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.
he Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana famously remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” How we educate our youth about America’s history will inform not only their understanding of our past, but it will inform our future. Our national conversation about race and a deeper understanding of the history of racism is rooted in our understanding of slavery.
According to a new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8% of high school seniors surveyed, believed that slavery was a primary cause of the American Civil War.
The study, 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.
It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.
“Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.”
– Regie Gibson.
Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.
We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.
We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring, “Me too.”
Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, “Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.”
But our antipathy for hard history is only partly responsible for this sentimental longing for a fictitious past. It is also propelled by political considerations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white Southerners looking to bolster white supremacy and justify Jim Crow reimagined the Confederacy as a defender of democracy and protector of white womanhood. To perpetuate this falsehood, they littered the country with monuments to the Lost Cause.
Our preference for nostalgia and for a history that never happened is not without consequence. We miseducate students because of it. Although we teach them that slavery happened, we fail to provide the detail or historical context they need to make sense of its origin, evolution, demise and legacy. And in some cases, we minimize slavery’s significance so much that we render its impact—on people and on the nation—inconsequential. As a result, students lack a basic knowledge and understanding of the institution, evidenced most glaringly by their widespread inability to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
This is profoundly troubling because American slavery is the key to understanding the complexity of our past. How can we fully comprehend the original intent of the Bill of Rights without acknowledging that its author, James Madison, enslaved other people? How can we understand that foundational document without understanding that its author was well versed not only in the writings of Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers, but also in Virginia’s slave code? How can we ignore the influence of that code, that “bill of rights denied,” which withheld from African Americans the very same civil liberties Madison sought to safeguard for white people?
Our discomfort with hard history and our fondness for historical fiction also lead us to make bad public policy. We choose to ignore the fact that when slavery ended, white Southerners carried the mindsets of enslavers with them into the post-emancipation period, creating new exploitative labor arrangements such as sharecropping, new disenfranchisement mechanisms including literacy tests and new discriminatory social systems, namely Jim Crow. It took African Americans more than a century to eliminate these legal barriers to equality, but that has not been enough to erase race-based disparities in every aspect of American life, from education and employment to wealth and well-being. Public policies tend to treat this racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity.
Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today. The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems.
The intractable nature of racial inequality is a part of the tragedy that is American slavery. But the saga of slavery is not exclusively a story of despair; hard history is not hopeless history. Finding the promise and possibility within this history requires us to consider the lives of the enslaved on their own terms. Trapped in an unimaginable hell, enslaved people forged unbreakable bonds with one another. Indeed, no one knew better the meaning and importance of family and community than the enslaved. They fought back too, in the field and in the house, pushing back against enslavers in ways that ranged from feigned ignorance to flight and armed rebellion. There is no greater hope to be found in American history than in African Americans’ resistance to slavery.
The Founding Fathers were visionaries, but their vision was limited. Slavery blinded them, preventing them from seeing black people as equals. We the people have the opportunity to broaden the founders’ vision, to make racial equality real. But we can no longer avoid the most troubling aspects of our past. We have to have the courage to teach hard history, beginning with slavery.
by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
High school seniors struggle on even the most basic questions about American enslavement of Africans.
- 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.
- Forty percent of teachers believe their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery.