Rethinking Race and Slavery at 400 Years
“How many of you are teachers? I bet almost everyone in this room. Well, I’m just a parent from Hartford who heard about this conference and wanted my two sons to be involved. I try to show them that they have to be a part of change. They have to understand what’s happening in the world. And today, they witnessed dedicated teachers ask the questions, ‘How do we help?’ and, ‘How do we create change?’ Today, you gave us a lot to discuss at home. Today, my sons saw that teachers are here to help them. Thank you.”
— Akinlawon Tripp, prospective parent
On Friday, November 8, 2019, Avon Old Farms School hosted the Rethinking Race & Slavery at 400 Years conference to mark the quadricentennial of the origins of slavery at Jamestown. The goal was to identify and challenge conventions of teaching and scholarship about slavery and race in the classroom.
“About a year ago, I was struck by a comment my mentor Dick Brown made over dinner: If he could go back and do it all over again, he would put slavery at the center of his history courses,” shared conference director Chris Doyle, Ph.D., history teacher at Avon Old Farms School. “The conversation that ensued combined with 2019 being the 400th anniversary of the introduction of African slaves into North America was the impetus for this conference...This anniversary comes at a moment of heightened political polarization and heated discussion surrounding race and racism today. Is America a ‘post-racial’ society, or do we continue to avoid reckoning with the legacies of slavery? I organized this conference with hopes that academics would come together to seek out new directions in scholarship and classroom approaches to race and racism.”
To kick off the conference, keynote speaker Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, author of Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap and Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity, presented an idea he hopes to explore in his next book. First, Ogbar recapped a series of three existing frameworks that are used when discussing black culture in America: Integration, Black Nationalism, and a Radical Black Tradition. Using a story from General William Sherman’s march through Georgia in the closing phases of the Civil War, Ogbar identified a fourth black tradition: the desire of former slaves in the path of Sherman’s march to support American nationalism, to have the means of making a living (at the time, the goal was forty acres of farmland per family), and also to live in unique black communities.
The introduction of an entirely new framework through which we can view race, racism, and African-American responses to them set the tone for the rest of the conference. Twenty-three scholars from across the United States and as far away as England presented ideas which Dr. Doyle thoughtfully organized into three categories:
- Race as a Political, Cultural, and Educational Problem
- Slavery and Race Taught and Commemorated
- Rethinking Discourses of Race and Slavery
Race as a Political, Cultural, and Educational Problem
In one ‘Race as a Political, Cultural, and Educational Problem’ session covered by the Hartford Courant, public school teachers presented a paper arguing that teaching young children about the history of racism can help shrink Connecticut’s achievement gap.
“Young children notice racism [and] internalize it, but can’t explain why it happens,” Natalie Stapert said. “They need to understand the historical context of our nation and our society, so they can correctly explain and disrupt its effects."
Following that presentation, LaQuanda Walters Cooper, of George Mason University, conducted a teaching demonstration on how to create a ‘Gallery Walk’ inside the classroom using accessible programs and materials to create age-appropriate lessons with which students can engage.
Slavery and Race Taught and Commemorated
In another session from the ‘Slavery and Race Taught and Commemorated’ category, Barbra Mann Wall, of the University of Virginia, reviewed a paper she wrote in 2010 and utilized her own oversights as an example of how even those with the best intentions can create a one-sided argument based on available archives.
Her original paper focused on the Red Cross’s response to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, but after bearing witness to the ‘Unite the Right’ rally of August 12, 2017, Mann Wall began to see the world through a new lens. She was kept up at night by thoughts about the events in her own community and eventually began to rethink some of her own academic work.
“My original paper cited a quote referencing the Red Cross Nurses as ‘angels of mercy,’ and of course, that was the lens through which I wrote my paper,” she said. “But upon a second review, I decided to reinterpret my own writing with more inclusive storylines.”
In her search for those storylines, details were uncovered that shed light on how archives themselves can be skewed. Articles discussing the riots all came from the Tulsa World newspaper. Where were the articles from the Tulsa Star, the black community’s paper? As it turns out, the newspaper’s building was a victim of the riot. There was no longer a paper to report on the riot from the black perspective. And what about the volunteers from Black Cross Nurses? It turns out that they showed up to the aftermath of the riots only to be told by the governor that they were not needed. Mann Wall’s insistence on including black narratives in her paper uncovered new insight: a lack of perspective existed in the archives because black stories were not archived like white stories were.
Our Hope For the Future
These are just two of 11 exceptional learning opportunities that were packed into a one-day schedule. While commemorating 400 years since the inception of slavery in America, the conference was also a resource for nearly 100 attendees, many of whom were Connecticut-based teachers facing a recent mandate that every public high school must offer a class on African-American history by 2020. Educators left Avon Old Farms with a library of resources and a new network of educators willing to help usher in a new way of teaching history and race in America.
In speaking with presenters, attendees, and students, one thing became clear throughout the conference: the best way to teach history is to tell stories—American stories; Black stories; Real stories. By making history real, we hope that students continue to see America as a story of progress, but will come to realize that we’re still dealing with the legacy of our past in a very real way every day.
“I’m reeling from everything I have heard today,” Dr. Doyle said in his closing remarks. “I’ve told our students that academic conferences are places to test ideas. I think some of today’s ideas will help me reexamine my own classroom and help me shift slavery into the center of how I teach American history.”
We thank Dr. Doyle for his leadership and hope our students and conference attendees also found some inspiration for change through this endeavor.