Teaching Slavery Properly

American public schools do a poor job teaching the history of American slavery to children. That is probably true of private schools too.

I would also say that the majority of history teachers and administrators, the majority of whom are White, lack a comprehensive knowledge of American slavery. They may have read an article here and watch a movie there, but their comprehensive knowledge is limited. If that weren’t true, the case for slave reparations for Black people would be discussed more (The United Nations called for Black reparations from the United States), and you’d hear greater consideration given to the impact American slavery has had on the shaping of our current dispensation. If nothing else, all children would be empowered because they would be less ignorant. I don’t need a study to tell me that. However, there is a study that tells me that.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report:

“Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and – as a result – students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America.[1]

Here are some major highlights of the report:

  • Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • Two-thirds (68 percent) don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery.
  • Fewer than 1 in 4 students (22 percent) can correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
  • Teachers are serious about teaching slavery, but there’s a lack of deep coverage of the subject in the classroom.
  • Although teachers overwhelmingly (over 90 percent) claim they feel “comfortable” discussing slavery in their classrooms, their responses to open-ended questions reveal profound unease around the topic.
  • Fifty-eight percent of teachers find their textbooks inadequate. Popular textbooks fail to provide comprehensive coverage of slavery and enslaved peoples.
  • The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against our rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.
  • States fail to set appropriately high expectations with their content standards. In a word, the standards are timid.
  • Of the 15 sets of state standards we analyzed, none addresses how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery; most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.

It is no wonder that we hear Whites, and even some Blacks, say that slavery wasn’t a big deal. When you fail to learn the truth, you promote lies. School districts officials and teachers have lied to students for decades about American slavery and White supremacy. Some of it was intentional; much of it was ignorance. In a previous post, I argue against using textbooks; particularly for teaching history and literature. I looked at a number of U.S. history textbooks and I can tell you that they are exactly as represented in the SPLC report. In another post, I gave steps on how to go about teaching history that may be uncomfortable (but necessary) to teach all children. In this post, I’d like to point you to specific books to read and teach from specific to the topic of slavery.

Before I provide the materials to help you teach slavery, I must offer you a framework on what must be taught. Of course, there is only so much time during the school year to teach slavery. Unless the course is one on American slavery, your time is limited. However, you must focus on a few key areas when teaching American slavery. Please refer to the chart below:

Dynamics of American Slavery

A lot of topics run together when you consider slavery in American history. However, you must focus on the economics of slavery (how free Black labor made the United States wealthy and White people privileged), the life of slaves (how slavery impacted Black existence in America along with the way society around them reacted to the institution), Black resistance to slavery (how Black people chose to resist against their enslavement and that Black resistance as a major part of how Blacks responded to their enslavement), and the transition from the institution of slavery to the institution of separate and unequal (how Whites reluctantly abandoned on set of laws for another, yet never compromised their power and privilege during the switch). A focus on these four areas can provide you with a guideline on how to travel historically while offering students with a more comprehensive view of slavery’s impact on the economics and psychology of the United States.

There are so many great books to read that detail the peculiar institution; too many books to mention in one blog. These books that I name are some favorites of mine and also these are books that I have taught U.S. History from. You may find other books that help you teach slavery and American history. But in case you don’t have any recommendations or any idea on where to start, use this list. If you’re not a history teacher, pass it on to a friend who is. Regardless what you teach, these are books you should read anyway to gain knowledge and understanding.


5 Books

  1. INTRODUCTION: Africa’s Gift to AmericaJoel Augustus Rogers – I recommend this book for everyone to read (I recommend all of these books truthfully). This is a great account of American (and world) history offered by the preeminent historian J.A. Rogers. In this text, Rogers speaks of the economics of slavery, slave life, slave resistance, the civil war, the revolutionary war, and reconstruction. Rogers also speaks to the history of the Greeks traveling to Egypt and taking information back to Greece, claiming it as their own.
  2. ECONOMIC: The Half Has Never Been ToldEdward E. Baptist – Baptist opens the door to the foundation of American capitalism: slavery. This text gives a very thorough account of how the economics of slavery shaped the United States in various ways. An important aspect of this text is Baptist’s detail of how both the North and South worked hand-in-hand to benefit from African enslavement. This text is essential for understanding the interplay of politics, economics and international affairs where slavery is concerned. As with the previous title, this book is an absolute must-read.
  3. SLAVE LIFE: The Slave CommunityJohn W. Blassingame – Blassingame does detailed work in exposing the life of slaves and the foundations of African American culture; a culture which has its origins in the pain of and triumph over slavery. Blassingame offers the bad, the ugly and the resourcefulness slaves found in life on the plantation. This text also offers details of resistance and the social norms established by Whites in the context of the Black experience. Another goodie found in this book are quotes from slaves – these quotes not only offer insight into slave life, but they offer a look into the foundations of the African-American Vernacular English (AAVE); a dialect used by many Black people today, including Black students.
  4. RESISTANCE: The Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance & RebellionJunius P. Rodriguez – This is a great resource for detailing the many instances of slave rebellions and revolts. We hear of Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser (maybe), but there are so many more rebellions and acts of resistance that never get told. This text provides you with an opportunity to tell more of those instances and explore them in greater detail. You may not explore or teach all that is laid out here. However, you can teach more than what is traditionally offered and this text also serves as a resource for your students to dive into when they wish to seek more information on Black rebellion in the United States. This encyclopedia also mentions resistance in Central America, South American, and the Caribbean; although the book focuses heavily on North American Black resistance efforts.
  5. TRANSITION: Black ReconstructionW.E.B. DuBois – Black Reconstruction is a masterpiece; a great explanation of the condition of the slave, the master, and the working White. It also explains the division of proletariat factions and the return to slavery via Jim Crow. This book is not a quick read. However, it is well worth diving into. The information DuBois lays out here sets the course for 20th century America and beyond. There are many titles by DuBois worth purchasing: Philadelphia Negro, Souls of Black Folk… Black Reconstruction also belongs in the canon of texts by Black authors and in the canon of American history.

Again, as I said there are more texts that one can use to help teach slavery. However, these texts offer a good place to start. Warning: don’t expect to read these during a jammed packed school year the week before your unit on slavery – you won’t. If you attempt to do that you will find these text overwhelming and you will abandon them. Take between now and the end of the school year to purchase each text (either you personally or your school/district). During the summer, take a month to read these and take notes. Use the summer to think about how to construct lessons. Begin planning lessons and refer to my previous post for help with implementing those lessons. Formal and thoughtful teaching happens in the classroom. You will only be comfortable teaching slavery properly as you grow comfortable learning these hard truths yourself. However, these texts provide a safe space to learn and learn from preeminent scholars. Take the plunge and tell the truth.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!



[1] You can download the full SPLC report here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/tt_hard_history_american_slavery.pdf


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