What would the children learn about the plantation’s history? How would the lives of enslaved people who lived there be presented? And why was a group of first-graders going there in the first place when there were so many other options for educational field trips?
“Will we see slaves there?” her then 7-year-old asked in spring 2017. In an essay she wrote for The Washington Post, Harris recalled replying, “I had to tell her no, but then, yes, you would have been a slave.”
Parents and teachers throughout the country grapple with when to start teaching young children of all races about the United States’ slavery past and how best to do that. Some believe that the history of slavery is too hard for young children to understand and that it is better to wait until later in elementary school or middle school to introduce the subject. Some say the best approach is to start early, introducing children as young as 5 by using picture books about slavery that are not graphic but also don’t play down the experience. Some want to avoid the subject altogether.
Harris volunteered to be a chaperone on the field trip. If her child was going to visit a former plantation, she wanted to make sure her daughter wouldn’t be served a whitewashed version of history that ignored the racism, cruelty and economic exploitation that made life so profitable and enjoyable for one group of people and miserable for another.
The results were mixed.
“I felt resentment that this story was still being told as a white, wealthy entree, with black people and slavery as a side dish,” Harris said in a recent interview about the visit.
“Then, I felt some pride as my daughter seemed to hold her own among her peers. But I shouldn’t have to choose between or hold both of these emotions,” she said.
Finding books and lessons that deal with slavery honestly and appropriately can be difficult. In just the past five years, two books aimed at young children have prompted a wide backlash because of how they portray enslaved people in the early United States.
“A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” a 2016 picture book, was recalled by the publisher weeks after its release because of widespread objections to the depiction of enslaved people happily preparing for their owner’s birthday in colonial Philadelphia. At one point, the narrator, a young girl, says, “Me and Papa and all our family are among the slaves who belong to President Washington. Next to the president’s personal servant, Billy Lee, Papa is the slave President and Mrs. Washington trust the most.”
Upon its recall, the book’s publisher, Scholastic, wrote, “We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.”
Another children’s book, “A Fine Dessert,” published in 2015, also was criticized for painting a rosy picture of slavery. Aimed at 4-to-8-year-olds, the illustrated book depicted an enslaved mother and daughter serving a dessert to their owners and then happily taking the bowl into a kitchen closet to “lick it clean.”
The book’s author, Emily Jenkins, later apologized, saying: “I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry.”
The problem with books such as these isn’t that they are intentionally or menacingly racist, critics say, but that they reinforce a genial notion of slavery that continues to mask the pernicious truth.
“The kinds of materials that we have to teach kids about this subject are very limited. It’s really the third rail in early-childhood education,” said Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who has catalogued how slavery is represented in children’s literature.
“We still haven’t reconciled that slavery was this terrible institution and a founding element of our country,” Thomas said.
Young children need to read books that present a true experience of slavery, with all of its hardships and inequity, Thomas said, but that also recognize and lift the cultures of enslaved African Americans and their ability to persist and continue their fight for freedom.
She points to Angela Johnson’s “All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom,” “Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave” by Laban Carrick Hill and “Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom” by Shane W. Evans as examples of age-appropriate books for young children that don’t shy away from an honest presentation of slavery.
One difficulty for teachers is a fear that the reality of slavery will be overwhelming for young students. Instead, many educators choose to teach triumphant stories about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad or Frederick Douglass that celebrate enslaved people escaping to freedom. But many young students don’t yet fully comprehend what slavery entailed or why the runaways need to flee. So they are introduced to tales of heroic escapes from slavery without really knowing what it was.
In guidelines it issued recently for teaching young children about slavery, Teaching Tolerance, a nonprofit project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues: “Slavery is a fundamental part of United States history. Just as history instruction begins in elementary school, so too should learning about slavery.
“Sugarcoating or ignoring slavery until later grades makes students more upset by or even resistant to true stories about American history,” the guidelines say.
Some parents who want to make sure their young children are aware of slavery’s past have taken it upon themselves to research and track down appropriate material.
Rebekah Gienapp, a Methodist minister in Memphis who is white, said she addressed on her blog, TheBarefootMommy.com, what children should learn about slavery because her young son, now 7, was reaching an age at which she thought he needed to become aware of the history.
“I was thinking about how to introduce some of these complex ideas to my child in a way that’s age-appropriate and won’t overwhelm him,” she said in an interview. “In high school, they can be taught the more complex truth, but if we don’t talk to them in the younger years about slavery and resistance, they won’t be able to have those conversations when they are teenagers.”
Gienapp, 41, attended Memphis public schools, where most students were black, and credits teachers with giving her a deeper understanding of the role slavery played in the United States and how its legacy continued to affect black Americans long after it was banned. But it wasn’t until she was an adult that Gienapp realized her experience differed from many others of her generation.
The experience of African Americans, particularly under slavery, often was ignored at the expense of other narratives, including ones that painted a more sympathetic portrait of slaveholding secessionists. Her home state, for instance, still has official days of observation for the birthdays of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
On her blog, Gienapp recommends 11 books to help teach young children about slavery, including “In the Time of the Drums,” by Kim L. Siegelson, and “Freedom in Congo Square,” by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
As she delves deeper into the country’s troubled past, she learns more about her connections to it. This summer, in tracing her family genealogy, Gienapp discovered multiple ancestors who owned slaves.
“I feel a personal responsibility to tell the truth about this history to all children, including my own,” she said.
Childhood education experts agree that reaching students at an early age with facts, rather than myths about slavery, is essential for a transformation of learning.
Elementary school students “want to create a more just and equal society,” Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, said when announcing the new guidelines. “Teaching them about American slavery, when done properly, can build on these instincts, create a firm foundation for later learning and help them understand how the world in which they live came about.”
About the project: Teaching Slavery
For this project on how slavery is taught, The Washington Post interviewed more than 100 students, teachers, administrators and historians throughout the country and sat in on middle school and high school history classes in Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Germantown, Md.; Concord, Mass.; Broken Arrow, Okla.; and Washington, D.C.
The articles in this project examine the lessons students are learning about slavery, obstacles faced by teachers in teaching this difficult subject, the right age to introduce hard concepts about slavery to young students and how teachers connect the history of slavery to 21st-century racism and white supremacy. Our focus is on public schools because teaching choices are made by elected policymakers and school officials who determine curriculum and whose decisions are implemented by administrators and teachers whose salaries are publicly funded. Find other stories from the project here.