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In 1831, a slave rebellion was led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Va.During the insurrection, several people were killed at the site of the Whitehead house, the remnants of which are seen here. (Matt Mc Clain/The Washington Post) In teaching the history of American slavery accurately, it is essential to teach about African Americans’ resistance to slavery.
And while rebellion sought total liberation from slavery, most forms of resistance strove for something much less, for making life a bit more bearable until the Day of Jubilee finally arrived.
Regardless of form or function, resistance was never-ending.
It leaves students thinking that only those who attempted to flee wanted their freedom.
Instead, teachers must spend an equal if not greater amount of time on the subtler ways that African Americans resisted, drawing students’ attention to the everyday acts of defiance that were far more common than rebellion or flight.
As long as slavery existed, African Americans resisted.
Teaching resistance effectively requires focusing on more than a handful of highly visible and extremely dramatic attempts to secure freedom. Uprisings make clear that African Americans who engaged in rebellion opposed slavery.A torrential rain the night of the insurrection delayed the blacksmith’s plans just long enough for the plot to be revealed by a pair of enslaved turncoats.For this project on how slavery is taught, The Washington Post interviewed more than 100 students, teachers, administrators and historians throughout the country and sat in on middle school and high school history classes in Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Germantown, Md.; Concord, Mass.; Broken Arrow, Okla.; and Washington, D. Gabriel and 26 others would eventually be executed.Resistance to slavery demonstrates the harsh reality of the institution and makes clear the essential humanity of enslaved people. Pierce Butler’s plantations and had spent all of their lives enslaved under one family.But these important lessons about American slavery are lost when we teach resistance too narrowly. Two and three generations deep, the men, women and children were to be sold in family units, but that did not happen.But because insurrections were so rare, when they are taught in isolation, students are left with the impression that the vast majority of enslaved people who did not rebel accepted their bondage.Some even interpret this to mean that African Americans were complicit in their own enslavement.Teachers have to talk about how enslaved people tried to minimize the amount of energy they expended toiling in fields by slowing the pace of work, feigning illness, breaking farming implements, injuring animals and sabotaging crops.And how they took for themselves life’s essentials, from food to clothing, which they consumed, shared, traded and sold.For this project on how students learn about slavery in American schools, The Washington Post asked noted historians to write an essay on aspects of slavery that are misunderstood, poorly taught or not covered at all in the nation’s classrooms.From the cruel separation of families to the resistance by enslaved people and the widespread enslavement of Native Americans, these contributions address gaps in our common knowledge about what the practice of slavery has meant for America.