(Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)
I remember sitting in a car with my mother on the I-70 driving from Ohio to Kentucky. My brother slept in the back, and NPR played in the background. My attention shifted from whatever I was doing to the radio when something caught my ear. I recall hearing something that would amount to: “slavery was not as bad as people make it. In fact, some slave owners were nice to their slaves.”
My fourteen-year-old self was struck by both confusion and anger. To think that any positive action by an owner could ever negate the act of continuing to own another human being didn’t make sense to me.
Now, as an African immigrant, I don’t have as deep a stake in this issue as those whose families were directly impacted by slavery, but such thinking affects me daily, like poison.
As I continued to listen to the episode, things started to make a sad sort of sense. To “soften” the reality of the past, some students were being taught a different history. Slaves were referred to as “workers.” Comparisons were made between indentured servitude and slavery. The chattel slavery of America was “contextualized,” a product of the time. Other countries also had slaves, and lessons emphasized the fact that many of these slaves had been slaves back in Africa as if to justify their treatment in America.
Next to me, my mother shook her head at what she heard. She knew the realities of the situation as a professor of African history. I expressed my emotions to her, and she invited me to not be so critical and consider my own education. In my whole year of world history, the topic of slavery and inequalities in America was often folded into something “bigger.” The Atlantic slave trade and Middle Passage were lumped together with the Columbian Exchange, earning very little specialized attention. The Civil War was taught as a fight for “states’ rights” without taking into consideration the deep-rooted motives of both sides. The Civil Rights movement, War on Crime and examples of modern inequality were often glossed over at the end of the year.
I realized that this issue extended further than just US history. In most curriculums, American actions against the human rights of people in foreign lands are not taught to the same grandeur as America aiding in ensuring rights. Looking at world history, the Eurocentric nature of the content is blatant. History pertaining to Asia, the Middle East or Latin America is taught in relation to European countries. Africa’s story is told as the seeming inability to fight against colonialism and the subsequent reliance on Euro-American aid rather than the kingdoms, organized systems and rich culture of the ancient era.
Learning any sort of comprehensive history requires students to be “advanced” in social studies. Even then, classes focusing on African American history are often electives, creating a narrative of whiteness as a norm.
Learning about our past is crucial in understanding ourselves and the system we live in, not only in the context of racism but with other histories of inequity. And we’re destined to repeat history if we don’t learn from it.
We must stop teaching this “softened history” and acknowledge the past of this country. It’s not an unrealistic goal. Steps forward are already being taken to equip teachers and students with the necessary resources, from Freedom on the Move to The Hard History Project to Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Hard History. I see a bright light in the future of history education.
We also need to highlight the potential within each student to prevent a repeat from the past. Schools hold the adults of tomorrow, those who will shape our future. We must empower them with not only the knowledge but the support to make it great.
As my family’s car turned off the interstate, I started to think: how much do our interpretations of the past impact our present? That is a question we can’t answer, but we can start by teaching more accurate and empowering history.