Category Archives: Amistad

Talking Race at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’m just back from a remarkable week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where I participated in the workshop, “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” I learned about it in May when I was exploring the museum’s website after visiting and wanting to know more, more, more. This was the fifth summer of the workshop, but the first in the physical museum. And so, in addition to fabulous speakers and thoughtful activities, we had hours every day to explore the galleries, some of them before the museum opened. You can learn more about the workshop from this article by the wonderful museum educators who created and ran it — Candra Flanagan Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator. I am so grateful to them for their passion, commitment, and hard work in creating this workshop and all the rest they do.

We were just under 40 folks — classroom teachers, museum educators, parents, and others who care deeply about learning more. It was a diverse group in terms of race, institution (some in independent schools like me, others in charters, and others in public schools of all kinds), age, and more. Having mostly done this sort of work at my school I appreciated enormously getting to know and hearing from those who were working in such a variety of situations yet care deeply as I do about doing better in terms of talking race with young people.

Presentations and workshops included:

  • “The Color Line,” a gallery activity led by Allyson Criner Brown of Teaching for Change.
  • “Bias in Childhood: When Does it Emerge and How Do We Reduce it?” a presentation by Melanie Killen.
  • “Middle Childhood & Teens” Cognitive Development, Racial Identity Development, & Talking About Race,” a presentation by Erin Winkler.
  • “Implicit Bias, Dominant Culture & the Effects on the Academic Setting,” a workshop led by Jane Bolgatz and Erica Colbin.
  • “Beyond the Classroom: Getting the Larger Community Onboard with Equity and Justice Work,” a presentation by Mariama Richards.
  • “Bridging the Racial Divide and Self Care,” a workshop by Hawah Kasat.

I was especially excited to reencounter Erica (she and I had been involved in a PD on introversion last summer) and Mari who, with her colleague at her then-school, Georgetown Friends, did a brilliant workshop at my school years ago. I appreciated tremendously the other presenters as well.

Additionally we had small group meetings (by the ages we teach), affinity groups (white/people of color), and time to informally chat and learn.

And then there was the museum itself. What a gift it was to have so much time to explore it, especially those morning times before the public came in. It is an extraordinary place and I urge all to go visit. (This requires commitment as the tickets are timed mostly — it was challenging to get them when I went the first time — but absolutely worth it.)  I spent the most time in the history galleries, especially the section devoted to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but also found the Community and Culture galleries mind-blowing. The choice of artifacts, the careful and thoughtful text on the wall cards, the organization of the museum and exhibits — it is all outstanding.


I walked every morning across the mall from my hotel near the Air and Space Museum, using the Washington Monument as my landmark. The museum is the gorgeous building to the right.

We arrived early before the museum was opened. We were incredibly lucky to have the galleries almost to ourselves at that hour.

Here is the same view a few hours later. I loved also visiting the galleries when they were full, listening to the moving responses of visitors.

Excited to see these trading beads as I have some (from my time in Sierra Leone) just like them.

 

In my research for Africa is My Home I read that children were not shackled, but that was clearly not always the case as here are some for a child.

 

This is hard to see, but it is from a short film on slave factories and the one on the lower right is Bunce Island (in Sierra Leone)

The stone is from a slave market in the US.

 

Greatly appreciated the mention of the Amistad and Joseph Cinque.

 

Love the commitment to make the museum accessible for young children.

Tuskegee Airmen plane.

 

The following are from the Community Gallery

(Mrs. Reeve’s hat shop is beautifully recreated in the museum.)

Was very excited to see this as I’m assuming she is the model for the editor in Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods.

Nine of Carl Lewis’s Olympic medals. (The tenth was put in his father’s coffin.)

A few from the Culture Gallery

George Clinton and P-Funk’s Mother Ship!

 

 

Thank you so much to all who were involved in making this week possible, especially once again, Candra Flanagan, Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Amistad, History, Teaching

In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery

Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.

Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.

In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.

And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:

To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.

Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and  Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.

Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Risingsome of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources  (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)

Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.

Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:

  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
  • Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
  • Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis. 

Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):

  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
  • Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
  • One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
  • Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.

Books set in America under slavery:

  • Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
  • Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
  • I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
  • Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
  • The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad  by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
  • Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
  • Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
  • All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
  • Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
  • Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
  • Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
  •  The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.

And so, tomorrow  I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.

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Filed under Africa, Africa is My Home, Amistad, History, In the Classroom, Learning About Africa

Learning about Africa: Ghosts of Amistad

I’m always on the look-out for new information and new takes on the Amistad story. One recent one is Marcus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom in which the focus and viewpoint is on  the captives. And now there is a  film based on the book coming from filmmaker Tony Buba. The following description and preview has me very intrigued.

This film, made by Tony Buba, is based on Marcus Rediker’s book about the famous slave revolt of 1839, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Penguin, 2012) and is about a trip made by historians and a film crew to Sierra Leone in May 2013. All of the Amistad rebels were from southern and eastern Sierra Leone, so the filmmakers went to their villages of origin to interview elders about surviving local memory of the case. They also searched for the long lost ruins of Lomboko, the slave trading factory where the Amistad Africans were loaded onto a slave ship bound for the New World. This hour-long documentary chronicles a quest for a lost history from below.

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Natasha Trethewey in My Classroom

Natasha Trethewey was my school’s artist-in-residence in 2007 and so I am absolutely delighted that she has just been named the 19th US Poet Laureate. I can’t imagine a better choice. Congratulations, Natasha!

Here’s a slightly updated version of what I wrote about her work with my students that year:

On Wednesday my class had a truly magical hour with poet Natasha Trethewey who is at our school this year as a visiting artist. Aware of Natasha’s interest in history and primary source documents, I asked her if she would be interested in building on my students’ work with Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad. She was.

And so Natasha came and, after leading the class in a close reading of several of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from her collection American Sublime, guided them into creating a group poem of their own. After she left, the inspired children created individual Amistad poems and then presented them as collages.  Natasha returned to hear the children present the poems.

Here’s the poem we wrote together:

Margru

What I remember of home is this:

green – green mangoes, green snakes, green bananas:
brown – my mother, my father, myself, the tree
trunks, the brown earth, the color of my language,
Mende,
the only language I had
to describe these things.

Often I think of
how I came to be here:

my father pawning me, waving goodbye,
his face crumpled, tightened, looking
away from me.

I felt my captor’s white, cold hand
tighten around my wrist as if
he were a solid ghost taking me away.

Now I wish to see again
the green rice fields,
my father’s brown face,
clouds in the sky —
the only white things,

to hear someone speaking my language,
someone saying

Margru.

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Filed under Africa, Amistad, In the Classroom, Poetry

Happy NOLA and ALA

Yesterday I came back to NYC from New Orleans in the early hours of the morning pleased to see my dog and a slightly cooler and less humid town. I had been incredibly disturbed at what I experienced and saw in 2006 so it was fantastic seeing tons of tourists, streetcars (weren’t there six years ago), and a city more like the one I remember from visits before Katrina.

I spent my first day with friends brunching at Dooky Chase, a fantastic place I’d been to many years ago and was so heartened to see revived after the storm; taking the St. Charles Street streetcar through the Garden District to the end and back; having drinks at Napoleon House; and visiting the Voodoo Museum, a place I first went to years back because of the connection to African spiritual beliefs and practices I knew of from my time in Sierra Leone.

The following day Sarah Ketchersid, the editor for Africa is my Home,  and I went to the Amistad Research Center to look at the original Amistad materials. Since the book is going to be interactive — Ology-like with flaps and envelopes and such — we wanted to see if we might use some of the materials in the book.  The staff was incredibly helpful — thank you so much, Chris and Andrew — and seeing and handling the materials again (as I’d first done in 2006), this time with Sarah who has been equally immersed in the story for a couple of years now, was moving beyond belief. We read Sarah Margru’s letters as well as those from other Amistad captives, their supporters, and even John Quincy Adams.  One side note — editors read differently than you and I.  That is, I read fast and scan and so I would take a look at a letter with its faded-difficult-to-make-out copperplate-script and figure there was nothing for us in it. But then Sarah would keep looking and suddenly point out a reference to the “children” or “the girls.”  Editors know how to hone in and read in a way we don’t!

The convention itself was grand — seeing friends and their books, learning about forthcoming ones, connecting with new folks, eating (and eating and eating and eating…) terrific meals, and enjoying the touristy parts of NOLA.  I don’t wish to make anyone reading this too terribly jealous, but some especially memorable experiences were:

Thanks to all for making my NOLA and ALA time so delightful!

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In the Classroom: Amistad Poetry

Central to my unit on forced immigration (part of our yearlong study of immigration) is the Amistad Affair.  After reading and discussing Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Rising picture book I have my students read my to-be-published book, Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson.  That is followed by a look at some poetry related to the event, most notably those of Elizabeth Alexander‘s.

After a wonderful time last week looking closely at several of Elizabeth’s poems the class created a found poem of their own (inspired by Elizabeth’s “Other Cargo.”). You can read it here.  Now they are working on their own poems. When they are published (on their individual blogs), I’ll be sure to let you all know.

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In the Classroom: Sarah Margru Kinson and the Amistad

Our classroom theme for the year is immigration. We begin by discussing the children’s own metaphoric migration from a small lower school to our very large middle and high school building. We move out to oral histories — they interview people they know about their own experiences coming to America. Along the way we see movies, go places (Ellis Island, Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Walking Tour, Museum of Chinese in America), read works of historical fiction, and more. (This year, for example, we had a wonderful time with Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.)

We then move back to the time of forced immigration from Africa, the time of slavery in America. Because of my two years in Sierra Leone, I like to do a lot with the African connection. And because the captives were mostly Mende and because they went home to Africa, I love teaching the Amistad story. In fact, I’ve been working on a book for children about Sarah Magru Kinson, one of four children on the ship. Last year I put it on a blog for my students to read; this year I made it available to the other fourth grade classes. It has been wonderful to get their feedback. Here is this year’s introduction for my class. Here, here, here, and here are some of their posts about the story.

After reading and writing about the story, I showed the children a series of poems about enslavement and/or the Amistad.  I then showed them the poem the class wrote last year with Natasha Trethewey and invited them to write their own.  These will be integrated into collages like these from last year and posted on their blogs.   Their poems are wonderful and I can’t wait to see them completed!

I’m also incredibly touched and moved by the emails I’m getting from the children in other classes.  I have to thank Laura Amy Schlitz for making me brave enough to give the story to them. Last year I felt skittish about even letting my own class read it, but now that I know that Laura wrote her plays for students in her school originally I somehow felt much more relaxed about my work being used in my school.

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