Teaching Young Learners about Slavery, Part I

By Noreen Naseem Rodríguez and Katy Swalwell

At a time in our nation’s history when systemic racism is a focal point of increasingly volatile political and societal divisions, it is more important than ever to think deeply about how Black History Month is celebrated in our classrooms.  To further that conversation, K-12Talk is pleased to offer a two-part excerpt on the blog this week and next, from a forthcoming book by social studies educators Noreen Naseem Rodríguez and Katy Swalwell, Social Studies for a Better World: An Anti-Oppressive Approach for Elementary Educators, part of the Norton Series on Equity and Social Justice in Education. In this first excerpt, the authors explain how teaching the painful history of the enslavement of Black Americans–so often a central part of the social studies curriculum in February–is important and necessary but must be handled with extreme care to avoid retraumatizing BIPOC students.

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From Chapter 6:

The genocidal enslavement of Africans is deeply woven into the fabric of U.S. history. Understandably, many elementary educators struggle with introducing this sordid past even as they recognize they must. Some educators only teach about Africa, Africans, and diasporic Black peoples in relation to slavery. In addition, many avoid talking about the people who deliberately constructed an exploitative economic system through chattel slavery. Chattel slavery is distinct from indentured servitude and other types of enslavement in that it renders the enslaved not as a person, but as property. This means the enslaved had no rights, could be sold and moved, and any children they had were also enslaved (Baptist, 2014). Quick note: you may hear the term “forced migration” to describe slavery. It’s wrong. At best, that’s a problematic euphemism for kidnapping. Same for “plantation”—they were actually “slave labor camps.” And we purposefully use “enslaved” instead of “slave” to remind readers that enslavement is not an inherent condition but a deliberate act of oppressive violence within a system of dehumanization (see Hylton, 2020; Landis, 2015).

While slavery is an incredibly important part of the Black experience for African Americans and their ancestors who remained in Africa (e.g., the construction of Blackness itself), it is not the only part and should not be students’ first nor only exposure to Black history. Especially in the elementary grades, it is important to share diverse stories of ancient and contemporary Africa and give plenty of examples of Black joy. And by Black joy, we do not mean the gross mischaracterization of the “happy slave,” but the many incredible manifestations of creativity, resilience, and community that have nothing to do with the white gaze (Johnson, 2015).

In this section, we review how some teachers misguidedly attempt to gamify and dramatize the kidnapping and abuse of enslaved Africans in the classroom (Mitchell Patterson, 2019), from laying tightly packed on the floor with taped wrists to simulating a slave ship to picking cotton or pretending to be members of the Ku Klux Klan (Anderson, 2018; Jones, 2020). The company behind The Oregon Trail even created a short-lived slavery game called Freedom! but pulled it after a year due to significant pushback (Whitaker, 2020). As protesting parent Paulette Davis succinctly put it, “Slavery was not a game in our history” (West, 1993).

These are clear examples of what scholars Zeus Leonardo and Ronald K. Porter  (2010) call educative-psychic violence, the negative impact educators have on youth when they minimize or ignore racism by making European cultural values and practices the “norm,” representing BIPOC people as a monolithic group of subordinated victims of oppression who all think and act the same way, relegating BIPOC histories to certain eras and simplified figures, and telling stories that hide or explain away the individual and structural acts that oppress BIPOC communities. Scholars LaGarrett King and Ashley Woodson describe the superficial and reductive ways many youth learn about slavery as a “type of psychological violence … that keeps students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds from developing a full sense of their racial, historical, and political identities” (King & Woodson, 2017, p.3). Professor Stephanie Jones (2020) has begun mapping examples of racial traumas in schools like those described above, including instances of curricular violence. Her Mapping Racial Trauma database online (www.facebook.com/mappingracialtrauma) is a heartbreaking read and lays bare the terrible harm that can happen through elementary social studies—especially when it comes to the teaching of African enslavement in the United States. 

If you know of anything like this happening in a school near you, put this book down and immediately contact the educators and administrators to demand they stop. It is violence against children, plain and simple. Enough.

Common Pitfalls

There are so, so many pitfalls here, but we want to focus on those that clearly threaten to retraumatize students. First, although some educators may think their dramatization of experiences related to slavery (e.g., the transatlantic Middle Passage, auctions, escape, etc.) is somehow anti-oppressive by foregrounding the trauma inflicted on Black people, these approaches can actually reinforce white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Lessons like these are designed through and for a white gaze for the purposes of teaching white students empathy, often at the expense of retraumatizing BIPOC youth, or to give white students grounds to disassociate themselves from this painful history. 

Scholar Sadhana Bery (2014) gives a powerful example of this through the case of white educators at a predominantly white private elementary school creating a student play about slavery. Bery recounts a meeting called by Black parents when they found out what was happening. At the meeting, the Head of School explained that some students, all white, had expressed a desire to experience what it was like to have been a slave. Unsurprisingly, Black parents wanted to know why white students wanting to pretend to be enslaved was a sound pedagogical purpose, and why they had not been consulted given that “their children, the ‘descendants’ of the enslaved represented in the play, would be impacted in ways that white teachers could not know or fully understand” (p. 339). The Head defended the play by stressing that students got to choose between being enslaved or an owner. Unsurprisingly, all of the white students chose to play the roles of slaves or Harriet Tubman; none of them wanted to play anyone “responsible for the slave trade and the institutionalization of slavery” (Bery, 2014, p. 340). As a result, the white educators had to persuade the BIPOC students to play those roles. No. And then another no. Just no

Another pitfall is that reenactments, role-plays, simulations, and games focused on the horrors of slavery often frame Black people as objects of harm and helpless victims with no agency. In their review of K-12 textbooks focused on Black history, scholars LaGarrett King and Crystal Simmons (2018) found that texts often framed Black people as compliant victims or depicted oppression as if it was justified, suggesting that “Blacks did not exert agency unless it was through White philanthropy; if agency is explored, what is highlighted tends to align with acceptable Eurocentric standards” (p. 109). In addition, they identify how dominant narratives of slavery tend to paint Black people as a monolithic group with the same opinions and experiences, often avoiding any mention of sexism or other forms of oppression reproduced within Black communities. According to King and Simmons (2018), this “Black history‐as‐oppression paradigm” (p. 101) is inaccurate and can have negative psychological effects—especially on Black students.

Finally, in addition to the trauma that may occur when Black or Brown students are asked to reenact slavery (either as the enslaved or enslaver), watching their peers’ interactions can produce another layer of harm. It is not unusual for children to get silly and laugh during dramatizations, but in the context of slavery, giggles make light of this painful history (Dack, van Hover, & Hicks, 2016). Imagine how a Black student might feel observing white peers laughing during a slavery simulation. To be clear, we’re not pointing the finger at white children—these kinds of activities are set up for them to rely on broad stereotypes, and it is unlikely they have a sophisticated enough sense of their own racial identity to refuse to participate. We do, however, hold the educators responsible for putting all students in this impossible and inappropriate situation. We have to do better.


Noreen Naseem Rodríguez is an award-winning assistant professor at Iowa State University and a former bilingual elementary teacher.

Katy Swalwell is Associate Professor of Social & Cultural Studies in the School of Education at Iowa State University.

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