My Teacher Chose An Unthinkable Way To Teach Us About Slavery. I’m Still Haunted By It.
The first time I remember seeing someone who looked like me in my school curriculum, I was in fifth grade, and our class was studying a unit on slavery in the United States. In our textbook, there was a photo of a man, turned away from the camera, whose back was gnarled and scarred from being whipped. The next day, my teacher made us sit on the classroom’s carpet in rows, packed together, pretending to be on a slave ship. Anywhere off the carpet was the ocean, and if we made a sound, she would scream and “throw us off.” Some of my classmates had been chosen by our teacher to be “overseers,” and they were in charge of keeping the “slaves” in line. I remember being brought to tears but not being exactly sure why I was crying.
When I told my father what happened, he and a group of other outraged parents confronted the school administration, and my teacher was forced to apologize, and life went on. Except … it didn’t. I felt as if there was now an invisible whip following me and a new fear attached to me that I just couldn’t shake.
As a woman with both Black and Puerto Rican ancestry, I’m still impacted by that moment over a decade later. My earliest memories of learning about my ethnicity and culture in school are associated with being the “other.” I was the “slave,” the sharecropper ― anything but me. It destroyed my self-confidence and made me feel hopeless. It was as if the glass ceiling was suffocating me, and I still struggle with my self-esteem while attempting to make my way in the world.
Even now, I feel the failures of my earlier education as I study political science as a freshman at Columbia University. Today, my classes expose the misinformation and misconceptions that were accepted as truth all throughout my childhood. In my college courses, the fact that slavery was the reason for the Civil War is never debated. Systemic and institutional racism is an actuality – not a hypothetical. It only makes me wonder how many young students could benefit from schools with the resources to teach accurate lessons about not only race but also racism, so that students are prepared for the rigor of higher education ― and to confront and prepare for the often harsh and unfair realities of our world.
Unfortunately, countless children across the country lack these lessons and resources. When schools cannot teach the true history of students of color, it not only dehumanizes them but demeans them as well. A new report by NYU Metro Center found that the three most commonly used elementary-level English Language Arts (ELA) curricula offered only superficial representations of characters of color, one-sided Eurocentric storytelling, and hardly any guidance for teachers to center students’ different cultures and identities. This wasn’t surprising to me, given my own experiences in elementary school.
It wasn’t until the eighth grade that I finally had an instructor who presented an accurate, more complete reflection of my people’s history. My teacher bought 20-plus copies of “Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case” with her own money. Most of my classmates were 14, the same age as Emmett when he was brutally murdered (I was 12), and learning about his life and death at that age was profound for us.
Our teacher allowed us to lead challenging conversations about racism while she acted only as an objective observer. She let us ask questions like, “Does Black privilege exist?” and “How does generational trauma affect us?” By the time we finished “Getting Away with Murder,” students who were often racially insensitive (and at times, offensive) realized the weight behind their words. Students who had never had to confront the color of their skin gained a deeper understanding of its beauty and importance. It was this transformative lesson that established my love for political science. Devastatingly, lessons like this one are now being banned across the country.
“It wasn’t until the eighth grade that I finally had an instructor who presented an accurate, more complete reflection of my people’s history. My teacher bought 20-plus copies of ‘Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case’ with her own money.”
Many people argue that teaching students about racism will make white students feel guilty and ashamed. Fear-mongering rhetoric like this has led to over 40 bills since January 2021 that propose censoring classroom conversations on racism and sexism. However, many of the white students in my class transformed their stances on inequality and equity after participating in honest conversations, and I felt safer because of it. Learning is often uncomfortable, but we must lean into that discomfort to become new people. The most important lessons are often the most difficult.
Banning age-appropriate lessons on inequality and failing to include them in core curricula makes all students, including white children, unprepared for a collegiate environment in which the existence of racism is presented as an objective fact. White privilege is a sociological term in my textbook ― not a buzzword relegated to Twitter. How can students excel in learning about something they are told doesn’t exist? What’s more, it makes students unprepared for the real world, where racism and white privilege are thriving and harm all of us, even if that’s not apparent to everyone.
Children should not receive an education they have to heal from, and they should see accurate and diverse representations of their histories and communities no matter what race they are. The teacher who told me to sit cross-legged and pretend I was enslaved didn’t purchase our books with her own money, but my teacher who taught an accurate history did. We need anti-racist education to be fully funded so every student is ready to face the world that awaits them and has a high-quality education that is not dependent on the generosity of one teacher.
Curriculum companies taking billions of dollars in public funds need to be held accountable to provide anti-racist lessons and inclusive materials for teachers. Thankfully, I’m now studying at an institution with professors and textbooks that endeavor to tell the full truth about this country. I believe everyone deserves and needs that chance ― and they shouldn’t have to attend college to get it.
Jaylen Adams (she/her) is a political activist and a Columbia University student. During her high school career, she was president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, a representative on the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, and a voice for women on the Title IX Committee. Today, Jaylen is continuing this battle as a first-year student at Columbia University, studying political science-economics and creative writing. She works with Our Turn, a national education reform nonprofit, as an executive fellow. Focusing on strategic development and communicative outreach, Jaylen also works on the Truth(Ed) campaign, which focuses on achieving truthful and culturally inclusive curriculum for all. In her free time, Jaylen loves a cozy book with a warm cup of tea.