Last year I taught a curriculum unit (the end product of my first year as a participant in the Yale New Haven Teacher’s Institute) entitled
The African Playwright as a Griot
. The curriculum covered selected playwrights of African descent from indigenous Africa through the Harlem Renaissance. When we reached the segment covering playwrights who emerged as a result and/or in spite of the American slave system, a discussion regarding the topic of slavery itself ensued. I must admit that the reaction to this topic by my predominately African high school students caught me quite by surprise.
Comments spanned a spectrum which ranged from, “Oh, God! Not that again!! to “Do we have to talk about this?” “I can’t talk about it because it makes me really, really angry.” Finally someone seemed to sum up the feelings of the group with, “Why can’t we just keep talkin’ about Africa? . . . . All people ever want to tell us is that we were slaves . . . . in Africa we were kings and queens and warriors. Slavery is embarrassing!” The others chimed in unanimous agreement. I had to wonder what these children had been told of this American atrocity which made them feel, as descendants of its victims, they should be ashamed, “embarrassed”. Obviously they had been misinformed. There was no logical reason which justified why, they should be embarrassed to be the progeny of the victims of this American holocaust. It was a holocaust which in terms of sheer numbers of those victimized, tortured and killed is rivaled only by the horrors perpetrated by Hitler. The least of these horrors is the lasting cultural, moral, emotional and intellectual devastation that this particularly American institution had and continues to have on its victims and their ancestors. I responded to their concerns by explaining that it was no more appropriate for them to be ashamed of what our ancestors were subjected to than a rape victim should be embarrassed or blamed for being assaulted. They (we) are, after all, the victims. I further went on to explain that just our being here in a classroom with students of diverse ethnic backgrounds peacefully was a tribute and testament to the strength to all of our ancestors. The mood, even the very air in the classroom seemed to change. The African students were receptive, their classmates curious . . . as we tackled the work of William Wells Brown and the time he lived in from a new perspective.
However, their initial reaction haunted me. I discussed it with colleagues and friends hoping both to find answers and to put the uneasy feeling their initial response invoked in me to rest. Neither happened. Instead more questions surfaced. “Why?” , was the most prominent. Why were they at all ashamed that their descendants had been victims of a holocaust? Why are Native American, Jewish or Japanese students no longer ashamed of the victimization of their ancestors? What was different about the experiences that they have ultimately appeared to affect the descendants so differently? After all the ancestors of each had been the victims of horrendous injustices. What was unique about the African holocaust?
Then it dawned on me . . . ..Unlike the others the African holocaust has yet to be officially acknowledged as such. It has been referred to as many things: “The Slavery Question”, “The White Man’s Burden”, “The Negro Problem” and so on. But never what it actually was, except perhaps by a few contemporary intellectuals who are quickly dismissed. However, there is no denying that a holocaust is exactly what it was. Perhaps without the official acknowledgment and redress that such an atrocity is due, and which has been afforded other groups (i.e. Japanese Americans; Native Americans; and Jews after the war with Germany) there is a certain misappropriation of blame on the part of the victims. This premise led me to the 40 acres and a mule ostensibly promised? considered? suggested? as redress to the African when they were ‘emancipated’. It came as no overwhelming revelation to discover that the only thing many of my students knew about ‘40 acres an a mule’ was that it was the name of Spike Lee’s production company. Thus the reason for this particular curriculum unit.
I propose to have students examine the definition of reparations, retribution, and redress according to Webster as well as the legal connotations of each. I further intend to have them look at those groups (Native American, Japanese and Jewish) that have been successful in obtaining reparations for injustices perpetuated against them and or their ancestors. Finally, it is my intention to have the students address such questions as: Why Africans have been denied retribution? What are the steps that have been and may be taken to obtain their long awaited redress?