by elle | 12/08/2008 04:07:00 AM
***crossposted at elle, phd***

When I took an African American literature class as an undergrad, my teacher tried to demonstrate to us physically the nature of the middle passage. Nothing in a well-lit, comfortably-temperatured university classroom can suffice, but she tried anyway.

She had all of us who would, to gather into a corner and move closer and closer to each other until the girl nearest to the wall asked that we stop. Many of us were visibly shaken, unable to put words to our feelings when the professor asked.

It was a voluntary activity and I still have mixed feelings about it (she did not tell us that we would be closing in on ourselves).

And we were, in terms of age, adults.

k8 sent me this article about a similarly-minded teacher of middle-school children:
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – A white social studies teacher attempted to enliven a seventh-grade discussion of slavery by binding the hands and feet of two black girls, prompting outrage from one girl's mother and the local chapter of the NAACP. After the mother complained to Haverstraw Middle School, the superintendent said he was having "conversations with our staff on how to deliver effective lessons."

"If a student was upset, then it was a bad idea,"* said Superintendent Brian Monahan of the North Rockland School District in New York City's northern suburbs.

There are so many levels of wrong in this that I won't pretend that I can address or even see them all. It's not a matter of being age inappropriate (my point above was that I don't know if such activities are appropriate for any age in a classroom setting). But I am struck by the fact that the teacher called on two teenagers, two girls who, like so many teenagers, may have been inordinately self-conscious of being the center of their classmates' attention in what they perceived as a negative light.

And then she thought it was okay to BIND them. To tie their hands and feet. With apparently no thought of how traumatic that may have been, no knowledge of any experiences these girls may have had that BINDING them might trigger, no thought to how absolutely powerless and vulnerable and scared it makes you feel when some one else strips you of the ability to control or move your own body.

She also did not think about what these girls' perception of slavery was. So many black people are taught that it was shameful for slaveowners and the enslaved. That the whole identity of our ancestors was subsumed by the designation "slave," because so much of that history comes from the slaveowners. That there must have been no pride, no dignity, no agency, no self-definition.

And always, beneath the surface, is an unspoken accusation of almost-complicity--that people of African descent accepted slavery and the Jim Crow aftermath meekly until the 1950s. One of my comps questions was about the "lack" of what would commonly be called slave uprisings. One of my white male students in my African American history class asked me, when we discussed Redemption, "Why didn't black people do something, stand up for themselves?" and none of my responses was enought to change his opinion or stop the dismissive shake of his head.

I have heard black people my whole life say, "I couldn't have lived back then, because I would have..." We are ashamed because we were taught the "happy darkies working in the field and being beneficently cared for" lie so long. We are also taught that our "honorable" history begins and ends with the Civil Rights Movement.

And she asked those girls to assume all of that in a classroom:
On Nov. 18, [Eileen] Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships. She bound the two students' hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience.
If her point is to teach that the middle passage was devastatingly traumatic, why would she want middle-schoolers to re-enact it?
*Emphasis mine, because I didn't realize there was a correlation between students' " upsetness" and the determination of whether or not something is a "bad idea."

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Blogger zunguzungu on 12/08/2008 11:28 AM:

That a white teacher would think binding black children's hands in the context of this particular history lesson is just behind words.

But it's interesting that so many approaches to slavery as historical problem are so firmly rooted in the approach that Stowe took in Uncle Tom's Cabin: solidarity through shared emotional experience. Since when does feeling someone else's trauma do anything at all to make that wrong right? The myth that simply "being aware" of something like Darfur will help to resolve that conflict is a pernicious one, and we so often substitute "being aware" for actual activism. That's not the worst thing going on in these episodes, of course, but it's worth thinking about why we would think making students place themselves in the position of the victims of past crimes would somehow teach them about them about those crimes(especially when, as you note, the narrative of black acceptance of slavery allows people to imagine that they themselves are different). Being aware of trauma doesn’t teach you to understand those traumas as history, does it?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 12/11/2008 3:32 PM:

You know, I've wrestled with this, and I'm not certain I agree with Zunguzungu. Obviously what Ms. Bernstein did was abhorrent, and I think Elle captures why very eloquently. But the basic idea behind Elle's instructor's attempt to recreate the cramped conditions of the middle passage (despite the questionable nature of the actualization) strikes me as a good one. One goal of history is to help us to de-other people who are different from us, and one form of that is the "never again" idea. I think making students feel a bit of what it was like to be othered so devastatingly is good inoculation against their gleefully othering people when they grow up. It's hard to advocate shooting people when you yourself have been shot at, or to blindly ignore suffering when you yourself have suffered. Short of making all people experience real suffering, which is obviously a bad idea, simulating it briefly, in an inclusive way, in the classroom seems like a fine idea to me.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 12/12/2008 10:31 AM:

It's true that creating empathy is an important part of what makes history a humanistic discipline. It's not a solution to social ills because people are much more complicated than that. But it's a necessary part of the historian's toolkit: the recreation of the mentalité of historical actors/milieux.

My problem with the exercise as described above: it conflates moral education with historical education. While I believe that history has moral import, I don't believe that the lessons are simple: it's all very well to say "don't enslave people" but what does it mean in a global economy? Also, it was poorly planned -- you don't dump people into "experience" without context, preparation.