Our 1619 Education Network unit, Uncovering and Reclaiming Historical Identities, was designed for fifth-grade students. The unit began with an examination of the historical roots of Black people enslaved in the United States and an investigation of the diversity of present-day Africa, during which students identified and dismantled their own stereotypes about Africa. From these beginnings, it was clear our students were entering conversations about enslavement with a lens new and different from what we had seen before. Our students, many for the first time, had cultural and historical context for the identities enslaved Africans held before their capture. Because of this framing, they continued to remind us and each other about the richness and diversity of the people who became enslaved throughout the unit. This pushed us, as educators, to question, "What effect had learning about enslavement in earlier grades without this framing had on children's earlier understandings of enslavement?"
To find this answer, we asked the students themselves. They recalled reading picture books about renowned abolitionists like Harriet Tubman. And in their recollections, they reflected, "I thought the history of Black people started with slavery." They told us they didn't know who the enslaved were before they became enslaved—the culture, families, professions, and lives they lived before they were forcibly removed from their homes. And in this new understanding of who they were, the most pressing question in our classrooms was, "Why did people do this?"
This struck us. Why hadn't our students questioned the intention of enslavement and its horrors before this? What had been different about this unit that made our students stop our instruction mid-sentence to ask, "But why? Why did people do this?"
After checking in with our students, we reflected on our own learning of this history. Why hadn't we, as teachers and people of color, ever asked this question ourselves? Enslavement had always been normalized to us, a gruesome but former part of history. The story had been sugarcoated to us as children just as our students were telling us it had been for them.
And what did we think was the answer to why people did this? Yes, money. Yes, power. But there was something more to what our students were asking. They were seeing the humanity of those who were enslaved. And they were asking in essence, "How did anyone let this happen? How did anyone let people do this to each other?" This was distinctly different from a question we had asked as students ourselves, which was, "Why hadn't the enslaved fought back? How did the enslaved let this happen?" No, our students' questioning gave those who were enslaved power. They knew the enslaved didn't let this happen to them. They were asking something different–something more fundamental about how we allow ourselves to behave and treat each other.
So we started thinking that maybe this way of framing the history of those who have been oppressed by starting with who they were before their oppression and who they are now is somehow a key to unlock children's depth of understanding of oppression itself. From this thinking emerged a tool we call the Identity Resource Screening Tool (IRST). The IRST is a flowchart of reflective questions and pathways that can support teachers in evaluating how they have taught about a particular identity. How much work have teachers done around the joy and ordinary experiences of this identity group? How have teachers communicated a group's oppression? How has the teacher framed resistance as a movement rather than from exceptional individuals? We are excited to share this tool with teachers who we hope will help students ask the question, "Why did people do this?" Because at the heart of all oppression is this fundamental question about how people have been allowed to treat each other in this world. We want students asking this question in all situations because it tells us that they see the oppressed as people—that their oppression is not commonplace or expected—but that their lives are and have been rich and worthy.
Join 1619 Project Education Network alums and former grant recipients Noncy Fields and Julie Emra for a virtual session, "Centering Humanity: Teaching Enslavement in Elementary School," on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, at 7:15pm EST to learn more about their unit, its impact, and the Identity Screening Resource Tool (IRST). We invite you to preview their unit here and to bring your copy of Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson.