How not to teach kids about the slave trade

Womanist Musings: When Is A Child Too Young to Learn About the Middle Passage?

This story is about an incident in which two supply teachers decided to show a film called The Middle Passage, about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to a group of fourth graders (minimum age: 9). Three parents complained to the school board as their children were distressed by the content, which included references to suicide (and of the decapitation of their bodies) and rape. The author contends that “a Black parent cannot afford to wait to teach their child about racism, because their innocence will not protect them against those that are determined to either see them fail, or have them grow with an understanding that they are less than human”.

As a child I learned about the slave trade; I did learn about it in school but I got most of my knowledge about the subject from a children’s book entitled “The Slave Trade”, which had the stuff about people being kept chained up in the hold (complete with the top-down diagram) but left out the rape stuff, because presumably the authors thought their audience didn’t know about that kind of thing, and perhaps their parents wouldn’t want them mentioning it to their kids before they had, or before they were sure they were quite able to handle it. If they had, the book would have been unlikely to end up in a school library.

Renee alleges that “unlike White children, childhood is short lived for children of colour. Before their 10th birthday, it is almost assured that a racial act will occur that will burst the precious bubble of innocence”. So, because a child of colour is likely to experience “a racial act”, which is very unlikely to be rape, or anything else as serious as what is depicted in The Middle Passage, a parent has no right to object when material that is not age-appropriate, in his opinion, but has a racial subject (and not one that resembles anything that is happening to anyone today), is shown to his child without any prior discussion. (As if nothing might happen to a white child that might force them to grow up quicker than might have been expected.) True, the children in this school live a relatively sheltered lives (the place where it happened - Winnetka, Illinois, is one of the wealthiest communities in the USA with a median household income of over $160,000) but that still does not mean the families have no right to object to their pre-teen children being shown this kind of material.

A commenter called Katie Mariie alleged that the father’s concern to protect his daughter from stories about rape showed him to be “naive and privileged” because the “‘safety tips’ of rape culture are taught to girls as soon as they can walk. Adults might think they’re clever by masking it in phrases like ‘stranger danger’ and ‘someone might grab you,’ but little girls get the message that sexual violence is a constant threat”. I was actually taught about “stranger danger” as a child in infant school myself — the girls and boys watched the video together — but although the video we watched, from an adult perspective, clearly gave the message that the girl could have been raped (and perhaps if it was shown to older children, that is the message they would have got), the message of not talking to or taking sweets from strangers was given to girls and boys alike, because all children are at risk. And they certainly didn’t use the word ‘rape’. All we needed to know is that we could “go missing” and that something awful could happen to us.

The problem with this incident was that the video was shown without any discussion with the parents by a supply teacher who either was on a mission of his or her own, or was just stuck for something to do, or did not consider the audience and whether it was appropriate. It had not been approved by the school board and presumably had not been discussed with the school staff or the parents either; as this report notes, it was shown by the supply teachers at the direction of one permanent teacher, while the latter was elsewhere in the district. As was mentioned in the comments, some of the children could already have suffered abuse, something the teachers apparently did not consider. There are so many ways children can learn about the slave trade, but there is a lot that children have to learn (about things that are happening today) but we find appropriate ways to teach them when they are that age.

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