Too Young to Learn About Slavery?

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  • One of Roland Martin’s recent guests was a mom who was upset with her five-year-old son’s elementary school because she thought the lesson on slavery went too far. Parts of it included a take–home survey with questions about slavery, a coloring book page depicting a slave auction and, the biggest offender, according to his mom, acting out a slave auction in class.

    So, the story and the mom’s reaction sparked a bit of a controversy and the question had to be asked: Is five years old too young to learn about slavery?

    Most people I talked to agreed that the discussion of slavery should begin at childhood, but they disagreed about the re-enactment of the slave auction. They also felt five-years-old might be a little young, but I don’t think so.

    I even asked First Lady Michelle Obama at what age she thought discussing slavery was appropriate.  She said it’s up to each family to decide, but as for the Obamas, they began discussing Black history when their girls were very young. (You can hear the interview in its entirety here.)

    I agree with the First Lady’s point. When a child begins to learn about his or her own identity, who their parents and grandparents and other ancestors are, they should learn the truth about how they got here. Why skirt around OUR truth? OUR history?

    I also believe that white people should talk about it with their families as well. We spend too much time in this country ignoring the elephant in the room.  We will never get any closer to having a real conversation on racism if black AND white people aren’t willing to acknowledge not just our roots in this country but the impact it’s had on us all… as individuals and a nation.  As I said in my book, “I’m Just a D.J. But it Makes Sense to Me,” everything wrong with black America can be traced back to slavery—poverty, many of our health problems, insecurities,  abusive behavior towards other and ourselves—all of it.  Is that to say we would be a perfect race had we not been slaves?  (I know that’s where the critics were going.) No. Is it to say black people are a race of poor, violent people who are messed up in the head? (I’m one step ahead of you.) Not saying that either. I am saying that being kidnapped from our homeland, separated from our family members, forbidden to marry or learn to read,  and beaten and, in some cases, treated worse than animals, has left some scars that have lasted throughout history. We can put on the best suits, uniforms, jerseys, choir robes and costumes, but none of those things erase what’s underneath.

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    44 thoughts on “Too Young to Learn About Slavery?

    1. I agree with CandycoatedApple. Teaching young children about slavery is of no benifit to their young minds. I believe we should be filling them with all of our accomplishments while they are young so that they can believe in their possiblities. Teaching slavery, especially in school just reinforces for our children that they have lots to overcome. Give them a minute to develope and grow without having to feel the anger of a condition they have no control over.

    2. If you’re going to talk about slavery, go all the way back, not just to where it speaks about your family or race but talk about the fact that EVERY race has been enslaved at one point or another, even white people were slaves in America and Britain much longer after blacks were “freed” by most, though many would not free some but instead killed them.

    3. I think teaching them about slavery from an early age is fine, those born into it didn’t get to wait until they were “older” to learn about it. As for the African-American part, I always thought we were all just Americans whose ancestors came from different parts of the world. Some people’s ancestors came because they wanted to, others were forced, but either way we all ended up here. We need to stop differentiating ourselves and join as one! We are all Americans who are individuals, we have different histories and different beliefs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still work and be as one! Until everyone gets an understanding that no one is better than anyone else, we will remain divided and at odds. :(

    4. As my mom always told me, “charity starts at home”. We HAVE to teach our children about slavery as young as possible, so that they will know the history of their brown skin in this country and the world. It is our duty as a parent teach our children of the past. Look at that young man in college in Alabama who had a confederate flag in his dorm window because he was proud to be from the south. Somewhere in his home before he left for college or even high school, he didn’t learn about the history of slavery in this country. PARENTS please teach your children about their heritage and the history of this country.

    5. It’s the truth it happened and we need to face that. I taught preschoolers for 30 years and they love role playing it can be done you have to be aware of the developemental stage and senseitivy of the child. When they hear it later for the first time it can case confusion and deep anger.
      It is apart of the history of our country and of our people .

    6. i am from jasper ala and i agree with michelle obama because down here in jasper we are asking for investing on distrit attorney bill adair and judge jerry selma because of racism bill adair is a racism years ago i was told that a black man killed is daddy in a home invasion so u tell me do he have hatered for blacks they are trying to send all young black mens that has a charge against them in the district court system away for life giving them 50 60 70 years while the whites get off with a slap on the wrist during black history a young man killed his self after a recess durning his trial they was giving this man 3 life sentence for something he did not do,being at the wrong place at the wrong time the witness even said that the young man didnt do anything at first then after the district attorney found out that the witness which was white had a pending case on her she changed her story so u no the d. a made a deal with her.we need help here in walker county if a black man kills a black man they get 10 or 15 years but shoot a white man u r gone for the rest of your life ,they r sending us back in slavery,but doing a different way.they locking all our young black mens up for life,no probation for 1st. offense in drug charges u getting 50 years or more what do that tell u

    7. Of course children should be taught about slavery as soon as it comes up in the conversation. It should be age/comprehension level appropriate and as with other cruel parts of history, children MUST be taught about slavery and how it relates to them, their family and friends.

      I’m pretty sure that the mother had underlying reasons for getting SO upset about the lesson being presented by her child’s teacher, we just don’t know what they were. It is a parent’s responsibility to teach the child about its history. The backlash the mother received necessitated her going public to repair her image, but clearly, there’s more to the story.

    8. I don’t see how teaching kids about slavery has been beneficial to blacks. What have we learned from this? How has this strengthened the community? How has this brought people together? I’m pretty sure that the gov’t doesn’t want to end slavery lessons because they know that it keeps people from prospering, among other things, or lack thereof, are taught. What would happen if blacks were to “break free” from slavery and let it go. They tell you that if you don’t hold on to it then history will repeat itself, so whatever you do, don’t ever forget, don’t over-come it… hold on to it, treasure it…. Well, that’s been done… what hasn’t been done is greater focus on grades, learning, education, building businesses, creating something… that hasn’t been tried yet. Just keeping with the status quo won’t change anything, it hasn’t yet… and it never will.

    9. Black people are still enslaved today. If you accept gov’t assistance then your master is the government. If you really want to change your world, reject gov’t assistance and go out and invent something, offer a service, start a charity or an organization… get off the gov’t plantation and make your own way in this life, otherwise, you only go as far as your gov’t check will allow you to go. Break free, take a chance, take risks, make careful decisions. Have a goal and make choices that lead you in the direction you want to go… that’s how successful people succeed.

    10. Let’s ensure the next generation perpetuates the victim mentality and holds on to those good ol’ excuses for why they can’t make it in the world. God forbid we make kids do their homework, be in bed by 8 or 9pm, make them read for 30 minutes everynight.

    11. I am appalled at how many Blacks and whites that believe slavery was demeaning for the slaves and not the ones who held slaves. In explaining slavery to young or old I let it be known born Black was never wrong but the reaction to people of color was due to evil within the person. I do no understand why shame and angry is associated with what another group of people did. if a woman is raped I don’t think she is bad because it happened to her I labelled the rapist as the bad one.

    12. I am overwhelmed by the majority understanding what we need as a people. it seems no matter where i go when i talk to others concerning our plight i find we are all on the same page. so why do we have such a hard time dealing with it ? i believe the history that is not told and not understood is the key to preventing the mentality we currently have. our children need to be emotionally charged by something other than bad rap music , videos and shopping. there is a movement that needs to take place and the energy needed to support it comes from our youth.our history does not start at slavery. based on the history i have come to understand most of the things we enjoy as modern comes from our ancestors and to this day the richest continent on the planet for natural resources is our motherland. the reason we are treated with such malcontent is our TRUE HISTORY.

    13. Learning about one’s family history or any kind of history may not necessarily be filled with tales of all the good things that we would have liked to happen to us. We need to learn to relate to the good as well as the bad in order to be able to grow as adults and as a people. When will be as humans quit sweeping unwanted information under the rug because we don’t want to talk or hear about it. You don’t have to make a big deal about anything, but there are ways to talk with younger children about their history and not traumatize them. Life is changing too fast for us to believe that simply ignoring things will make them easier to handle. As Black people we need to learn to accept where we have been so that we can go on with our future. I always learned that your mistakes are what make you a better person, even though we did not totally create our slavery, we were there. We must look at it as our past and not our future.

    14. I can understand the part about the reenactment. I would not hand a 5 year old Black child to a white child to reenact slavery. It if it’s fitting then when they are older students that can be done but as an educator and counselor , I realize that some role play is feels totally real. I think that’s really what made the mother upset. It’s okay to learn about slavery but be appropriate in the teaching of it.

    15. No matter how abusive, offensive and humiliating slavery was the main fact is that IT WAS! and will always be a part of our history. I do believe that the school could have prepared the parents so that they would have been aware of the sensitive nature of what was going to be taught that way the parents would have had time to get involved early on in the lessons….however it but frustrates me to no end when people become so ‘offended’ but the TRUTH—- yet daily you see 3 and 4 year old children dance like they swung off a stripper poles or rap a whole 3 min rap song that calls a female a ‘bitch’ and a ho then allow little boys to were an earring and ‘swag’ yet don t want them to be taught about their history which will ultimately be repeated because of their lack of knowledge……..sometimes we ‘fight’ the wrong battles?

    16. I agree with you Mr. Joyner, it is because of the lack of knowledge that people perish. After I read the comments from Roland’s post, I began to think about the pics that I’ve seen of little boy and girl slaves around the same age of the parents child. As I gazed at this particular pic, I wondered how could they endure what we don’t even want to talk about!! How? It had to come from parents,grandparents(imagine they could have been sold at any point) but somebody had to teach them the harsh realities,or at some point they experienced it, even at that young age. So if they LIVED it and DIED in it, why can’t we teach our children (who have a CHOICE and a VOICE) about the rigors of their HERITAGE, how children their age were once beaten, sold or worst died in the bonds of slavery. Why wouldn’t we educate our children about those that journeyed before them. And how they were able to perceiver in spite of their HORRIBLE trials.we NEED to educate our CHILDREN! Little ones BLED and DIED in slavery too. And that was their REALITY!! The main reality for kids today is reality tv. Parents lets get it together! The ancestors who were in BONDAGE held it together the best way they could, for me and for you. That’s why today we have a voice and a choice. Lets teach our children the WHOLE truth.

    17. What better way to learn who we are, why we do what we do, and most of all where do we come from? When I was in elementary school we were only taught about who was a slave and the impact it had on Blacks in America. There was nothing about lynching, rape, divsion and the evilness that we still experience in our relationship with ourselves family etc. There were no examples of the “Willie Lynch Letter” to educate me on how we were forced to develop contention, and disconnection among each other. Nothing except God and my religious beliefs to teach me how not to be and to help me set standards to live by an example to my friends, family etc. Slavery was and is a very big part of our history it should be taught as soon as our children are old enough to understand who, what, and where we came from. To be able to identify and see the past only helps us to make sure history doesn’t repeat it self and to give truth to the lies our children, childrens, and grandchildren will find waiting for them at some point in their lives. America has no problem teaching our children that Lincoln freed the slaves (he did no such thing it was not his intentions), or that Columbus discovered American…these lies have been told so long that the truth is hard to understand for someone seeking to find oneself. Let’s begin by being honest with our roots, how nice to know that somewhere down the line I may have come from royalty I may have decended from Kings, Queens, and great scholars. My grandchildren need to know the truth there is pride in knowing, understanding and being aware of our past our future depends on being educated enough to know the horrors, mistreatment, and the glory we have in just making it alive through struggles and perservance that our ancestors went through just so we could read, write and someday see a Black man in a house we built instead of hanging from one of the old oaks trees in front of the White House! Teach the children set examples by reading about slavery…despite the harshness there was joy, blessings and strength behind who we are and what we’ve become. We are still due 40 Acres and a mule…this debt should be paid in free education that will wipe out ignorance that surrounds our knowing who we are, where we’re going and how long it will take us to get there. After all you can’t take by education once it’s received. JR

    18. Our history didn’t begin in slavery and no one talks about that. I believe if we start doing our family history and genealogy that’s a good teacher and when you see what your family has done the enthusiasm about connections will be better

    19. I forgot to add this. I have many african american friends and MOST do NOT know their own history and that is a SHAME. We need to put hate aside and teach education to ALL for the more we know about the past the more we can change about they future. To be honest, I am still ashamed to be white often, just knowing I am a part of the race that did so much to other humans. My friends laugh at me and some are a little shocked when I say ” sometimes i just cant stand white people” and I am very white. Im proud of my great great great grand father who came from Spain, so I dont call myself “white”

    20. I was born in 1946, white and in Mississippi. I Never got the chance to learn about Black history and slavery. We had ladies who came to our home once in a while to help my mom with housework and I always addressed them as Miss, Violia, ther were two ladies by that name. At 11 years old i could Not understand why I am white child could sit anywhere I wanted on the bus but a poor elderly black lady had to reach in the front door, hand the driver her money them walk to the back of the bus on the outside to get in, rain or shine. I felt guilty and i didnt know why. I have become and very interested person in black history and have many books on that subject as well as the written words from slaves themselves. I think if we had been taught MORE about the history of slavery and how the causacians have always seemed to want to control weveryone and everything, we could have had a better way of living and maybe with Less prejudice about others. Education is the answer to all things. YES teach your children about HUMANS weather they be white, black, red yellow, whom ever just teach TRUTH>

    21. My personal opinion is that a child is never to young to learn about our history. I wish I had of learned it at an early age not waited till I got in my teens.

    22. Too young to learn about the history of his own people? NO, a child is never to young. I am a mother of 5 adult children and an educator for 30 years. The fact that our youth have not been taught important history, facts, and consequences. Many of our youth are spoiled, angry, and a terror to urban America. Teach the children and teach them now, teach them early.

    23. Hello Mr. Joyner I am the mother that was on your show Monday morning speaking about this topic. After reading your blog I felt compelled to post a comment. I totally agree that it is time to teach our kids, but how we teach our kids is just as important as what we teach our kids.

      There are many details to this story that aren’t relevant to this post (such as the teacher’s response, principal’s response, the school board’s response, or the fact that slavery isn’t in the Alabama curriculum until 4th grade) so I’ll spare you with that.

      I can’t be upset that slavery is being taught, it’s a part of American history. The free labor of many of our ancestors is what made this country what it is today. But to begin teaching about slavery without giving proper background creates a poor foundation for learning. If the start of our history is being taught that we started in the cotton fields or on auction blocks, it doesn’t give an honest depiction. If slavery is to be taught, it should be taught honestly. The children should know that before our African ancestors were kidnapped from their homeland, they were people. They were moms and dads, teachers and doctors. They had families, communities, and were natives of the richest and most advanced continent on earth.

      I read where you said , “I want our kids to learn as early as they can, and if doing a re-enactment of a slave auction is the best way to illustrate the point, I’m with that, too.” I have to respectfully disagree with you. I don’t believe that those 5 year old children understood while re-enacting a slave auction they were reduced to mere property, not a human being with feelings or rights. I don’t think they grasped that when slaves were really “sold” they never saw their families again. They can’t understand that because of their skin color they were demonized, beaten, killed, held in captivity and forced into free labor. Standing on a mock auction block in a kindergarten class couldn’t illustrate that point to those children- could it have illustrated that to you when you were 5? I’m not trying to be anything but a responsible mother, the truth about slavery won’t be skirted in my home. As a parent I have a responsibility to my child to protect from harm: physical, emotional, and psychological. If it’s necessary for me to question teaching methods that may give my child an inferiority complex in an attempt to illustrate the point, I’ll do it.

      I can’t say what is being taught in Jewish schools, I don’t know. I do doubt that to teach about the Holocaust the kids have to re-enact scenes from a concentration camp at 5. We have a responsibility to our children to teach them correctly and in an age appropriate manner, as parents and as community. If we can only teach them by putting them up for sale…I’m not with that.

      • Jamelle, I agree with you wholeheartedly. We understand that five years old were sold back then and had to live it but our five year olds are living in a different time. They should be educated about our history but in an age appropriate manner. I was outraged when I first heard this story. The teacher would have heard from me if my son was subjected to an auction block in kindergarten.

        Continue to ignore the negative statements and be a great mother for your son. Whether people think you are right or wrong, at least you are involved in your son’s education.

    24. What I have noticed in our community is that we are quick to say that is the past. Have you noticed that our past does not exist unless it is attached to a sales receipt? As with any atrocity light has to be shed. As another post said teach it to your children, you the parent.

    25. Hi Tom,
      I think learning about our history is critical to ensuring a security in our future. However, I do not agree that having a child [defined as under the legal age of consent] of any age act out a slave auction! I would be more than angry.

      My daughter, who is now 16, experienced something similar and yet different when she was in the 5th grade [age 10]. We live in a suburb in Maryland and moved here because the schools were better than where we lived in Prince George’s County. First, she was one of only 2 Black children in her class. The other, a mixed race little boy – though not relevant. In Art they were studying artists from the volatile 60′s and one artist in the curriculum is Faith Ringgold. The white teacher thought it appropriate to introduce this illustration to her 5th grade class: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug01/hughes/die.html. Adding insult to injury, she asked my daughter’s best friend at the time [a white girl] to spell out the word that made up the stripes. The little girl, trying to be an obedient student though reluctant, spelled the word N I G G E R. The teacher then stated the word as she pointed out the word “die” that appears subdued in the stars.

      My daughter was very upset by what had happened in her Art class that day. Later that night while at dinner, she shared with us what had happened. I called her friend’s mother and shared what I had learned, and needless to say, both of us made our way to the school first thing Monday morning. I demanded to speak with the principal and the teacher. When I asked the teacher, a white woman, what was her motive behind showing such an image to a bunch of very young, easily influenced children, she replied that she wanted them to start to form their own political viewpoints about race in this country. At age 10, my child’s political viewpoints are those that I tell her. It is not for any teacher or other so-called authority figure outside our home to impress upon them their beliefs or to decide when it’s time for them to learn and be exposed to such ugliness as that which was shared in the classroom that day.

      Certainly there was no way that the teacher or principal to know that my daughter had previously been the victim of discrimination while living in Colorado Springs, and that her exposure to this image in this way brought back those hurtful memories, however, that’s all irrelevant. What is relevant is that politics has no place in the elementary school house, and it is not the school’s responsibility to decide when my child should be forming their own political viewpoints. In any event, I am still not convinced that this was her motivation. Why have a student spell out the word NIGGER in the painting? Why was the student, who happened to be my daughter’s friend, sitting right next to my daughter? How do these things raise their sense of the political environment? In the instance of the subject that started your blog on this topic – what was the teacher’s motive in having the child stand on an auction block to reenact slavery? It’s one thing to learn about it, but do we have to experience it to know how it feels; how it impacted our ancestors; how it continues to impact our present state and future? I think not! The teacher was out of line, and she knows it.

    26. Too young? Never! If being read to routinely, can be taught this major part of we are as a people. Even the auction block was not too far, if all of the children had the opportunity to be “sold”. It is a wonderful object lesson that will be remembered and can be expounded upon as they grow older.

    27. How much more time do we pretend to need in order to learn our history. Black families need to make time to talk about various issues, if they aren´t regularly conversing. In terms of ” putting the kid on the auction block”, the teacher should not have done that. She was not educating the kid about his supposed history, she was empowering the white kids. The mother can be upset about that aspect, but she has to take responsibility for educating her own child.

    28. Everyone has heard the sane “children are like sponges” so they soak up what they see in hear. Its paramount at the young age, when they are figuring out the world around them to have an understanding of where they come from. Today the black community suffers not only from the devastation of slavery but also not having an understanding of who they are or whey they come from. Our youth is assuming that “black” is what they see in media, which is a awful interpretation. This world we live in will give your child an identifty, unless you teach them properly A lot of black people have no understanding of just how much slavery has effected African Americans in present day and its only briefly talked about in schools. Things need to be discussed in the home, and I mean black, white, etc. To me the earlier the better.

    29. I have found, in my 30 years of historical and genealogical research of both African American and Native American History, that many young people (and older ones!) really don’t have a clue about their history…which is why movies such as Roots and D’jango Unchained and/or the documentary from Ken Burns ref Slavery are so shocking. True, unpoliticalized history must be taught…all throughout one’s educational vocation. Teaching history should be geared towards the grade level for appropriate learning/coverage. History should be taught the same way as Math/Algebra/Trig/Cal…all grade learning is a building block for further, more complex learning…I feel that the school systems will have to do a better job in the way that history is being taught. Acting as a slave and standing on a slave block is not my idea of teaching young people about slavery. Slavery was an extremely deep/complicated, economic, oppressed, illegal/Fugitive Slave Laws, United States formulation, Underground Railroad, Slave Codes, Murder, Race Mixing, Consitiution, White Superiority, etc…etc…it’s not just about standing on a block…The United States, historically, has always been good a hiding its own holocaust…I think the reason for this is due to the fact that this holocaust happened to a darker skinned race….however, the United States was quick to embrace the Jewish Holocaust…It is our nature as People to understand what happened to A PEOPLE…..

    30. I don’t think he was too young to learn about slavery. I children need to know and appreciate our history. I would have been impressed had they selected a child of any other race if they really wanted to give the effect of the experience. We already know how it feels. I also had to have a conversation with my sons high school. During black history month the only thing taught in his histroy class in reference to african americans was in relatonship to slavery. No selections or mention of the plethera of african americans who made this country what it is today. Tired but not giving up.

    31. Educating our children regarding their history at five is not to early. Each parent must be able to discern whether their child can understand or will be able to process the brutality of some of our history at an early age. Black history was not taught in our schools and it was a struggle to get it taught, some schools still do not teach it.

    32. If you think Edward`s story is unimaginable,, five weeks ago my cousins best friend also brought home $7627 grafting a sixteen hour week from there house and their neighbor’s mom`s neighbour did this for nine months and brought in more than $7627 in their spare time on there pc. the steps on this page, — Buzz80.ℂOℳ

    33. NO, THE LEARNING OF OUR HISTORY IS THE KEY ELEMENT TO DEALING WITH OUR CURRENT ISSUES. THE AGE IN WHICH A CHILDS LEARNS STARTS IN THE WOMB. AND CHILDREN ARE EXPOSED TO SO MANY OTHER LIFE LESSONS THAT SHOULD NOT BE LEARNED AT ALL. OUR CHILDREN ARE EXPOSED TO THE WORSE CONDITIONS AND LEARN EARLY THEY ARE CONSIDERED LESS THAN. FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND WHY EARLY GIVES THEM A CHANCE TO GO THROUGH THE PROCESS ALL PEOPLE OF COLOR DEAL WITH , CONFUSION , ANGER, RESENTMENT AND HOPEFULLY THEY CAN MATURE WITH A SENSE OF BELONGING TO THE MOVEMENT NEEDED AS THERE ARE OUR FUTURE.

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