Sunday, December 07, 2008

How Not to Teach Middle Schoolers about the Middle Passage

When I took an African American literature class as an undergrad, my teacher tried to demonstrate to us physically the nature of the middle passage. Nothing in a well-lit, comfortably-temperatured university classroom can suffice, but she tried anyway.

She had all of us who would gather into a corner and move closer and closer to each other until the girl nearest to the wall asked that we stop. Many of us were visibly shaken, unable to put words to our feelings when the professor asked.

It was a voluntary activity and I still have mixed feelings about it (she did not tell us that we would be closing in on ourselves).

And we were, in terms of age, adults.

k8 sent me this article about a similarly-minded teacher of middle-school children:
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – A white social studies teacher attempted to enliven a seventh-grade discussion of slavery by binding the hands and feet of two black girls, prompting outrage from one girl's mother and the local chapter of the NAACP. After the mother complained to Haverstraw Middle School, the superintendent said he was having "conversations with our staff on how to deliver effective lessons."

"If a student was upset, then it was a bad idea,"* said Superintendent Brian Monahan of the North Rockland School District in New York City's northern suburbs.

There are so many levels of wrong in this that I won't pretend that I can address or even see them all. It's not a matter of being age inappropriate (my point above was that I don't know if such activities are appropriate for any age in a classroom setting). But I am struck by the fact that the teacher called on two teenagers, two girls who, like so many teenagers, may have been inordinately self-conscious of being the center of their classmates' attention in what they perceived as a negative light.

And then she thought it was okay to BIND them. To tie their hands and feet. With apparently no thought of how traumatic that may have been, no knowledge of any experiences these girls may have had that BINDING them might trigger, no thought to how absolutely powerless and vulnerable and scared it makes you feel when some one else strips you of the ability to control or move your own body.

She also did not think about what these girls' perception of slavery was. So many black people are taught that it was shameful for slaveowners and the enslaved. That the whole identity of our ancestors was subsumed by the designation "slave," because so much of that history comes from the slaveowners. That there must have been no pride, no dignity, no agency, no self-definition.

And always, beneath the surface, is an unspoken accusation of almost-complicity--that people of African descent accepted slavery and the Jim Crow aftermath meekly until the 1950s. One of my comps questions was about the "lack" of what would commonly be called slave uprisings. One of my white male students in my African American history class asked me, when we discussed Redemption, "Why didn't black people do something, stand up for themselves?" and none of my responses was enought to change his opinion or stop the dismissive shake of his head.

I have heard black people my whole life say, "I couldn't have lived back then, because I would have..." We are ashamed because we were taught the "happy darkies working in the field and being beneficently cared for" lie so long. We are also taught that our "honorable" history begins and ends with the Civil Rights Movement.

And she asked those girls to assume all of that in a classroom:
On Nov. 18, [Eileen] Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships. She bound the two students' hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience.
If her point is to teach that the middle passage was devastatingly traumatic, why would she want middle-schoolers to re-enact it?
*Emphasis mine, because I didn't realize there was a correlation between students' " upsetness" and the determination of whether or not something is a "bad idea."


Zan said...

You know, I had never considered that it was shameful to be a slave. Shameful to be the one doing the enslaving, yes. Absolutely. But it had honestly never occurred to me there was a legacy of shame passed down. Wow. I think a lightbulb just went off over here. Where do you think the shame comes from?

elle said...

The message that a "proud" or "noble" people would NEVER have submitted. They would've all been killed in resistance or something.

Also, the notion that the only resistance that matters is violent resistance or resistance that (relatively quickly) ends an oppressive situation.

The idea that African Americans were uniquely "fit" for servitude and that's why they didn't cast it off in a violent uprising.

etc, etc

Unknown said...

Yeah, this makes me ill on so many levels. Like, WHAT MAKES A MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHER THINK IT IS OKAY TO EVER TIE A STUDENT UP, EVER, FOR ANY REASONS AT ALL? Even if she were doing it to white kids for some other reason, that is so clearly unacceptable I just can't believe she thought this was a good idea. And then I wonder if she would have thought this were acceptable to do on white kids and I want to hurl all over again. Just. I. I really have no words, this thing makes want to go into HULK SMASH mode. Kudos for managing to say smart things about something that makes me see red.

Anonymous said...

This scares me, actually. If there is one that believes this was an acceptable idea - there are others. Terrifying!

The ideas about relative frequencies of uprisings and shame came the fore in a conversation I had a long time ago with a guy from Jamaica. He claimed that the lack of slave rebellions in the States was evidence of the lazy, broken spirit of American Blacks - in contrast with the spirited, confident, industrious Jamaican Blacks.

The disparate [and often false] stories told without actual historical fact-checking can get us all a little twisted about how issues of white supremacy and slavery affect[ed] POC then and now. I can understand the shame associated with slavery [on the slave side], because I have known so many people who have implied that slavery was actually the fault of the slaves, themselves, or black people in general. That is sick. As is this "teacher".

Anonymous said...

Umm wow. Just wow.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...