By Nikki Igbo

A Southern Poverty Law Center report based on a national study conducted in 2017 has revealed a sad truth about how American slavery is taught and learned. Plain and simply, American kids don’t know much about it and teachers are ill-equipped to provide students with information on the key concepts surrounding slavery. How bad is the problem? Only 8% of high school seniors know that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. 68% of high school seniors don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery. America’s youth don’t know that white supremacy sustained and protected slavery. The vast majority of textbooks present a sanitized, downright nostalgic version of the institution. Slavery was not just a fragment of American history; it was the foundation.

To misunderstand the realities and impact of slavery, and the way it was protected, all but assures the nation’s failure to solve deep-seated issues of racism, wealth disparity and social inequality. The classroom, however, is not the only place kids of all ages can learn about American slavery. And learning about slavery does not have to be an exercise in emotional self-torture. Here are four ways to learn about slavery in American history and feel empowered and inspired while doing so.

Madam C. J. Walker
1. Do a Black History Month Deep Dive. For the past 11 years, I have picked an industry (such as technology, filmmaking and hair care ) or a particular interest (such as music, politics and the arts) and challenged myself to learn the life story of a minimum of 28 figures in African-American history (past and present) who have made an impact in each category. Each February, I am consistently awed by how many more figures there really are in each field—particularly those who persevered in their calling despite their status as slaves and second class citizens. The internet, like no other time in history, has made discovering the truth about the indelible spirit of our ancestors extraordinarily accessible. When learned in concert with the horrors of slavery and the seemingly insurmountable laws and statutes that were established to protect slavery, the stories of those figures are all the more inspiring and truly heroic. (Hint: there’s no need to wait until February.)

2. Have Lunch with a Grandparent…and Listen. There is a Tswana proverb that says, “the Young Bird does not crow until he hears the old ones.” While it is likely that your grandparent (or a grandparent you happen to know) was not a slave, their shorter generational distance from the institution is likely to reveal a great deal. The best part about hearing history from an elder seated across the table from you is the ability to ask questions and receive nuanced answers.

3. Visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There’s a reason why tickets to this 2016 addition to the Smithsonian Institution are so hard to come by; this museum is EVERYTHING. Established by an Act of Congress in 2003, and curated over decades, this jewel of an African-American historical treasury contains more than 36,000 artifacts and an almost overwhelming amount of knowledge dating back to the 15th century. When I visited, I expected to cry, and I did. But I was also filled with an astounding sense of pride. What African-Americans have endured—and all that we have created in spite of it—has boosted my sense of self in ways I would have never imagined before.

4. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. History books aren’t the only sources of history on American Slavery. All throughout U.S. history, there have been African-American writers who have given both biographical and fictionalized accounts of the truth of slavery and its legacy. Yes, the stories can be raw. But while history books give an often dispassionate account of the way of things, these African-American tales reveal depths of emotion and establishes a connection to the past and its implications in a unique and powerful way. Here is a list of authors to start with.

Birth of a Nation

5. Watch the Story Unfold on Screen. Along with outstanding books, many excellent films have been made to articulate the terrors, oddities, and realizations of the American slave trade. All of the films on this list are available to rent and/or stream in the comfort of your own home. Pop popcorn. Keep both your favorite beverage and a box of tissues nearby. Watch with a friend or two. Don’t be afraid to pause to discuss as the story progresses.

How do you educate your kids about slavery?

Nikki Igbo is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and political junkie. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Political Science from California State University at Fullerton and a Masters in Fine Arts of Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. When not staring in disbelief at the antics unfolding on CSPAN, she enjoys philosophical arguments with her husband, 70’s era music and any excuse to craft with glitter. Feel free to check out her freelance services at nikigbo.com and stalk her on twitter @nikigbo or Instagram at @nikigbo

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