The title of this article should be “talking about” slavery in Amarillo classrooms. This whole topic popped out of nowhere the day before Thanksgiving when an Amarillo 7th grader asked me if they talked about slaves when I went to school. The question dumfounded me until the 7th grader said that her social studies teacher in an Amarillo middle school classroom was talking about slavery and “looking at all the black in a laughing, sneering way. She then said that she would be glad when he stopped talking about slavery. I then explained to the student that I went to all black schools all my life, had all black teachers and that they we indeed learned about slavery in America. I told her that my black teachers never made us feel uncomfortable or inferior about slavery because they instilled us with pride, hope, and an understanding of what slavery was and how and why it came to be America’s “peculiar institution.” And so this column is an open letter to teachers in Amarillo, Texas and everywhere about how to discuss slavery in classrooms so that all students, including white students, leave classrooms understanding American history as a shared experience that should impart valuable lessons for building a better future.
The written history of America is a long chronicle of events that describe the interaction among and between peoples of every nationality. How and why people came to America spans the spectrum from voluntary relocation, namely immigration, to “coming to America” to avoid repaying personal debts and religious persecutions, and, people brought here against their will. The history of African Americans in America by and large involves involuntary relocation, namely slavery. You cannot understand slavery until you understand why African Americans were involuntarily brought to America.
Slavery in America must be understood, and explained, for what it was—the economic exploitation of a group of people based on race. Slavery existed for well over 250 years, 1619 to 1865, as a way of life in America. The sole purpose of slavery was economic enrichment of slave holders. Slavery was enforced by brutal, inhumane means, the equivalent of acts of terrorism, in order to maintain control of the slaves. When Thomas Jefferson coined these words in the Declaration of Independence in 1776,“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, “there were well over half a million black slaves in America. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who signed the Constitution in 1878, owned slaves. Slaves were excluded from America’s vision of economic independence from England because slaves themselves were seen as economic units of production and not as citizens. The purpose of slavery was to obtain the benefits of the labor of African Americans as slaves without compensation.
Great wealth was created by African Americans for their slave owners and America, directly, and indirectly. Slaves helped build America, including the White House, in ways that America continues to deny. African slaves brought with them skills of every variety that were used by slave holders in agriculture, iron working, carpentry and every trade known to man. Billions of dollars of slave labor helped a fledgling America. Slaves were exploited economically under the threat of brute force and that continued until the Civil War. Samuel H. William and Louis P. Cain have written an article entitled “Measuring Slavery in 2011 Dollars,” www.measuringworth.com/slavery/php. They estimate that in today’s dollars, slaves were valued at between $45,000 and $176,000 each. There were almost 4 million slaves just before the Civil War. After the Civil War, “near slavery” conditions replaced the old system of slavery that continued to keep Africans Americans in conditions of economic exploitation. That system expanded to an entire system of social control and repression called Jim Crow that made it unlawful for African Americans to gain economic independence by denying access to education and other means to create wealth. The Civil Rights movement was the vehicle used to dismantle the systematic exclusion of African Americans from full participation in the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” equal to whites. That struggle continues to this day to address America’s slave legacy which continues in many ways to socially control and economically exploit African Americans.
Black students should not be ashamed of their slave ancestors. Are students in Egypt made to feel shame because their dark-skinned, slave ancestors built the pyramids? No teacher worth his or her credentials should make black students feel embarrassed by the economic exploitation of slaves. Black slaves laid the foundations for America, especially the South, to evolve from a wilderness to centers of great agricultural wealth. Without slaves many southern white farmers would have perished because of personal weakness, lack of agricultural skills, and lack of intestinal fortitude. Black students should be no more ashamed of their slave ancestors than whites should be ashamed of slave masters who committed personal acts of barbaric brutality against slaves almost too horrific for words. If in the long run the “sins of the fathers” will be visited upon the children, whose sin will be greater, the slave or the slave owner?
This nation owes a debt of gratitude to every slave that ever lived for helping America to survive and thrive. Slavery allowed whites to establish and thrive under a system of “white privilege” and gain advantages based on their race—the same advantages denied to African Americans. When a finger is pointed to a black student, especially by a teacher, suggesting that they should feel ashamed of the economic exploitation of their ancestors, that teacher should examine the three fingers pointed back at him or her, to acknowledge that he or she is a direct beneficiary, based on their race, of the structural racism and economic exploitation of slaves and African Americans. The sole remaining issue for teachers is whether the topic of slavery is taught with arrogant, explicit and implicit bias and bigotry, designed to discourage and mentally shackle black students, or taught with a 21st understanding of how oppressed people have risen up to overcome the obstacles and stumbling blocks strewn in their way.
Copyright 2015 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.