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  • Understanding and Teaching American Slavery ed. by Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly
  • Brian Barnes
Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. Edited by Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly. Foreword by Ira Berlin. Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History. (Madison and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. Pp. xx, 318. Paper, $34.95, ISBN 978-0-299-30664-9.)

In his foreword to this volume, Ira Berlin reflects that "if discussions of slavery have generated some of my worst classroom experiences, they have also produced some of my best" (pp. xi–xii). Understanding and Teaching American Slavery should be valuable to new and experienced teachers who wish to minimize the worst kinds of experiences and maximize the best while teaching this essential subject.

Many of the contributors to this volume acknowledge that perhaps the greatest challenge in teaching slavery is managing the uncomfortable feelings the topic can provoke among both teachers and students. Berlin writes of [End Page 490] "nightmarish classroom scenarios" (p. xi). Steven Thurston Oliver describes teachers'"visceral discomfort" and students'"feelings of guilt or shame about the past" (pp. 31, 36). Joanne Pope Melish explains that inexperienced teachers "who are not African Americans themselves sometimes express misgivings about how African American students will respond to this subject matter when they teach it" (p. 128). Too often, fear of uncomfortable situations and uncertainty about how to address the issues lead teachers to avoid the topic, or teach it ineffectively. Students who do not have adequate opportunity to process their feelings may become angry and tune out. As someone who teaches an American slavery class every other year, I can unfortunately recognize many of these scenarios from my own experiences.

In the first section of the volume, "Slavery and the Classroom," contributors offer practical advice for creating a safe and productive learning environment. James W. Loewen suggests engaging early in a "meta-conversation" about slavery, in which students and teacher consider reasons why it can be difficult to teach and learn about this topic (p. 16). Such a discussion can help participants state their feelings and fears, listen to those of others, and move forward through the course more openly and safely. I have had similar discussions on the first day of my own classes, with positive results. Oliver describes ways to respond to students' feelings of guilt and shame. For example, he describes a technique called "teacher as text," which "involves offering up your own personal narratives for the purpose of modeling for students the level of dialogue you hope to engage in" (p. 35). This technique "makes it easier for students to make sense of what they might be feeling" and makes them more "eager to share their own stories and perspectives" (p. 36). Both Loewen and Oliver also stress the importance of making connections between slavery and its modern-day legacies: racism and inequality. Teachers should help students see that no one in their classroom is responsible for slavery, but that all should seek to remedy injustices. In a later section of the volume, Melish also offers valuable advice for teachers who wish to earn the trust of their students. Teachers should "make sure that a large proportion of the assigned readings, especially primary sources, reflect African American voices," and teachers should be sure to know their subject (p. 129).

The second section of the volume, "Teaching Specific Content," makes up the bulk of the book and should help teachers know their subject better and teach it more effectively. Paired with Berlin's discussion of the "ten essential elements" in teaching slavery, this section could be used to design a course syllabus (p. xii). Each chapter discusses some critical topic in the history of American slavery (for example, "Slave Resistance") and could be used to outline a lecture. Most chapters contain at least some specific suggestions for classroom exercises, discussions, and teaching resources. Those that do not contain such suggestions explain points that teachers should emphasize, but leave it to the teacher to devise methods other than lecture for doing so. While most topics that are essential to teaching slavery, including comparative slavery, are the subject of chapters, there is no discussion of...


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