American History, Only Half Taught
A discussion on the need to include chattel slavery and its legacy as a major part of the curriculum in New York schools was held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture last month. Schomburg Director Howard Dodson moderated a panel composed of Dr. Adelaide L. Sanford, vice chancellor, New York State Board of Regents; Dr. Louise Mirrer, President of the New York Historical Society; Dr. Alan Singer, Hofstra University; Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright and Karen Jackson-Weaver, Amistad Commission, New Jersey.
It wasn’t long after Dr. Mirrer spoke about the Society’s current exhibit, “Slavery in New York,” that it became apparent that, as Dr. Mirrer described it, the exhibit’s central metaphor, “Breaking the Silence,” which was provided by Mr. Dodson, can be used to describe the tide of interest that has been rising regarding the effect of capturing and holding people against their will and using them as slave labor to clear the land stolen from Native Americans. And then used that labor, kept in place by “physical and emotional torture” in the words of the Amistad Commission, to build the city’s commerce that would power the United States into the industrial age and build it’s foundation for the twentieth century. The cosmic amount of power to affect that change came from the bones, sinew and consciousness of an enslaved race of people for hundreds of years.
That there hasn’t been an effort to address the effects and the costs still being paid is of great concern to Dr. Adelaide L. Sanford. “A pivotal question in the minds of all people and particularly those who are engaged in the formal and informal educational system, is ‘why hasn’t education been a more liberating spirit for people of African Ancestry?’ A part of the answer to that question is that education in America, and in New York City, has been an education of dependency rather than an education of liberation.”
And what help there was available came not from the education system but from the system’s implementation of political will. Speaking about the importance of the legislation introduced by Assemblyman Keith Wright, Dr. Sanford brought to light information about the effectiveness the Black and Hispanic Caucus saying, “Most of the legislation and most of the educational programs and policies that have been implemented by the Board of Regents that are helpful to underserved people and to descendants of chattel slaves came through the Black and Hispanic Caucus.” Making her point more sharply, she named the SEEK and HEOP programs, “Higher Education Opportunity program, STEP, 6 STEP,” and the College Discovery program. She made certain it was understood that “it was not the Board of Regents or the Education Department who originated these programs, they came through the caucus.”
Dr. Sanford, reiterated the importance of knowledge about chattel slavery, a slavery where “you were property. Even your reproductive rights were not yours. You lost your language, your celebrations, the rituals. Your God-worship. Your very soul did not belong to you….it was an extraordinary and vicious kind of experience which developed America and it was one the nation has to confront.”
One of the necessities Dr. Sanford gives for this self-recognition is the effect its denial has on the emotional development of descendants of people who had been held as chattel slaves. She argues the importance of including it in the curriculum of children who are “school- dependent, who do not have other organizations and institutions giving them the information that they need.” Her reasoning is that despite the importance of exhibits such as “Slavery in New York,” it is the responsibility of the schools as the proactive instrument of socialization and the only structure which evaluates the students to bring this information to the child.
And in order to ensure this happens, it must be a part of the assessment program of the State Education Department and the Board of Regents or else “it will still be peripheral to their experience.”
Once the curriculum is in place and a part of the assessment programs, when young people study for local and statewide exams, they will be reviewing names like Solomon Northrup and Louis Tappan. They will see the opening credits for Law and Order and as Dr. Singer does, be able to recognize Foley Square and remember that in 1787, so great was the fear that the enslaved would revolt, that 12 Africans were tortured and burned in Foley Square because it was thought they might want to escape. But do not look for the marking plaque says Dr. Singer. He argues that it remains a hidden part of history which needs to be found in the texts and studied for by the students of New York.
The second concern Dr. Sanford has is that in addition to the factual history exemplified in the slavery exhibit, there is an emotional history which has also been ignored. This is a history which Dr. Joy Leary speaks of in her work on “Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome,” and Dr. Sanford says is the “emotional aspect of what chattel slavery does to the minds of the people…. This is the only immigrant who came to this country and because of visibility that could not be denied, was not ever able to become a part of the American mainstream. Any other immigrant came, that person could assume whatever identity, whatever name change, whatever was necessary to maximize his or her opportunity, whereas Africans in the Americas could not, she argues.
This visibility is a paradox because since Africans could be easily identified and separated, they have been edited out of textbooks and history and their exploits to freedom have been rendered invisible, even to themselves. For the child, Dr. Sanford says “when you do not see yourself in the textbooks, in the pictures, in the early childhood nursery rhymes…that invisibility is curriculum. And the children learn from that and when you speak to them they will tell you they’ve learned that when you are beautiful you can do bad things and it’s alright. They understand what it means to be omitted. They also understand what it means to feel that you have to be taught by people who do not recognize your value.”
The Amistad Commission mandate in New York State is that teachers get the information about chattel slavery and what it did to the minds and hearts and spirits of people who were subjected to chattel slavery and subjected to years of oppression and denigration. Remembering the Curriculum of Inclusion effort in 1987, Dr. Sanford said that when scholars examined the then-school curriculums they found that for each racial group where children were failing, the curriculum, omitted, rendered marginal “and had a direct impact on the failure of these four groups of students.”
Despite these findings, no action has been taken to correct the curriculum and for Dr. Sanford the explanation is that, “unfortunately, people in positions of power and authority felt that the language was harsh, and so that curriculum was never voted upon, because even though chattel slavery happened… there are people living in America and in New York whose forefathers were implicit in the chattel slave experience and they are powerful and able to protect themselves and the damage that they feel will be done to them if the truth is told about their complicity.”
The necessity of that truth telling was made clearer by Dr. Sanford as she added understanding to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. When Dr. King said, “Someday, the children of former slaves and children of slave masters will be able to sit together,” that “enabling process,” says Regent Sanford, is a confrontation with the truth. “I cannot deny, nor do I want to deny, that I am the descendant of former slaves. But I haven’t met any European person who said, “I am a descendant of a slave owner. They don’t want to face it.”
Ms. Karen Jackson-Weaver agreed there was a great deal of resistance from people not wanting to acknowledge the realities of slavery and she shared what they were doing in New Jersey in terms of legislation and curriculum development and how their efforts might be applicable to New York State. Ms. Weaver said that New Jersey concentrated on training the trainers as well as training the teachers and taking them through workshops in the elements of the slave experience such as Reconstruction, enslavement and effects on the family, to equip teachers who may not have had the course work necessary to enable them to feel comfortable with the information to empower all of their students. Additionally, they give professional credit and ask for additional class work, giving cash incentives to top performers: $5000 to each of four teachers who best infused African American history into their daily class work. Then requiring that teachers have course credits in the history of people of the African Diaspora as a part of their training and certification process.
“If we’re going to compete on a global footing our students need to be working with the truth…we are currently developing our own textbook to infuse African-American history into the everyday textbooks.”
Ms. Weaver offered that as how important it is to mandate a program, ensuring compliance is equally so. “This year, the State Commissioner of Education for New Jersey sent out a compliance survey to every school district in New Jersey, requiring them to respond to what basically asks, ‘How are you infusing African-American history into the Social Studies curriculum?'”
Assemblyman Wright acknowledged that the idea for the Amistad legislature came to him from legislators in New Jersey. Enumerating some of the aspects of the act the Assemblyman included “survey and catalogue the extent to which information of the African slave trade, slavery and the vestiges of slavery are incorporated into all of the curricula used by New York State schools. To inventory all resources dealing with the above that are not currently incorporated into the curriculum. To maintain a roster of experts that are willing to volunteer in New York’s classrooms to educate our children regarding the African slave trade and slavery. And to prepare and disseminate reports to the governor and legislature regarding its findings, to make recommendations regarding the inclusion of the African slave trade and slavery topics and resources into the curriculum.”
Assemblyman Wright said that one of the criticisms he has heard is that this legislation opens Pandora’s box, that repository of Greek myth that held all the ills, disease and evil of the world. Perhaps the detractors could look further into the myth and they will find that hidden in the box amongst the evils, the Gods of Olympus had placed Hope, whose purpose was to heal the ills that had been unleashed.
Dr. Alan Singer, saying he is an advocate of a social studies approach to history, one that examines the past to understand the present and to shape the future, insisted, “I’d like to open Pandora’s box. I’m white and I study Black history because Black history is New York State history. I study Black history because Black history is American history and it needs to be addressed in all schools. This country will never be able to heal its racial divide until it confronts the reality of its past.”
As an example, Dr. Singer gave a short history lesson on how the slave trade was financed out of New York. “After 1808, New York becomes the center of the transatlantic slave trade. After Toussaint- Louverture led the revolution in Haiti, sugar production was shifted to Cuba and the Dominican Republic and Africans were imported in violation of the ban on the transatlantic slave trade imposed by the British. The life expectancy of a newly enslaved African in the sugar fields was about seven years. That slave trade producing sugar was financed out of New York City. The two main characters were William Havemeyer, Mayor of New York three times between 1845 and 1874 who founded Domino Sugar in 1899; and Moses Taylor, an American banker whose bank survived the panic of 1837 because of his investment in the Cuban sugar industry. In 1855, Mr. Taylor became president of City Bank in New York. He invests in the transcontinental railroad, the transatlantic cable and many of these companies still exist. The bank is still existing at 111 Wall Street. It’s called Citibank. Citibank was built on the profits of the transatlantic slave trade. Taylor invested in The Manhattan Gas Company which is now Con Edison, the railroad that is now the Long Island Railroad, and the transatlantic cable that is now AT&T. These companies had their roots in the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean and the transatlantic slave trade. So when we talk about New York’s complicity in the slave trade, we’re not just talking about something on the periphery, we’re talking about the center of economic development in New York. This is what we want kids to understand.
“We also want kids to understand the resistance to slavery…you can’t just learn about the horror of oppression, you also have to learn about the struggle for human dignity…and New York was one of the centers of that struggle.”
In 1997, the state endorsed its human rights curriculum, teaching about the Holocaust and the study of the Right to Life, teaching about the Great Irish Famine and people’s right to food, I worked on that curriculum and on the struggle for freedom from slavery. The Great Irish Famine curriculum was completed and distributed in 2001, there are numerous Holocaust curriculums in New York State but slavery has still not become a part of the official New York curriculum. It takes political pressure and that’s why we need the Amistad Commission. They don’t respond to what is right, they don’t respond to the truth, they respond to pressure of people saying this is what we want taught in our schools.”
To Dr. Dodson’s question, “What does it take to get slavery included in the assessment structure?” Regent Sanford responded that the Board of Regents holds public meetings eleven months of the year. These meetings are attended by staff and lobbyists for special interests. “There are no people at the Board of Regents meetings representing people of color, there’s nobody there. There’s no newspapers, there’s no advocacy groups, there’s no one.”
The history of slavery is a history of struggle, resistance and organizing strategies. This history has been lost, and yet it is what is needed to provide the foundation for the struggles and lobbying efforts by the underserved on their own behalf. Dr. Sanford points out the children are not interested in just learning about the suffering of slavery, they want to know “what did you tear up, how did you resist”. It is in the drama of that resistance that positive excitement can be found and learning can take place in an empowering way. “Our children would be highly motivated to know how brilliant we were to have survived.”
Dr. Sanford asked, “How many know the Regent from your district or have sent a letter to them? They don’t know what you want and it’s very comfortable for them to say, ‘I haven’t heard anything from my constituency about this issue.’ I’ve been on the Board of Regents for nineteen years and the only letters I’ve ever gotten are those I’ve asked somebody to write.”
Director Dodson summed up saying, “We need it in the assessment and also in the budget for implementation….The truth about America’s history is so incredible and the truth about the Black experience is so remarkable that there is no excuse for kids being bored studying history.”