I often have students play “what do you see” with this image asking them to pick out details and try to identify the slave castle in present day Ghana. I like to use their descriptions to help them think about social, economic, and political dynamics along the West African coast. The castle also helps demonstrate the political and military power of West African elites in the period while allowing students a view of how Europeans characterized their presence on the coast.
Every year I disappoint my students on the first day of class. Many have told me that “syllabus” day or “shopping” day,” is supposed to consist of a brief tour of the syllabus followed by time for questions. Then, they all expect an early dismissal. In my more advanced courses students expect that I will do some light lecturing that contextualizes course material. But in the giant lecture hall setting of most of my surveys my students tend to assume a certain level of anonymity and, almost always, an early dismissal on the first day of class. And that is why they are disappointed. I prefer to start with the how of the semester before getting to the what. That is, I like to introduce my students to the type of work that my courses require before going over assignments, due dates, and attendance policies. I like to give them a sense of my pedagogical point of view, even when my classroom holds more than one hundred students. I do this because I’m almost guaranteed that some of my students are asking another important question: Why are you teaching us about America’s past?
I regularly teach entry-level courses in American history to large lecture halls full of students. I work at a predominantly white institution (PWI) in the upper Midwest. Most of my students are white. I am a mixed-raced woman who presents as African American, though some find me to be racially ambiguous. Students meet my appearance at the head of the classroom for my African American history courses with little resistance. Many expect that their professor will be a person of color and others even look forward to it. My arrival at the lectern on my first day of my U.S. history survey from contact to 1876 surprises some students, confuses others, and, I suspect, makes a small number very uncomfortable. Where as students readily accept that I have specialized knowledge of African American history, a noticeable number to do not assume the same about my expertise in American history. And it is hard to escape the feeling that for those who are uncomfortable that discomfort comes from what content I might make them engage with: content relevant to the study of slavery and enslaved people.
Facing a wall of students, who are fresh from summer vacation and anxious about any number of life decisions, is not a small moment. Knowing that as an instructor you will have to force them to learn about American slavery adds even more weight. Slavery is difficult to talk about. It is difficult to read about. And it is difficult to write about. I am a professional historian whose life’s work is the study of enslaved people, and these facts remain true for me. And they are certainly true for students who have often NEVER had to learn about American slavery or enslaved people. I’ve found that some of the work that comes with teaching my survey classes about slavery as an institution and about enslaved people and their lives comes well before slavery is listed on the syllabus.
Survey students include a fair number of students in need of degree requirements and content review for the state teaching exam. Many feel that they already know American history and that my survey should be an easy review of their high school courses. For most, characteristics like an agreeable timeslot that fits well with their schedule and a location that also makes getting to the classroom across a large land-grant campus factor more heavily than knowledge about me as a faculty member and instructor. And that is fair. I teach at a very large institution, and students have to navigate a huge catalogue of course offerings with the help of their advisors. It makes sense that at the introductory level students need to be introduced to the discipline and to me. On the first day of class I want students to know that my job is not to tell them what to think but to give them the tools to think for themselves. I also want them to know that it is my job to teach them something new and that it is completely fine if those new things make them uncomfortable.
This image provides a sharp contrast to students’ usual exposure to the slave trade’s visual culture. Rather than slaves chained along the coast, they are presented with merchants genuflecting to a Congolese ruler. The image helps students answer the question, “Why are we studying Africa?” by first helping them break away from the essentialized category “African” and second by helping them think about the political and economic dynamics of diverse West African communities.
Instead of reading the syllabus, noting some due dates, and saying “see you next time,” I begin by asking them to think critically about a source in a familiar format: reality television. I start my survey by showing them a clip from the PBS Series, Colonial House. In it, a group of “colonists,” modern-day people who have to live as if it is the 1630s in a mock colonial settlement, meet a group of very real American Indians from the Wampanoag tribe. Unlike the “colonists” they do not have a positive view of the experiment in time travel that the mostly white cast of the show seem to believe they are engaging in while spending the summer in a mock colony. What follows is reality TV gold, complete with forlorn “colonists” bemoaning that they “never thought they were engaging in Imperialism,” and patient but understandably angry Wampanoag making it clear that the history these “colonists” relish remains a history of death, conquest, and pain for them. It is uncomfortable. But, it is mostly uncomfortable on screen.
Students usually find it easy to talk about the clip because of its familiar format and because it illustrates what can be so difficult when talking about the American past. Intent does not mitigate impact. Whether the “colonists” meant to or not, their social experiment deeply offended the group of Wampanoag who confronted them. Students can also more easily recognize the humanity of both the “colonists” and their Native American visitors because they are twenty-first-century people grappling with the reality of seventeenth-century colonialism. This task is one that I will, of course, be asking them to undertake, sans costumes, during the semester. And I take that moment, before we’ve even begun to cover Atlantic slavery or race, to talk about how we will be studying history in the course.
I have my students look to their left and then to their right. I tell them that, like the “colonists” in the television clip, their classmates have all arrived to the classroom with ideas about the past. I also make clear that an event that they think of as positive might be full of pain for someone else. I then go on to explain that I’ve designed the course to help them learn about people and ideas more distant than their classmates: historical subjects. I then present the syllabus as an opportunity for inquiry. I’ve designed it, I tell them, to present them with the tools they’ll need to navigate history that makes them uncomfortable and challenges what they’ve “always known.” I also emphasize that this is a good thing. Feeling discomfort, anger, or having an emotional response to the many difficult topics we cover can be an opportunity for growth.
I do not wait for students to ask “Why are we covering slavery?”; “Why are we assigned these books?”; “Why do we talk about enslaved people?” I ask them these question out loud during the semester. I ask them because I know they are asking them. For example, one year, students complained to my teaching assistant, “Why does the course cover West Africa?” My response from then on was to ask this same question out loud during lecture. I know why I spend time in West Africa in an American history course but many of my students do not. Rather than see their question as a challenge to my expertise or authority, I choose to engage the question as a learning opportunity. In a large classroom it can be tough to break the “fourth wall” and foster engagement between students. But this question always gets them talking. I have yet to have a class that, through discussion, cannot come up with an answer to the question, “Why should we learn about West Africa and Africans before Iberians began exploring their coastline?” Presenting a question about my course design as a way to better understand the material saves my TAs from awkward recitation sessions and asserts my role as a course designer who has thoughtfully crafted a syllabus, not flippantly assigned busywork. More importantly, I ask the students to defend the course design through discussion. They make the argument for why West Africa and Africans are important to American history.
It is true that some students will shut down, drop my course, or glower in the back row. For some, the look of “Why are you teaching us about America’s past?” never fades away. But my experience has been that naming discomfort and the potential for disagreement while empowering students as thinkers goes a long way. Many of my survey students will never go on to take an African American history course or even another course in history of any kind. Their time with me may be the only time they think about American slavery. And for me that makes the labor of pushing them through discomfort towards inquiry by making my course design transparent and intelligible worth it.
Featured Images Credit
The Castle of St. George d’Elmina, Gold Coast, 1704, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. From Willem Bosman, Nauwkeurige Beschryving van de Guinese Goud-, Tand- en Slave-Kust . . . (Utrecht, 1704), fig. 2, facing p. 44. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)
Don Alvaro, King of Kongo, Receving Dutch Delegation, 1642, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. From Thomas Astley (ed.), A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1745-47), vol. 3, plate 23, facing p. 257. (Copy in Special Collections, University of Virginia Library)