The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 98 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Every couple of weeks, I hear someone repeat some version of this sentiment: “Slavery ended in 1865. Get over it.”
And although I know this claim is riddled with problems, my ability to adequately refute it is limited. That’s because my education on American slavery, its causes, and its aftermath, consisted of answering end-of-chapter textbook questions in grades 5, 8, and 11. We “covered” the topic, took a test where we matched Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Dred Scott to their one-line descriptions, then moved on. It was treated as a period of bad behavior in our country’s history, behavior that the “good guys” ultimately put a stop to, and since then, things have been much better. The end.
In the years that followed, I built a kind of patchwork understanding of slavery through books, college classes, and films. While every new piece has refined and expanded my understanding of the massive role slavery has played in our history and our contemporary life, the pieces still feel discrete, never stitched together into a cohesive whole. I feel like I’m still lacking a lot of information and insight. Still, if I’d never taken that initiative on my own, if I’d stopped learning at graduation, my knowledge of slavery might very well be limited to “Slavery ended in 1865.”
And that’s where a lot of people are.
Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report about how the topic of slavery is being taught in the United States. The report reveals that most students have significant knowledge gaps when it comes to some of the most basic facts about slavery, and in many states, social studies standards related to slavery are incredibly limited in their scope. While teachers feel that slavery is an important topic to teach, many of them don’t feel that they are adequately prepared or supported to do a thorough job.
To address these problems, the Southern Poverty Law Center, through its website, Teaching Tolerance, has put together a comprehensive Framework for Teaching American Slavery, an outstanding collection of resources and guidelines for history teachers. The framework provides a list of 10 key concepts and 21 summary objectives to help you and your students give American slavery a thorough, thoughtful examination. It also includes over 100 primary source texts and a set of sample Inquiry Design Models—teaching plans that actually show you how to walk students through an inquiry of slavery with guiding questions, analysis of primary sources, and performance tasks to synthesize what they’ve learned.
Another piece of the framework is the Teaching Hard History Podcast, which is produced for teachers. Every episode looks at the teaching of slavery from a slightly different angle, with topics like Slavery in the Supreme Court, Slavery and the Northern Economy, and Slave Resistance, with each topic explored by one prominent history scholar. If you teach history, you need to make time to listen to this incredible podcast–not only will it deepen your understanding of American Slavery, it will give you so many insights on how to teach difficult topics.
The podcast is hosted by Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board. Dr. Jeffries is my guest for this episode. We’ll talk about some of the problems with how slavery is currently being taught, how the Teaching Hard History Framework addresses these issues, and how teachers can get started using their materials.
Support for today’s show comes from Microsoft. Over the past few years, Microsoft has added some really impressive accessibility tools to its products, like Immersive Reader, which allows users in OneNote, Word and Outlook to read distraction-free, with adjustable spacing, limited line visibility, a picture dictionary, and the ability to hear any text read aloud to them. Or Microsoft Translator, which sends real-time subtitles in 20 different languages right to students’ phones while the teacher presents from a PowerPoint. To learn more about all the incredible things Microsoft is doing to make learning accessible to everyone, visit cultofpedagogy.com/inclusive.
I’d also like to thank our other sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. And now, Cult of Pedagogy listeners can get 3 months of Peergrade Pro free of charge! Just sign up for a free 30-day trial, then redeem the code CULT to extend that free trial to 3 months. To learn more about Peergrade visit cultofpedagogy.com/peergrade.
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Okay, here’s my interview with Hasan Kwame Jeffries about Teaching Hard History.
GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Hasan Kwame Jeffries to the show. Thank you so much for giving me your time today.
JEFFRIES: Thank you. Great to be with you.
GONZALEZ: And I asked you to come on here, because I have been listening to your podcast, I’ve listened to about the first five episodes, and I just love it, and I want more teachers to know about it. We’re going to be airing this in the summer, and so what I’m hoping is that lots and lots of history and social studies teachers will hear this and will dig into the materials over the summer and decide to start using them this fall.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And so before we start talking about the curriculum and the podcast, let’s just start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself, the work you do and how you came to become the host of the Teaching Hard History podcast.
JEFFRIES: Well certainly. I teach African American history at the Ohio State University here in Columbus, Ohio. My area of specialization is African American history, really with an emphasis on the 20th century and the civil rights and black power movements, so social protests, black protests. But I really take a long view look and understanding of African American protest and the black experience. So whereas so much of my work focuses on the 20th century, you really can’t understand the 20th century without understanding the 19th century and the 18th century, and you certainly can’t understand the ways in which African Americans have responded to racial discrimination and white supremacy without understanding this sort of long view, long trajectory of the ways in which they have responded. So, you know, that has been sort of the focus and thrust of my work.
I became involved with the Southern Poverty Law Center in part because of my research and writing on civil rights. They had done a number of reflections on, or status reports, on the nature of civil rights curriculum and state standards in 2010, 2011, 2012, and I had worked with them on that. And we just began a number, a series of discussions about there’s difficulty in teaching civil rights but sort of there’s even more difficulty or just as much difficulty in teaching about slavery, and how do those two connect. And so they launch this project on really trying to understand the obstacles, the difficulties in teaching slavery, and they asked me to be a part of the scholars advisory committee, actually to chair the scholars advisory committee, and they put together a fantastic group of people, about a dozen scholars or so. And we just, they did a lot of legwork. Kate Shuster is the sort of brains behind a lot of the legwork and looking at how teachers and, say, curriculums are going about, talking about, and teaching the history of slavery, and it came up with this fantastic report that we’ll get into a little bit more.
But then as part of that, what was really fantastic, Jennifer, about the report is that it’s not just about all the things that we are doing wrong in teaching slavery in the classroom. It really is a sort of multiple approach to not only saying, “this is what we’re doing wrong, but this is what we need to be doing to get it right,” so offering resources and a framework for understanding and the podcast and which they asked me to host, which has really been a lot of fun and really offers a lot of great material.
About the Framework
GONZALEZ: So, okay, good, and that’s, actually, really refreshing, because I think there’s a lot of work going on in the world in general that’s good at pointing out problems, but not necessarily offering any alternatives, any solutions, and I think there’s a lot of people out there that want to do the right thing, and they just don’t know what it is they’re supposed to be doing. So go ahead and describe, what is the Teaching Hard History curriculum?
JEFFRIES: So, first I think it’s important to begin with the title and the name.
JEFFRIES: Why do we call it, you know sort of, Teaching Hard History, why do we call it “hard history”? And that’s because when we, there are a number of issues and moments and events and phenomena in the American experience that are difficult for Americans to talk about, to teach about, to think about, and they all, almost all of them, certainly revolve around race and racism, and slavery is really foremost among those. So the “hard history” is slavery itself, because it really is something that we have found, as Americans, is hard to talk about in our everyday lives, hard to think about, and certainly hard to teach in the classroom setting for any number of reasons that we can talk about.
But so, the curriculum itself, the Teaching Hard History: American Slavery curriculum itself, as I just said a moment ago, not only points out sort of the shortcomings, what we have been doing wrong, what we haven’t been getting right, i.e., some of those things include and sort of not focusing enough on the inhumanity of the system of slavery, just looking at it in a very de-personalized way, “this is just an unfortunate economic system,” right? Or think, or limiting its scope: This is something that just happened in the South and was just, you know, over this short period of time. As opposed to saying that, wait a minute, this was a national phenomenon.
JEFFRIES: There is no America without the institution of slavery.
JEFFRIES: So, and that comes across with sort of the state standards, what states are requiring teachers to teach, but then also, even when you think about, okay, you know, do they talk about black folk? Well, yeah, a lot of the state standards do, but it’s, you know, introduced Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and then the Civil War and then we move on without any real context, right? You have these people who were resisting, but what the heck are they actually resisting?
JEFFRIES: Because you’ve never actually talked about the institution of slavery and how it was so deeply embedded into the tapestry that is America. So we talk about that, we talk about the shortcomings in the classroom, we talk about the shortcomings in our textbooks, and the impact that this has had on our students. And the short of the long is they just don’t know much about, you know, what slavery was and how central and integral it was to the American project. So we lay that out.
GONZALEZ: Was this part of that report that you mentioned earlier, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report?
JEFFRIES: Yeah, yeah, this is all in the Teaching Hard History, that initial report, right? I mean, so it’s all in there. But then we move beyond, sort of, okay, this is where we’re coming up short, to saying, “Okay, what can we do about it?” Jennifer, what you were pointing out: Like, it’s good to know, you gotta identify the problem, good. We understand that there’s a problem, let’s all be on the same page there.
JEFFRIES: Now what can we do about it? And the first thing is, in the report that we lay out is like, look, there’s really 10 key concepts that need to be at the center of instruction on American slavery. And these concepts are drawn, in part, from a book that I would also recommend to your listeners if they want to really sort of, and it ties into the podcast as well, it’s Understanding and Teaching American Slavery.
JEFFRIES: It’s about 2 or 3 years old, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, they have a whole series, Understanding and Teaching x, y, and z, civil rights movement. But this is Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. And these 10 key concepts really come out of there. They’re listed in the, sort of whittled down into the Teaching Hard History report, which you can find at tolerance.org, Southern Poverty Law Center website, Teaching Tolerance.org. But among these concepts, for example, I won’t go through all of them, because your listeners can get them on their own, you know, are things such as slavery and the slave trade are central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and later the United States. And you think, like, this is fundamental. If you are not teaching this, not just about slavery, but about the American, about the development of America, if this isn’t part of that U.S. history class, that social studies, that government class, then I don’t know what the heck you’re actually teaching.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. I think I —
JEFFRIES: It ain’t the truth.
GONZALEZ: I think I just, I think I just listened to an episode that did such a good job of that, because it was talking about the textile industry in the Northeast and how they were making, I think it was about denim, they were making jeans —
GONZALEZ: — that were worn by the slaves. And like, you start to think about, sometimes I think it really helps to just be an adult, and you understand, like, how all of these things actually worked. Like, somebody has to sell them the clothes to put on the slaves, and then the, who, uh. I don’t know. It was amazing. I feel like how your podcast ties all these things together in a way that — it’s so eye-opening.
JEFFRIES: But, you know, that’s what we, that’s what we hoped to, would hope would be the response, right?
JEFFRIES: Because it is, we have become, I think, as students and teachers, we have taken slavery and detached it from reality, right? And sort of made it sort of this other thing off in a corner somewhere, an unfortunate circumstance that impacted a few people, that most people were kind of opposed to.
GONZALEZ: Just an ugly period in our history that we would like to forget and then, and a lot of people like to say, “Well, slavery’s over. We don’t have a problem anymore.”
JEFFRIES: Right. So, and it’s really two things, because I mean one of the concepts, you know, are, the concepts are rooted in history, right? So how does slavery sort of evolve and impact, just like you said. You know, Boston does not exist as a major international commercial city without slavery in Charleston, South Carolina. Because all the goods that are coming out of Charleston, all the manufacturing, just as you mentioned, sort of jeans and stuff in the major mills in Massachusetts are all being used to supply, initially in slave plantations in the Caribbean, but then in the 1800s in slave plantations down South, right?
JEFFRIES: Not, to say nothing of the fact that New York, my home state, had slavery until 1827. Right? That’s just three decades before the end of the Civil War. So these 10 key concepts, right? Another one, slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. Like, you would think, one of the things that we did with the report is that we surveyed teachers and students, and there’s actually a couple quiz questions that you can take if you go to the website just to sort of test your knowledge about slavery. And one of the things that we found was that most students cannot identify slavery as, 7 out of 10, cannot identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
GONZALEZ: I think I saw that.
JEFFRIES: They were pointing to, right, they’re pointing to things like such as states’ rights and this other thing. So in the podcast, you haven’t gotten there yet, Jennifer, but you will, our last, the last two episodes that we did, episode 10 and episode 11, look at slavery and the law. And one of the, Paul Finkelman, a legal scholar, I texted a friend of mine and I said, “Listen. We just dropped the last episode on slavery and the law, and it’s fire.” And he was like, “Wait, how can this be fire? It’s a legal scholar.” I was saying, “Trust me, listen. It is everything you need, this is everything that you need and want.” Because he just lays out so brilliantly that there, that the South, in fact, was opposed to sort of states’ rights, if you will. They wanted the federal government, for example, to say there is a fugitive slave law.
JEFFRIES: 1850, right? First in the Constitution but then of course then in 1850, a fugitive slave law saying what? That states that no longer had slavery had to recognize the enslaved status of folk, of the slave people who ran away. That’s counter to states’ rights. They wanted federal intervention in that way. And so, you know, he lays that sort of history out for the first six decades of this country in just beautiful form and fashion. And of course it still resonates. I mean this is real meaning for how we remember not only the Civil War and slavery today but also the commemoration of the lost cause, that maybe we’ll get some time to talk about a little bit later.
GONZALEZ: One of the things that I wanted to ask you too that, I didn’t mention this to you earlier, but I get the impression listening to the podcast that your intended audience for this podcast is actually teachers and not necessarily students, because you talk about, how do we teach this and how can you bring this up with your students and how can you handle — like, it sounds like advice being given to teachers. Am I correct in assuming that?
JEFFRIES: No, you are correct in assuming that. The primary audience that we are interested, our target audience, are certainly teachers. But we, but we hope to do it in such a way that anybody who’s not in a formal classroom but is a teacher nonetheless would be interested and find some useful tips and pointers.
JEFFRIES: So in other words, parents, parents are frontline teachers. Right? Our aunts and uncles are frontline teachers. Sunday school teachers are — I mean, we teach in, we teach people and young people every day in so many different ways. So certainly there are things for teachers that, and that’s the focus. But this isn’t, but we’re not talking about sort of lesson plans and the like, in the podcast for sure.
GONZALEZ: Mhmm, right.
JEFFRIES: I mean it is just, I mean it’s history, right? Like, this is what happened, and if you want to delve a little deeper, this is how you can delve a little deeper. If you want to bring in a circle of folk and talk about this issue, because all of it’s central to sort of these questions of race and racism in American society, then hopefully this will be a way to sort of bring things in. We have an episode on films and using documentaries and talked about some of the different films that could be really useful thought pieces, not only in the classroom —
JEFFRIES: — but in really for conversation, you know, for study groups —
GONZALEZ: Yes, you talked about “Glory.”
JEFFRIES: — and reading groups. Yeah, absolutely.
GONZALEZ: Now I want to go back and watch that. I think I saw that when I was, I don’t know, 19 or something. It went right over my head, so — so the podcast really is an accompaniment to the whole curriculum, which is on Teaching Tolerance.org. So what are the, what are the other materials that are actually on the website that teachers can access?
JEFFRIES: Oh yeah. So we have the overall report, which really lays out, as I was saying, the, you know, the shortcomings, the problems, what we found, in sort of these assessments. The key concepts, these 10 key concepts that everyone really should know and understand about the history of American slavery, and teachers should be incorporating in their discussions, again, not just of slavery but really of American history, as well as, and this is really, you know, for all teachers really need to check this out, these summary objectives.
So, I mean one of the brilliant things that Teaching Tolerance does, this subdivision of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is they understand the requirements of teachers, and what’s being asked of teachers. And so the framework for teaching American slavery that’s offered in the report is, it consciously pegs them to various objectives that are often found in state requirement for, often found in state curriculums as requirements, so that you can really look at sort of these summary objectives and tie them back to the curriculum points, the key frameworks, and see how they can be woven in, not as separate units but really addressing units that are already in place.
JEFFRIES: So in addition to that there’s this primary source, text, you know, over a hundred all ready, student-related, student-friendly resources. And this is important, because one of the things we say is look, scholars have been talking about and teaching about slavery accurately and effectively for several decades now, and certainly we can go back a century and talk about W. E. B. Du Bois’ major work on Black Reconstruction. But more recently in the mainstream, mainstream scholars have really been teaching this accurately and effectively and pointing to and have brought to the surface primary source material that is, there’s nothing better than actually looking at sort of these documents and words, letters from enslaved people. Heck, the U.S. Constitution, where does it mention slavery, where doesn’t it mention slavery?
JEFFRIES: And what are the euphemisms that it uses as opposed to actually mentioning slavery? So, a list of primary source texts. Not only, actually, not a list, actual links to them.
JEFFRIES: There’s, we have, there’s the student quiz that, there are 12 questions, sort of assessments sort of where do I stand? What do I remember? One of the things that’s often asked of me when I sort of talk about sort of what we’ve done here is, well how much did you learn? And I said, well how much do you know? I mean, go back, and we all went through the same general education system, whether it was public or private, urban or suburban, and so we tend not to know the same things. So this quiz is actually really a good sort of self-assessment to kind of just see sort of what am I missing? What did I get? What did I not get?
And then we did a webinar, a conversation between myself and Maureen Costello who is the director of Teaching Tolerance, a former AP U.S. History teacher in New York and we did, oh, it was a 45-minute conversation as to really sort of just mapping out and talking about sort of what are the underlying issues that teachers are facing, that students are facing and the like in the classroom, and then finally the podcast, all right. So if you don’t have time to read it all, you can, you know, throw on the headphones and while you’re driving and really get into a lot of this material. The authors in that, or the guests in that, are all authors in that “Understanding and Teaching American Slavery” book, so it really works as a complement.
GONZALEZ: So, you know, knowing that this is hard history and I think everybody will sort of acknowledge that, how is this curriculum going to challenge teachers? Is it going, I would imagine it’s going to require teachers to do some of their own personal growth.
JEFFRIES: It is going to require teachers to do some personal growth. It’s going to require teachers to do some soul searching, some sitting and thinking and reflecting, because these are subjects, slavery and racism and white supremacy in America and oppression and inequality, that we as a nation have difficulty and trouble talking about, and certainly teaching. The good thing is that we found in our report and survey of several hundred teachers, we surveyed a thousand or so students, several hundred teachers, is that teachers are anxious, overwhelmingly anxious, to talk about and teach this history of slavery accurately and effectively. What they are yearning for, though, are the tools to teach it. So it certainly is going to sort of challenge teachers, just as it challenges anyone, any American — black, white, brown, doesn’t matter — to think about this history. But the good thing is that teachers appear ready and willing. They just want, want and need, the resources and the support to tackle the issues head-on in the classroom.
GONZALEZ: I’m thinking one thing that they may need support on is the fact that it’s probably going to be likely that many teachers will get some sort of pushback, whether it’s from just one parent or from multiple parents, that will see the curriculum as biased against white people maybe, or that it will have a liberal bias, or that they’ll feel like it is objectionable to them for some reason. And so how would you recommend that a teacher handle this in a way that’s healthy and productive and allows for growth?
JEFFRIES: I think there are two things that you point out that’s worth sort of just sort of putting on the table. The first is that sort of white people are afraid of talking and teaching about slavery, and that becomes, like, why, right? Like, one, some, it could be sort of concern of sort of not knowing and understanding sort of what its history was and what are the implications for my children and myself for learning about this? Is this just sort of an indictment of white people for being white? And that, it’s interesting, because that fear, that phobia, that concern isn’t so much about the past as it is about the present, you know?
JEFFRIES: And so, so part of the, so what we’re really talking about are educational politics. Because there shouldn’t be anything in the past that we honestly should not as teachers and scholars be afraid to deal with and touch upon. Like, we talk about slavery all the time. We talk about slavery in the Greek world and the ancient world. Good Bible Belt Christians talk about slavery all the time, right?
JEFFRIES: In the Old Testament. So what is it about this American slavery that is causing people, you know, to have these conniption fits? And part of it is what are the contemporary implications, right? because if you look deeply at slavery, and it’s not so much a personal indictment. I mean that’s the fear, right? Like, “Oh, it’s this personal indictment. Slavery doesn’t exist anymore. I’m being blamed for all the woes that are, that have befallen the country.”
JEFFRIES: Well look, slavery has a legacy, and that legacy is white supremacy, and white supremacy has served as a justification for discrimination and disenfranchisement and racial violence for 150 years after the end of slavery. You’ve just got to deal with that, right? Now we can sort of, you know, we can sort of pick that apart and figure out sort of what are the meanings and implications of that, but before we even get there, without even talking about the contemporary, we just need to get the history right. We need to talk about sort of how was it embedded in the Constitution? What are the connections outside of the South? What are the ways in which black folk resisted? So the hesitancy on the part of many whites, just generalizing, right, on the part of many whites, you know, is certainly more about the present, right, and that is more of a political calculation than anything else.
JEFFRIES: There’s also, there’s also, and that can be if we’re lining people up on sort of a left-right spectrum, that might be a little bit more on the right-leaning side of things.
JEFFRIES: But on the left-leaning side of things as you pointed out, Jennifer, you know, there can tend to be this concern for, maybe not so much white guilt but for sort of bringing up issues that would offend sort of black folk, that would shame black students that, you know. So here’s a sensitivity, right? Like, “I don’t want to do this and get this wrong and just have black kids thinking that, you know, that they’re somehow being singled out for this.”
JEFFRIES: Well, I mean and that’s a fair point, and the way that slavery has traditionally been taught in our schools does in fact do that, right? When you just go through, you know, happy American history and then, you know, in February you want to talk about enslaved people and slavery and then swing back to happy American history, with the black kids sitting in the room is like, “What the hell was that?” Right? Like, of course it’s isolating, of course it’s, you know, sort of marginalizing.
So the point, and so what has to be done by the teacher then is to say, look, we’re not, we have to understand that slavery’s an integral part of the United States’ history, right, and it’s not just a chapter, it’s not a one-off thing. We have to weave it in throughout. But we don’t, we also don’t do it in a way that makes, that further dehumanizes African Americans. So the key is not about sort of a fear of sort of upsetting black students, right? What upsets black students, and I have a little bit of authority on this as a black student, what upsets black students is when we don’t get it, right? So intuitively, intuitively students of color, when learning about the history of slavery as it’s traditionally taught, right, that doesn’t, especially doesn’t talk about sort of African American resistance to slavery, when they hear it taught in this sort of way as an economic system and then they sort of move on and get the Civil War, black students are like, “Eh, that don’t make no damn sense to me,” because, like, “I understand growing up wherever I am in America, the problems and issues and racism around me. So you mean that there would be no resistance? That they just tacitly accepted it?”
You know, we have this whole Kanye West thing, right? Kanye West is a product of our American educational system, and a great example of what happens when you don’t talk about and teach about the ways in which African Americans resisted to slavery on a daily basis, right? Not always in rebellion, but most often in these small ways just to carve out a little bit of a space, because the ultimate objective for the vast majority, 99.9 percent of enslaved people was to survive, right, to live to see the next day.
JEFFRIES: And so when you talk about resistance, and this is the key component, when you talk about resistance, you return the humanity that had been stripped away from the enslaved people. And so that’s the way you sort of get over that fear of you’re going to marginalize or upset black students.
JEFFRIES: And that’s also, Jennifer, if I could just say, so that’s on the sort of the white spectrum. On a black spectrum, you also have a lot of black parents who are like, “Look, just don’t talk, let’s just stay away from slavery,” right. You know, a lot of people like, “Well, wouldn’t black parents want our students, their black students in particular, sort of learn about this?” And it’s like, yeah, but not the way it’s been taught, right? So just, if you’re not going to teach it right — and we don’t trust you to teach it right — then just stay away from it.
JEFFRIES: You know, and so that becomes a real fear, because they don’t want that, there’s enough white supremacy in the world than for it to bleed into the classroom in this particular way, right?
JEFFRIES: Like if you’re going to do it bad, just don’t do it at all.
JEFFRIES: So you get a lot of pushback from black parents there. So whether it’s black parents or white parents, the community as a whole, whatever the community is, if we’re going to be serious about teaching slavery, accurately and effectively, one of the first things that has to be done is the community has to be reassured that this is history, that this is accurate history, that this is the only way to teach American history accurately, and that yes, there are contemporary implications, because slavery, the legacy of slavery, its impact, the impact of slavery does not end in 1865, and it does not stop at the Mason-Dixon border. So there are going to be contemporary implications, but we have to know this legacy. We have to know these implications in order for our students to understand not only the world around them after slavery, the world after slavery, 150 years, but the world around them today.
GONZALEZ: So, it sounds like, especially if you’re in a community where you are pretty sure this is going to be a problem, to maybe be proactive ahead of time, send people links to the curriculum ahead of time, “This is what we’re going to use, here’s why.” Maybe send a letter out to parents, you know, several weeks beforehand so that everybody gets a chance to look at the materials.
JEFFRIES: Yeah, yeah. No, you hit the nail on the head. You have to be proactive, you have to go out there, you have to get community buy-in, because there is going be skepticism, there’s going to be doubt. And this isn’t just a Texas problem, right?
JEFFRIES: I mean, this isn’t just an Alabama problem. You know, this is Ohio. This New York, this is everywhere.
JEFFRIES: You have to get the community to understand, like, “Look, this,” if you are not teaching American history, if you are not teaching American slavery as an integral and central part of American history, then you are committing educational malpractice. Period, point-blank.
JEFFRIES: So you, we have no choice as educators but to say, “We have to confront this.” But as Americans, as teachers, as people committed to education, we are running up against not just a, a wall of silence, and some a wall of denial, that is new. This is, like, deeply entrenched and embedded in our society. The framers of the Constitution, they couldn’t even bring themselves to literally say the words slavery. Right? I mean they used these sort of euphemisms in the Constitution. So we’ve been in this practice of silence for 250 years. So it is not going to be broken over night, but we do have to raise our voices, otherwise that silence will persist.
Where to Start
GONZALEZ: You know, the next question that I was going to ask you, I realize now after talking to you, that I probably need to change it. I was going to ask you that if a teacher only has short period of time to cover this period in history, what would you recommend they focus on? And now I’m realizing that “this period in history” is already revealing some ignorance, because we’re talking about, you know, 150 to 200 years or more —
JEFFRIES: Right, right.
GONZALEZ: — which is sort of like, it’s a component of a whole lot of other time periods of American history. So it’s something that can be just woven in and not just “now is the time that we teach slavery.” But you did have some recommendations when we’re talking about the super concentrated —
JEFFRIES: Yeah, right.
GONZALEZ: — when it was legal and being fought over…
JEFFRIES: You know, and Jennifer, I mean, you hit the nail on the head. I mean it is the whole point of what we tried to put forward is that this isn’t just a period, right? This isn’t just sort of a chapter that you can relegate, you know, to the first part of American history, you know, a textbook, a survey on American history or government. That this has to be, we have to be talking about slavery in every aspect of social studies, in every aspect of sort of American history.
So when we’re talking about government and the American political experiment, you know, you cannot talk about that without talking about the ways in which slavery, its protections, its expansion, is being protected, is being shaped, is being, is protecting, shaping, and influencing the way in which our government is evolving. You know, you can’t talk about the Civil War without talking about slavery. You can’t talk about sort of the Jim Crow era, the post-Progressive Era, without talking about the efforts on the part of white Southerners to maintain the basic relationship between whites and blacks that existed during slavery. You know, one of the things that we, so the conversation, like, what are we going to talk about, we’re going to weave slavery into our curriculums and teach it accurately and effectively also doesn’t end in 1865. We often say, “Oh, slavery ends, Civil War. We can turn our attention to something else.” No.
JEFFRIES: You know, people didn’t just sort of say, “Oh, okay, our bad,” like, “let’s just move forward.” No. I mean they, I mean they fight, right? White Southerners are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the basic economic, political, and social relationships that undergird the institution of slavery, and they do that for 100 years until finally the federal government is brought in and said, “Look, we need some more legal measures to sort of move away from these relationships.” And then for another 50 years after that, we still have them fighting, you know, fighting those same battles. You can’t talk about, you can’t talk about the 20th century without talking about slavery. So in other words, you know, we’re going to talk about slavery while slavery existed and there to answer the question, the initial question that you were asking, I say, “Look. If you can only talk about one thing, talk about resistance to slavery.”
JEFFRIES: Because that, that gives, that returns the humanity to a people that are so often dehumanized, both in the past and in the present.
JEFFRIES: Right? Even a simple thing, just quick, even a simple thing as saying, referring to them not as slaves but as enslaved people.
JEFFRIES: Right? To say, like, wait a minute. Slavery is a status, right? These people weren’t born slaves, they were born into slavery, so let’s refer to them as enslaved people. And even that little step returns a bit of their humanity.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I’m remembering part of a conversation in one of the episodes too about how that, that will send your students of color today a much more empowering message as opposed to just painting them as victims of this thing that happened, show all of the resistance, you know, as a way of — what you were talking about before, that sort of cognitive dissonance, that they’re thinking, “How are they not fighting back at all?”
GONZALEZ: And you’re saying, “Oh no. They were. Look. And here’s what they were doing.”
JEFFRIES: Exactly. And it’s a great, we had a great, one of the episodes, the one that we talk about on the podcast, about resistance. There was a teacher who reached out who was listening to the podcast and she was saying, you know, “I’m struggling trying to figure out how to teach this stuff to my students,” and she had Arkansas, and majority black students, young, fifth- or sixth-graders, if I recall, and I was like, “Look. Talk about resistance. Look. These kids, they want it.” And she said, you know, she sort of reached back, and it was amazing. She said, “You know, I just sort of bit the bullet and was like, look, we gotta talk about this, we gotta teach, we’re going to talk about slavery,” and this, that, and the other. And she said the students got, the black students they got so mad, but they weren’t mad at her, they were mad at the fact that this hadn’t been taught to them before.
GONZALEZ: Oh. Wow.
JEFFRIES: I mean it was truly a righteous anger, right? And she said, “At that point, they were ready to roll.” She’s like, “I had never had these students so engaged before.” Right? Talking about slavery. Because, look, students intuitively know that this stuff, especially if you’re a student of color, or if you are a white student, all right. So my students who I get from rural Ohio and the suburbs, white students from rural Ohio and suburban Ohio, when I get them in the classroom and we start talking about sort of American slavery and Jim Crow and the civil rights movement and lynching, right, they’re like, “Wait, what’s lynching?”
JEFFRIES: Like, they had no idea. And so they’re shocked and surprised. I’m like, all right, well let’s walk it back. Like, what is this and why is it the case?
JEFFRIES: And then they, they’re like, first, it’s, you know, I forget what those five stages of mourning, you go through grief, anger, I mean the kids go through all of it, because they’re like, “What?”
JEFFRIES: Like if we haven’t learned this, what else haven’t we learned? Right?
JEFFRIES: And so the student, it does not, my experience has been, all right, parents may get all funny and funky, but it doesn’t turn students off. Like students want the truth.
JEFFRIES: And they want to be able to decide for themselves what, the meaning of this particular truth, but we have to give it to them. And my experience has been when you lay it out there and you’re that teacher, you’re not the teacher they hate, you’re the teacher they love forever, right?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yep.
JEFFRIES: Because you’re the one who took the steps to say, “Wait a minute. I trust you with this knowledge, I trust you with this history. Here it is,” you know, “do with it what you will.”
GONZALEZ: Anything else that you would like us to know about this before I’m going to send people over to start digging into all these, all these materials?
JEFFRIES: You know, I’ll just say this is, if there’s ever an appropriate title, I think this is it, Hard History.
JEFFRIES: Because it is, it is hard, it is hard on us, because we as a society haven’t prepared us very well to deal with these, to deal with the past or deal with the present. And so, you know, and it is so essential that we do. Like how do you wind up with a Charlottesville of the last year and people talking about Confederate monuments and white supremacy and this, that, and the other, without understanding its roots in American slavery, and the birth of white supremacy in American ideology to justify slavery and then to justify Jim Crow and the emergence of these Confederate monuments not in 1865 but in 1915 and 1960 as African Americans were fighting against white supremacy and Jim Crow. Like, in other words, this is, it’s hard because it’s so relevant to today, all right?
JEFFRIES: We can teach and talk, we’re comfortable talking about the Greeks and the Romans and, you know, Joshua and Abraham. But we don’t, we get all tripped up when we start talking about Jefferson and Madison, right?
JEFFRIES: And Jefferson Davis, because it still touches our lives in fundamental ways today. So it’s not going to be easy, but we really have no choice in the matter. We do a disservice to our students and to our young people and to future generations if we continue going forward with blinders on and pretending that this doesn’t, this didn’t happen and that it doesn’t continue to impact and influence our lives today.
To learn more
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much, thank you and to the Southern Poverty Law Center for putting this whole curriculum together. It’s fantastic. I really, really hope that teachers will go and take a look at it and use it. How can they find you online?
JEFFRIES: They can always find me on Twitter. I probably spend too much time on there, but life is what it is in the age of social media.
JEFFRIES: At @profjeffries and unlike my students, I still actually still use email, and so they can always email me at [email protected] and of course they can find me on the post and the podcast Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, which is available through iTunes and any other major, you know, your usual sources for podcasts.
GONZALEZ: Right. And I will be, I will be providing links to my listeners too over on my website if they want a direct link to get over there quickly, they can find them there too.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for all this time. I really, really appreciate you jumping on here with me.
JEFFRIES: No, thank you. I appreciate the invitation and keep up the great work. This was, I enjoyed this.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, and choose episode 98. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.
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