The state of New Jersey is taking a major step to ensure that all students learn about the history of enslavement and its impact on our nation’s development. Governor Phil Murphy announced that public school teachers will get to travel to sites associated with the slave trade to learn how to better teach black history throughout the entire school year.
The initiative will help schools to comply with the state’s Amistad law, which requires all public schools to teach African American history. The Amistad law, named for the slave ship that was the subject of a 1997 Steven Spielberg film, was signed in 2002 but it has not been widely implemented. That changed this school year with Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet’s goal of ensuring that districts follow the law. If districts are not following the law, they can lose points on their state evaluation.
Few states, if any, have similar requirements. Along with New Jersey, those states include Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, New York and Rhode Island. In Florida, state law requires that black history be infused in its curricula but, as has been the case in New Jersey, it is not being done. In Pennsylvania, only the Philadelphia school district requires a course on black history and the Civil Rights movement for graduation from high school.
States and districts differ in their approaches to teaching about enslavement or black history. In their official standards for teaching social studies and history, some states explicitly call for teaching about aspects of slavery throughout a student’s K-12 education, while others refer to it in passing or not at all.
New Jersey’s commitment to teaching this subject properly matters in light of what is known about variation in how schools approach the topic. School board members in Southern states have scrutinized how textbooks tackle the issue, which can also make students and teachers uncomfortable.
When I became a social studies teacher, I felt that it was my duty to teach the untold history of enslavement in the United States and New Jersey in particular. Most of this untold history I myself didn’t learn until I arrived on a college campus.
I remember the sanitized and minimized history lessons I received on African enslavement. In fourth grade, I learned about the history of New Jersey. However, New Jersey’s history of enslavement and opposition to emancipation was left out. I wasn’t taught about the resistance of the enslaved or the various rebellions of the enslaved. I wasn’t taught the evil and sinful nature of the peculiar institution.
Some worry that “adding” more material about slavery to the history curriculum will push other things overboard. I remember being baffled at having to teach 300 years’ to 400 years’ worth of events in 8 to 10 months. While school districts have the freedom to choose going either the chronological or thematic route when teaching history, the traditional way to teach history is going the chronological route. I did that my first year of teaching. But I quickly switched to a thematic approach because it allowed me to cover black history as American history while looking at critical moments in our nation’s history such as war and conflict, enslavement, displacement, and Reconstruction.
Another concern is that excessive focus on enslavement in America would encourage black students to think of themselves as victims. But teaching slavery well includes telling stories of black characters not only passively being acted upon but also serving as protagonists in liberation, emancipation, and abolition.
Slavery’s role in American history recently received a new burst of attention resulting from the 1619 Project undertaken by the New York Times.
New Jersey is particularly fertile ground for slavery education. Slavery persisted in New Jersey longer than elsewhere in the North; when an emancipation law was passed in 1804, it went into effect only gradually. Abraham Lincoln lost New Jersey in the elections of 1860 and 1864; it was the only northern state to vote against Lincoln. In 1863, the legislature opposed emancipation of those who remained enslaved. In 1865, the state legislature wouldn’t ratify the 13th amendment. In 1866, the state legislature rescinded ratification of the 14th amendment and rejected the 15th amendment.
This is just some of the history that New Jersey students will learn with the support of the Amistad Commission and enforcement by the New Jersey Department of Education. History teachers must be provided with the professional development and mentorship purposed to equip them with the historical knowledge, the pedagogical tools to teach it and a culturally competent philosophy to guide their daily practice in the classroom. Because equally as important as it is to teach our history is that we teach it properly and courageously with power and conviction.
Rann Miller directs an after-school learning program in southern New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden and is editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ.
Last updated November 21, 2019