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“My Family’s Not from Africa—We Come from North Carolina!”

Teaching Slavery in Context

By Waahida Mbatha

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Home > Archives > Volume 27 No.1 - Fall 2012


As a student, I always dreaded when we came to "my" section in the history book: the section on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I remember wondering, "If I sink down far enough in my seat, can I become invisible?" As far as the textbook was concerned, and perhaps my teachers as well, my history as a black person began in West Africa with my ancestors be.ing abducted and sold into slavery, herded onto ships, and piled on top of one another in shackles as we set sail for the "New World." My teachers would present this section almost as news anchors, emotionless and neutral as they recounted the horrors experienced by people, my people: "Once they arrived to the New World, they had no rights, they were considered three-fifths human, they were forced to work without pay, and their children were taken away from them and sold to the highest bidder, until one day Abraham Lincoln decided that slavery was wrong and set the slaves free. Class, make sure that you take solid notes, you will be expected to know this information for the unit test."

I remember sitting there, feeling powerless, humiliated, and victimized by a teacher presenting such a sordid part of human history in a matter-of-fact manner, with no attempt to humanize the topic of slavery or engage me with information about the many acts of resistance and rebellion that led to the emancipation of the enslaved. Nor was I invited into a discussion about who we were before slavery or how something so horrific ever came to be in the first place.

Now I teach history myself. I will never forget the blank stares that gazed back at me one day from my 7th-grade geography class at a public school in Washington, D.C. As we were wrapping up our unit on Latin America, I said to the class: "So, everyone in the United States, with the exception of Native Americans, has roots in other parts of the world. For example, many Latin Americans in Washington have ancestral roots in El Salvador, many African Americans can trace all or part of our ancestry back to West Africa, while white Americans can trace their ancestry to various countries in Europe."

"My family's not from Africa," sparked Ra'Sean. "We come from North Carolina!"

"I see what you mean, Ra'Sean. I was born in Kentucky and my grandparents were born in Tupelo, Mississippi. But if I trace my roots back far enough, I can trace them to West Africa and perhaps even to a specific country."

The class erupted in mumbling and discontent. Marcus shook his head the hardest as I unloaded information that he was just not prepared to take in.

"Well, if we came from West Africa, how did we get here?" demanded Keona.

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