Jan 22, 2012

Teaching Slavery in Schools through Empathy Writing: Insensitive or Powerful?

I remember it pretty clearly--as clearly as someone can remember something that happened 30 years ago. The fact that I remember it at all really means something, because most of what happened 30 years ago is pretty hazy.  I was in junior high school. 7th grade. He was my history teacher. A big, burly, flannel-shirt wearing bearded man that reminded me a lot of Grizzly Adams. He was definitely a gentle bear who you wouldn't want to mess with. He made history come alive for me.

The 7th grade curriculum at my junior high covered what is, in my mind, one of the darkest periods of American History--the Civil War era. Mr. S taught us that the origins of the conflict really came much earlier, with the beginnings of slavery. He taught us about the slave trade in a brutally honest way, asking us to put ourselves in the place of an African, stolen from her family, shackled and stacked against strangers on a ship bound for the U.S., land of "opportunity." His lectures were graphic and disturbing. He wanted us to learn the truth: that human beings are capable of doing terrible things to each other. He wanted us to learn about slavery so that if we ever witnessed someone attempting to steal a human being away from their home and family, we would not stand aside and allow it to happen. He wanted us to understand our present world in the context of what occurred in the past. He believed that by learning history we could prevent humanity from making the same mistakes twice.

Image Credit: Flickr/Olivia Hotshot 
We read slave narratives and looked at primary source documents that left no doubt about man's ability to be inhuman. I will never forget the final assignment for our unit on slavery: a writing project that asked us to  synthesize all we'd learned. "Put yourself in the place of an African who has been stolen from her family, and write a series of journal entries from her perspective." That assignment led to my first experience with the power of empathy.  I put myself in the place of an enslaved African and wrote a heart-wrenching series of journal entries that changed the way I looked at people. In fact, I would argue that it changed me forever.

Flash forward 30 years. I've spent some hours here on this blog thinking about and discussing the issue of cultural appropriation, and how it compares to the inspiration many artists/writers/musicians say they get from learning about another culture. My 7th grade teacher asked me to put myself into the experience of someone else and write about it. That writing was powerful. I learned from the act of writing (but I didn't publish my work, claim to be any kind of expert, or profit from what I wrote. That writing was only for myself and my teacher.)

This week a middle school teacher has come under fire for making a similar assignment. "Pretend you are a slave in the southern United States. Write a journal/diary memoir about your life."  A student felt uncomfortable with this assignment and told his mother, who is biracial, that he didn't want to do it. She says, "For him to pretend to be something he's never been or never will be, that's going too far." She requested action from school administrators and says she has not yet received a satisfactory response.

I am puzzling this out, just like the inspiration vs. appropriation pieces, because I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, I know first hand how powerful such an assignment can be if given in the appropriate context. I know, both as a teacher and as a learner, that some of the most powerful learning comes from those moments where we are uncomfortable. Pushing ourselves to stretch our imagination, our math ability, or our understanding of foreign ideas---that is how we learn, and it is not always comfortable or neat. Learning is messy; it stirs things up. But I say all of that as a white woman, whose ancestors weren't slaves. Maybe an assignment asking me to pretend I am someone from my own family, who suffered such inhumanity, would be more than just uncomfortable. It might even be painful.

There were definitely black kids in my junior high school history class. I don't remember talking about anything as serious as our history assignments back then, so I don't know how it felt for my friend Traci to write about her ancestors' suffering. But this news story has given me pause. As my son picks his classes for junior high next year I wonder if he will learn about slavery, if his teacher will ask him to write from the point of view of a slave, and how we will respond to that. 

How would you respond?


  1. I think I wouldn't have an issue with my kids writing about it. Stretching the imagination to feel what someone might have felt is never a bad thing in my book.

  2. You're right Jen. This assignment is powerful. The teacher should give the students the option of writing as the oppressor, the oppressed, and the option to write as both for extra credit. I would imagine that if one is oppressed every day, it may be too close to home to ask a child to write about about 'imaginary' (real) history of their own oppression. It could be that not every child is emotionally ready for such a serious adult topic. I know adults who don't want to hear (or talk about) heavy topics such as this. 

  3. Wow, great food for thought! I can see both sides. As a writer, I immediately began to imagine what a powerful and appreciated project that would be for me. But as a mother and trying to imagine myself as a mother whose history came directly from that painful time period, I think it would be hard. I wonder how we (as white Americans) would feel if someone as our children to write a story about *being* a slave owner. That might make us more uncomfortable than we'd like. Overall, as an adult I am extraordinarily interested in finding ways to move out of my comfort zone. But that's my choice. For my child, I definitely would hope that the assignment would be presided over by a very thoughtful and compassionate teacher.

  4. That should be "asked" our children. Not "as."

  5. Your conversation on FB about the comments in the article is also really interesting, though, Glenn. Are kids always asked to write from the point of view of the oppressed? I keep wondering if we should give kids a choice between writing from the point of view of the slave or of the slave owner. Maybe people would worry about it being disturbing to have kids write from the point of view of a slave owner? 

  6. I totally agree with you that having a kid come home and write from the point of view of a slave owner would be uncomfortable. Just recently in my classroom (all white kids) we read the book A Time to Kill. When I was trying to come up with a list of projects for them to choose from at the end of the book, I decided to offer them the choice of researching the KKK. I honestly didn't think many of them would choose it. In fact, I worried that if they did choose it, I would be FREAKED out! When almost all of them chose that project it really did freak me out! My family picture is right there in my classroom, and I worried that my little project was going to put my kids in danger... BUT it turns out that the kids were horrified by the KKK in the book. They wanted to learn more about the history of such an evil group of people, hoping to understand why they exist. They learned that the KKK is still active, and it bothered them. In the end, although it was very uncomfortable to me to have white kids researching the KKK, they learned something and are now more aware of the reality people of color still face in our society. Learning is uncomfortable sometimes. But you make a good point--the context of the assignment and how it is presented by the teacher is very important.

  7. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jasmine! Empathy is a powerful teaching tool, that's for sure. 

  8. May I suggest a 
    further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.

    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and
    information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles,
    conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and
    much more about empathy and compassion.


    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy
    Center Facebook page.


  9. Thank you Edwin! I already "Like" The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy on Facebook and follow you on Google Plus, however I am not very active on those sites. Are you on Twitter? 

    Thanks for the invitation to post a link! I hadn't thought of doing that. 

  10. I would be pleased as punch if my kids got this assignment. Empathy is not a value taught in Japanese schools.

    I took a university class on early 20th century history in which one assignment was designed to make us all as uncomfortable as possible, and I had to write a diary as a white supremacist woman from that time. It was hard. But figuring out why people turned to that is the first step in stopping it.

    School is not meant to be comfortable, it is meant to be challenging.

  11. In many cases, empathy is not taught in the U.S. either, Medea. It is generally not part of the curriculum unless a teacher decides to add it in. Do Japanese teachers have to follow a rigid, regimented curriculum?
    Your assignment sounds totally powerful. I agree that figuring out why people turned to that supremacy is a first step. My grandmother lived in Germany during Hitler's rule and she was very supportive of Hitler as a child. I was horrified when I found out about her past viewpoint (still hard to think about!) But research and learning taught me that most Germans were extremely poor before Hitler came to power. My grandmother had a roof over her head and food in her belly during his reign. As a child, that's all she knew: he "saved" her, while the Allied powers bombed her house. Her poverty led her to turn a blind eye to Hitler's atrocities. I imagine it was like that for a lot of Germans at the time. As soon as I learned that, I knew...we need to make sure that poverty doesn't blind anyone. We need to eradicate poverty. No one should have that kind of power over a nation. 

    Thanks so much for your comment!


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