodson Center, UVa), and Lisa Woolfork (UVa Department of English) at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. As I sat and thought about the question, I realized, I don’t really teach about American slavery. I don’t teach social studies, and it’s not really in any of the other SOLs in fifth grade. Plus, I thought, my school is departmentalized, so it’s hard to implement “cross-curricular” lessons. So I quickly scribbled, “Not really teaching it… We do current events in my ELA class and talk about how oppression is rooted in slavery?”

It didn’t take long for me to figure out how wrong I was. This workshop taught and reminded me of how relevant and connected slavery, white supremacy, and racism are to just about everything in the United States (including the very foundation of this country), and gave me so many ideas on how I can specifically connect this idea into many of my lessons. You can read Teaching Tolerance’s full report on Teaching Hard History here (I was especially intrigued by the Key Concepts) and there are many further readings and resources below, but here are three main takeaways from the workshop on how I can be a more culturally responsive teacher:

Check my own biases I have written about this before, but acknowledging my own biases/ constantly checking myself is probably one of the most important steps I can take in order to have the right mindset to teaching hard history and being a more conscious educator for my students. In addition to personal bias checks, mental preparation is extremely important, too. This mental preparation points to both personal and academic preparation; I should prepare myself for the possible uncomfortable feeling I may get from talking about racism, and I should prepare myself for the possible questions and analysis I may get from my students when talking about these important issues. I should acknowledge that there are definitely wrong ways to teach about slavery (simulations, oversimplification, centering my perspective as an educator, leaving out empowerment and legacy, etc.- all outlined in the Teaching Hard History guide) and do my research to learn about how I, as a non-Black person, can teach American slavery to my students. Because if I don’t, I may be contributing to the statistic: “Only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.”

It’s okay to be uncomfortable – We talk about growth mindset in our classrooms all the time; this buzzword is almost a mandatory hashtag in the educational world. In the workshop, James Perla talked about the idea of a comfort zone and a learning edge- how in the learning edge, one may feel uncomfortable but in a productive way. How is this different from a growth mindset? I, along with the rest of the world, need to let go of my ego and understand that the truth is the truth, and I’m never going to have a productive conversation with my students unless I am determined to teach the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may make me feel. And if I want to teach the truth, I need to be able to discuss the relationship between slavery, racism, and white supremacy. For example, Key Concept number four states that “Slavery was an institution of power designed to create profit for the enslavers and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.”  We don’t really talk about this institution of power, where the power belonged to white people. Why? Because it makes us feel uncomfortable. We don’t talk about Key Concept number two, which states, “Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and, later, the United States.” The cotton gin? Opened up the Black Belt and resulted in a much harsher form of enslavement. The Industrial Revolution? Funded from the capital made from slavery. Banking system? Supported slavery by using enslaved people as collateral. Why don’t we talk about this? Because it makes us feel uncomfortable…

This brings me to the question- for whom is this topic uncomfortable for, anyway? While I am not white, this “uncomfortableness” also goes into white fragility and white guilt. We should work to get over this idea of white guilt and fragility and start embracing this “uncomfortableness” with ourselves and our students. The “Let’s Talk” publication from Teaching Tolerance provides a wonderful guide for starting this kind of conversation with students as young as Pre-K. As the Teaching Tolerance report states, “Young children are able to grapple with complex ideas like segregation and oppression. They have a keen moral sensibility and a strong sense of fairness. There is no reason to believe that they should be shielded from the reality and influence of slavery in American history. In fact, research suggests that acknowledging injustice and oppression results in students being more engaged.” So it’s mostly not the students feeling uncomfortable…

Use primary sources – This is the idea of letting history speak for itself. It’s especially helpful in talking about slavery if you are not of color or not Black. In the workshop, we read a letter from a slave trader to a slave master (1857), which also included a dictated letter from a wife to a recently sold slave. The humanness of the letter made the anguish of family separation and the brutal, transactional, and cold characteristics of the slave trade come alive. For example, the slave trader talked about the slave’s wife using the term, “so-called wife.” We talked about how this phrase alone shows the dehumanization of slaves during this time; if the slave trader can deny that slaves can’t feel love or have relationships, he can justify his treatment to them. Reading this letter, I could just hear my students asking, “Do you think Tom (the slave) ever got to read that letter from his wife?” I really don’t know… This interactive site called “The Illusion of Progress: Charlottesville’s Roots in White Supremacy” also lists many primary sources showing white supremacy in Charlottesville from Thomas Jefferson to an almost unbelievable eugenics school that led to Buck v. Bell.

I could go on forever about all the other amazing things I picked up on and learned that goes back to doing my research, checking myself, and giving voice to the people who actually experience(d) white supremacy and racism. Interacting with so many passionate and eager educators who were willing to spend the entirety of their Saturday talking about how we can be more of service to our students reminded me of why I became a teacher and inspired me to continue pushing for the democratic pedagogy I believe so strongly in.

To stop myself from going on a rant, I linked some resources and interesting reads below for further reading. I think what I heard from Dr. Patrice Grimes (Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education) summarizes it the best, “History is past and present. History is interpreted. History relies on sources.”

Jessica Shim is an elementary school teacher.

Resources & Interesting Reads



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