I am furious. And hurt.
As a historian, it is an honor to have the responsibility of storytelling. Indeed, our history is a collection of stories and a powerful instrument that expresses who we are, what we came from, how we struggle, and how we are strong. So the abuse of this precious privilege always cuts deep.
The education system has long omitted, neglected, distorted and skewed our history through the lens of white privilege and racism. Yet, I was stunned by the level of apathy that was exposed this week when a girls’ school in London, England was forced to issue an apology over the use of offensive material during a high school history lesson on “The Slave Trade”.
Students aged 13 and 14 were given imaginary tools including manacles, whips, thumb screws, iron brands, muskets and barracoons, and asked to devise a Dragon’s Den-style (a reality TV show known as Shark Tank in the US) business proposal for the capture and enslavement of African people. Lesson materials included direction on how to carry out a “slave raid” and manipulate “African Chiefs” through bribes and lacing them with alcohol. Perhaps the most debased suggestions were that the “best” aspect of being a slave trader was having “an affair with a beautiful African girl,” and that adult male “mixed race” offspring could be sent to Africa to “run the slave business” while his white father sailed to America.
Teaching the history of enslavement via a business plan model serves to erase violence, oppression and numerous traumatic events such as the systematic rape of black girls and women. The teacher/s involved in this particular lesson plan saw nothing inappropriate or offensive about their methods. Yet, it would be hard to imagine that these same individuals would sanction a history class on the Holocaust that required students to figure out how to exterminate Jewish people. But black genocide is somehow different, less painful, less abhorrent, and thus vulnerable to trivialization. In 1986, Susan Rice (presently the subject of unjust Republican opposition to her potential nomination for the position of Secretary of State) argued that:
The greatest evil in omitting or misrepresenting Black history, literature, and culture in elementary or secondary education is the unmistakable message it sends to the black child. The message is ‘your history, your culture, your language and your literature are insignificant. And so are you.’
The implicit message of this particular history lesson was not lost on one 13 year old black girl, who in a state of distress complained to her mother about the humiliation she felt during the class. The mother soon after met with two teachers who refused to acknowledge the harm caused to her daughter, and instead sought to justify the innovative approach of the class. They, and later a third teacher, argued that the class emphasized how the slave trade was largely “divorced from moral and social issues”, and that it had been taught for three years without objection.
Perhaps if the narrow objectives of this so-called history lesson were a little broader, then these teachers would have understood that the history of black resistance runs deep in our veins. In the face of the school’s dismissal, the student’s mother contacted Pan African Human Rights Organization Ligali, who filed a formal complaint with the school, and subsequent press release.
In a speedy reversal – which the glare of publicity so often precipitates – the principal publicly apologized on behalf of her staff for being “patronizing” and for the “trivialization” of slavery. The lesson materials were immediately withdrawn with a reassurance that “appropriate steps” had been taken in relation to “possible disciplinary action” against the teacher who devised the class.
If disciplinary action is taken, then I hope it is understood that to scapegoat a single teacher is wholly inadequate, as this case exposes far deeper issues of white privilege and institutional racism within education. It is unclear why this particular class went unchallenged for three years, but such incidents remind us that it is not only a personal but a political imperative that we ask our kids “What did you learn in school today?” It is through our history that we recall, lay claim to, and understand both the past and present. And we cannot afford to abdicate our responsibility to monitor, intervene and challenge the educational system.