When I attended elementary school some 45 years ago, a countless number of classmates and I were led to believe that Black people "miraculously arrived" on American soil via the slave trade, that they had no real culture or civilization. Many students (and their parents) denied being a people of African descent, for it held a negative connotation. Additionally, many of the students questioned why "
if all of us were Negro
," did Blackfolk come in such a wide spectrum of colors.
In the 21st century, although efforts have been made to introduce this missing portion of reality in textbooks and coursework, at the elementary school level, this topic of study is taught on a minimal basis. Upon canvassing elementary school students, I have found many who continue to associate Africa with Tarzan, stereotypical images of onyx-hued people residing in a jungle-laden, lion-filled continent overflowing with huts and villages. Students continue to question why the rainbow of black people exists. Nevertheless, some educators with whom I have discussed my concern state that there's no need to teach this subject at the primary grade level, that such a study would be beyond student comprehension and that delving into the history of Black people prior to and during the slave trade would stir up undesired emotions during a time when we want to spread harmony among diverse populations. I challenge this mode of thinking. Experience has taught me that the implementation of such studies serve as a social empowerment tool, one that helps us celebrate and respect the culture of others. I contend that the teaching of this subject will assist in combating the portrayal and acceptance of stereotypical images and poor communication too often experienced across cultures.
People of African descent have a rich heritage, for their ancestors--many of whom hailed from the Western coast of Africa--once lived in great empires such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. These empires flourished: metalwork, weaving, woodcrafting, and trade with other countries existed in these societies long before the emergence of Western civilization. People of African descent too have a living testimony, one of creativity, strength, and endurance quite obvious when examining the heinous and dehumanizing trans-Atlantic slave trade. We cannot assume that students and teachers have this information under their belts. Educators across cultures must come to grips with the fact that in order to truly teach, we must objectively step outside of our comfort zones. MIDDLE PASSAGE: A JOURNEY OF ENDURANCE has been written to help instructors do just that: it takes a look at a small part of African Heritage in the hopes of fostering a sense of understanding, connection, and appreciation of the strength of a people.
Targeted at students in Grades 1 and 2, MIDDLE PASSAGE is modifiable to accommodate students in Grade levels 3 through 5. It can be implemented at any time during the course of the school year. Since, however, December through February marks the beginning of Kwanzaa and African-American Heritage month, the unit serves as an informative prelude to the study of African peoples and an enlightening complement to the Kwanzaa celebration during this time frame.
My unit is divided into three sections:
(taking a glimpse at the ancient Ghanaian empire);
The Treacherous Slave Trade
(where students "experience" the dehumanizing journey from Ghanaian shores to the Americas); and
(highlighting traditions that despite the shackles of slavery are evidenced yet today). MIDDLE PASSAGE is interdisciplinary: Language Arts with emphasis on narrative writing, Math, Music, and Art are well integrated into the unit. It is also written in compliance with New Haven Public School's Social Studies Common Performance and Content Standards (SSCPS and SSCS respectively) as follows:
SSCPS: Students will demonstrate their understanding through written, verbal, visual, musical and/or technological formats. They will pre-edit, draft, revise, edit and publish at least one literary work.
SSCS3.0 Using maps, globes, and related resources, students will identify different parts of the world and examine the traditions found therein.
SSCS5.0 Students will read, view, and listen to multiple sources concerning history, and they will use information obtained through stories to identify problems, suggest solutions, and predict outcomes.
NOTE: An annotated bibliography is provided. However, with regard to the use of teacher, student, and Internet resources, be mindful of stereotypical word usage when presenting and/or discussing African culture. Such words as "primitive, mystical, magical, mysterious, dark, enchanted, tribes, villages, primitive people, jungle, enchanting environ…" often prove offensive to people of African culture. Replace them with such words as aboriginal, original people or indigenous inhabitants, townships, cities, communities, communal areas, dense equatorial forest, tropical rain forests, beautiful environ….) Rather than use generalized terms to describe African people, be specific. Use the actual name of the studied group, e.g., Ghanaians, the Akan, the Damongo people…; In teaching African culture, we want to dispel any stereotypes that may occur.