Difficult Subjects: Community of Practice on American Slavery

Difficult Subjects: Community of Practice on American Slavery

DIFFICULT SUBJECT | American Slavery

The importance of teaching American slavery accurately and effectively has taken on added urgency. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police in Minneapolis and Louisville, and following the nation-wide protests demanding that their killers be brought to justice, students need to understand the deep roots of racism and the enduring legacy of slavery in order to make sense of the times in which we live. As teachers, we are duty bound to help students comprehend difficult subjects. This institute aims to provide teachers with the tools to do just that.

This community of practice will also work to intentionally foster community among the teacher participants. The goal is to enhance the learning experience of the teacher participants by cultivating group-centered relationships over the course of the year through multiple meetings, starting with online webinars and continuing with an experiential-learning field trip to the National Underground Railroad and Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program will culminate with a 3-day, on-campus, curriculum-development workshop.

Community of Practice Curriculum

Americans have an aversion to history – to stories about the past that make us uncomfortable in the present. We are especially disinclined to engage with histories that deal directly with race and racism, starting with slavery. In this opening session, we will explore the importance of confronting the most painful aspect of America’s past – slavery, and highlight ways to use the Framework for Teaching American Slavery — produced by Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center — to teach American slavery effectively.

Chattel slavery was not an American invention. It was a global system of involuntary servitude that American colonists and the nation’s founders embraced. At the same time, African people were not always chattel slaves. They were a free people who developed politically-sophisticated, economically-strong and culturally-rich societies on the African continent. This session looks at approaches to teaching American slavery that treat it as a global phenomenon and center the history and humanity of African people, prior to and during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Slavery is frequently framed as America’s original sin. It wasn’t. It was America’s origin. It was the economic engine that fueled the growth of the colonies and the birth of the new nation. This session examines the evolution of slavery during the colonial era and tackles approaches to teaching the intersection of slavery and the U.S. Constitution.

Resistance to slavery took many forms, from subtle acts of sabotage and subterfuge to outright rebellion. Teaching Black resistance poses unique challenges, but it is also essential to illuminating Black humanity. Students often ask, “If slavery was so terrible, why didn’t the enslaved resist?” The answer, of course, is that they did, constantly. This session will examine the persistence of Black resistance to the institution of slavery, focusing specifically on freedom seekers — those enslaved persons who risked their lives by attempting to escape bondage.

In a survey of high school students conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center a few years ago, a majority of respondents failed to identify slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War. This is a legacy of Lost Cause indoctrination. This session takes an honest look at the coming of the Civil War and the role that African Americans played in their own liberation. It will also consider ways to deconstruct the Lost Cause narrative and its white supremacist legacy.

Reconstruction is usually taught as a failed experiment in multiracial democracy. It wasn’t. Reconstruction didn’t fail. Reconstruction was defeated by white southerners – former Confederates and former enslavers – who were determined to reassert control over Black labor. This session explores Reconstruction from the bottom up, shining a spotlight on one of the first communities of freed men and women – Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and the ways African Americans worked to give meaning to emancipation. This session will also contextualize the myriad obstacles freed men and women faced along the way, from racial terror to disenfranchisement.

"The institute is helping me find informed and culturally-sensitive ways to talk to my students about the role slavery played in the history of the U.S. The lectures and discussions provide me with excellent resources and ideas for lessons."

Art teacher, Bexley High School

About the facilitator

Photograph of man standing in front of a stained glass window

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is the director of the Difficult Subjects: K-12 Institute and an associate professor of African American history at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. From 2010-2014, Jeffries served as the lead historian and scriptwriter for the $27 million renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum  in Memphis, Tennessee. He has conducted teacher development workshops across the country and edited Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. He has also worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance division to produce a major national report entitled Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Jeffries has made media appearances locally and nationally and served as a featured historian on the Emmy-nominated documentary, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise.