MANSFIELD: Teaching Real History

Tomb of the Unknown Slave, St Augustine Church, New Orleans. Photo by Anastasia Pantsios

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is embarking on an ambitious and very worthwhile project: To change how the history of American slavery is taught in our schools.

“Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery,” the organization’s just-released report states. “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, according to a study released today by the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project.”

Considering the fact that a lack of understanding of our history in this country puts African-Americans at a severe disadvantage, I can’t think of any teaching project that would be more important. To be able to more quickly solve the problems that still haunt black Americans — problems that often stem from policies that were put in place before, during and after the Civil War — a thorough knowledge and understanding of this era of American history is essential and vital.

However, many blacks prefer to avoid thinking about this period in our history out of shame. We’ve been taught — wrongly, I might add — that our ancestors docilely accepted our condition of servitude. But this is simply not true. In addition to running off, many ways of disruption and silent protest were engaged in by those held in bondage.

Those incidents and methods are not part of the historical record for two reasons: One, black slaves, for the most part, couldn’t read or write (and would not have written down what they were surreptitiously doing even if they could), and two, whites didn’t want it known how the slaves were silently rebelling out of fear such acts would spread.

“The report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, traces racial tensions and even debates about what, exactly, racism is in America, to the failure of schools to teach the full impact that slavery has had on all Americans. The report examines the lack of coverage that U.S. classrooms provide about American slavery through a survey of high school seniors and U.S. social studies teachers. It also offers an in-depth analysis of 15 state standards and 10 popular U.S. history textbooks, including two that specifically teach Alabama and Texas history.”

“The investigation — conducted over the course of one year by the Teaching Tolerance project — revealed the need for far better and much more comprehensive classroom instruction across the board. If we are to move past our racial differences, schools must do a better job of teaching American slavery and all the ways it continues to impact American society, including poverty rates, mass incarceration and education,” said Maureen Costello, a former history teacher who is director of Teaching Tolerance. “This report places an urgent call on educators, curriculum writers and policy makers to confront the harsh realities of slavery and racial injustice. Learning about slavery is essential for us to bridge the racial differences that continue to divide our nation.”

Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Most didn’t know an amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally ended slavery. Fewer than half (44 percent) correctly answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

While nearly all teachers (97 percent) surveyed agreed that teaching and learning about slavery are essential to understanding American history, there was a lack of deep coverage of the subject in the classroom, according to the report. More than half (58 percent) reported that they were dissatisfied with their textbooks, and 39 percent reported that their state offered little or no support for teaching about slavery.

“It is of crucial importance for every American to understand the role that slavery played in the formation of this country,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University professor and adviser for the report. “And that lesson must begin with the teaching of the history of slavery in our schools. It is impossible to understand the state of race relations in American society today without understanding the roots of racial inequality — and its long-term effects — which trace back to the ‘peculiar institution.’ I hope that publishers, curriculum writers, legislators and our fellow American citizens on school boards who make choices about what kids learn embrace the thoughtful framework developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.

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