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The importance of Black voice when learning about slavery in schools

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Written by Danise Grant, Diversity, Inclusion and Education Consultant

The narrative of slavery has historically been taught from a one-dimensional perspective. However, in recent years it has become vitally important that we learn as a society to analyse, review and discuss this period of history from a variety of perspectives, looking at the good, bad and ugly of the design of slavery through to abolition and freedom.   But where do we start? There is often a belief that the slaves themselves just let slavery happen. Yet there were always voices, globally, both Black and White, who resisted and fought for the freedom of enslaved people.

Why do students need to hear the voices of resistance to slavery?

Often the importance of resistance is missed when teaching about slavery.  The curriculum is focused on trade and treatment of slaves but omits the vital voices of those in the Black community who resisted enslavement and fought for the freedom of slaves. It is right that we teach the economics and labour systems that derived from slavery, and the outcomes of these systems. However, equally and somewhat more importantly we need to educate about those, who throughout history, prevented, resisted and aided the abolition of slavery.

These stories embody strength of character, demonstrate intelligence, and highlight the capability that eugenicists would want us to believe they were incapable of.  There are some amazing characters that can empower all students by teaching them an alternative to what we think we know about slavery.  These stories carry within them strength of character and demonstrate the courage, resilience, resistance and resolve still relevant to all young people in navigating modern life. 

Which Black voices from history fought against slavery?

Teaching of slavery in the curriculum is essential to understanding our past and our present. In addition to teaching the causes and circumstances to trans-Atlantic slavery, individual stories of resistance should be highlighted and celebrated. Slavery is often presented in schools as the story of the submissive African who was overwhelmed by an aggressive Western system. Inherent are assumptions about capability, intelligence and a passivity to slavery. Through learning the stories of incredible Black figures, students can understand the full strength of the resistance that Black communities raised in their fight against slavery.

Queen Anna Nzinga Mbande

Anna Nzinga Mbande, Queen of Ndongo (now Angola), was one of the most powerful female leaders in African history. She was relentless in her fight to end slavery and protect her country. Over many years she fought off the Portuguese who were intent on capturing people for the slave trade. Although she didn’t succeed in driving them out entirely, neither was she overrun. She also developed her kingdom into one of Africa’s most independent commercial states.

Harriet Tubman

Also born into slavery was Araminta Ross, she not only risked her life by escaping slavery but then returned to the south on numerous occasions to help others do likewise. She changed her name to Harriet Tubman and used the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses and transport run by those who wanted to fight slavery, to help people escape. Later she joined the army and became a spy encouraging slaves to join the Union Army.

Zumbi dos Palmares

Zumbi dos Palmares was a solider and an abolitionist. He was born a free man in one of Brazil’s ‘maroons’ – communities of free men and ex-slaves. He was later captured and held in a monastery. He escaped and led his people in a massive fight of resistance.

Sojourner Truth

Born into slavery she was promised her freedom by her owner who later reneged on his commitment. Escaping slavery, she then took her White slave owner to court for illegally selling her son and won! She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and travelled America preaching against slavery and in favour of women’s rights.

Allowing alternative Black voice, grows character in your classroom

As can be seen in these stories there was tremendous resistance to slavery. It is beholden on all of us in education to include these narratives and many others in our teaching of this vital topic.

When teaching about issues of controversy and atrocity such as slavey, it is essential that the voices of all involved are heard and respected. This allows all students to gain empowerment from alternative narratives, not usually shared; and a look at the culture of others in a way not usually divulged.

The stories mentioned here are just a few of many, that offer triumph in the face of adversity and success where failures were almost guaranteed. As such, they should be utilised to the fullest to gain a more accurate representation of slavery and the resistance to it by members of the Black community.

In addition, over the last decade there has been a great push towards offering students the opportunity to have a voice, become rights respecting and develop the skills of diplomacy in challenge.  Furthermore, there also must be some thought on how the addition of alternative voices can aid the mental health of students.  It is essential that schools equip young people with a fitting suit of amour that allows them to feel courageous, have resilience and develop their strengths and capabilities. All while challenging and discussing issues of controversy.  Learning about the struggles of others, through character, can help young people overcome their own. By introducing real character into our classrooms, we inevitably give opportunity for the character of our own students to develop and grow.

Introduce diversity to your school with Amazing People Schools

If you are ready to empower your students with diverse voices, sign up for a free trial of Amazing People Schools award winning online platform. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, we’d love to hear the stories of other Black figures who were central to the fight against slavery.

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