By Jeni Gearhart
“Enslavement is a process, not an identity”
—Vann Newkirk II, Atlantic Staff Writer
How do we teach about the tragedy of American slavery in the English classroom? Furthermore, how do we teach about it in a way that impacts our students to make a change?
Much of my 1st semester curriculum deals with race and inequality. In 10th grade, I teach To Kill a Mockingbird and The House on Mango Street. In AP Language, I teach March, Persepolis, and The Narrative of the Life of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In these units—and in all of my teaching—my goal is to move beyond the single stories of victims and violators. My goal is to help my students overcome dehumanizing rhetoric and ingrained stereotypes to find the human story.
This past semester, I reworked my entire unit on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I have taught this book for the past four years, and I was never quite satisfied with my students’ reactions. They were upset by the story, by the grotesque and moving descriptions of treatment of slaves—but their learning stayed within the context of history. I would hear comments like, “How could people act that way?” “That wouldn’t happen today,” “I’m so glad slavery doesn’t exist anymore,” or “Racism now is nothing like this.” I wanted the text to change my students, but for most of them, it didn’t.
Until this year.
This year, I focused on the long-lasting impact of slavery on our society and how it falls into a larger narrative of dehumanizing those who are different—of dehumanizing others for the benefit of power and economic gain.
I started my unit with Alex Tizon’s Atlantic story, “My Family’s Slave.” If you have not yet read this article, read it right now. Tizon was a Philipino American journalist who realized as an adult that his live-in nanny, Lola, was actually unpaid, and essentially owned by his family. She was his family’s slave for 56 years. Let me remind you that this real story takes place in America in the 90s.
Most of my students were shocked when they read this story. They couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen in the modern world. Some had heard of human trafficking, and some were aware of slavery in other countries, but none of my students expected to hear of such a “normal” American family owning another human.
We followed up this article with a discussion on the meaning of enslavement, and how even Tizon’s story did not adequately humanize Lola. We read follow up pieces from the Atlantic such as “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola.” We continued to ask: whose story is being told, and who is doing the telling?
Next, in what I think was the most impactful part of my unit, my students worked through modern slavery stations.
Station 1: Your Slavery Footprint An online quiz that asks you to identify the kinds of products you buy, food you eat, your income, the type of home you live in, and other questions. The data is used to calculate how many slaves “work for you” based on your lifestyle habits. The organization is supported by the U.S. Department of State. This was one of the most impactful parts of my entire unit.
Station 2: Crash Course on Globalization A short crash course video discussing how globalization and industrialization worldwide both helps and hurts human rights issues, such as modern slavery.
Station 3: Lisa Kristine’s Photos of Modern Slavery Kristine photographs slaves and underpaid workers around the world to raise awareness off this human rights issue.
After completing the stations, my students wrote a reflection on the following
- What have you learned about slavery or dehumanization in the last week?
- What has most surprised you, upset you, or made you think?
- What commonalities do we see between slavery of the 18th and 19th century and today? How does dehumanization affect this? What is our responsibility?
This activity moved my students to consider how their choices have an impact on others. By seeing photos of modern slaves, they could put a face on an idea. By reading Lola’s story, it hit home that slavery and its impact did not end in the 1800s.
When we read Frederick Douglass this year, my students connected to Lola. When we read March or discussed this excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates Between The World and Me, they started to get that dehumanization has a profound and lasting impact.
Among many other profound pieces of insight from Coates’ text, was this quote:
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.
We can’t teach about slavery in a way that isolates it from its impact. We need to see the human in the story. My students have started to have conversations about people, not just about ideas. As teachers, we need to help facilitate these conversations with our students.
The slave is human. The prisoner is human. The immigrant is human. When we recognize this, change is made. We are starting to see the beauty of humanity in all people—I hope.
WVCTE is wondering, how do you approach issues of racism or dehumanization in your classroom? What do you think is the role of the teacher in this issue? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.