The focus on the African-American narrative results in a definition of slavery (deliberate or not) as an institution that (a) is in the past, (b) only impacted one specific demographic, and (c) is limited to the kidnapping and mistreatment of Africans by Europeans and Americans.
This definition of slavery is detrimental to students because it implies that slavery is over. This definition of slavery ignores the twenty to thirty million victims of human trafficking--both sex trafficking and labor trafficking--who are currently being exploited. This definition of slavery avoids discussion of child brides, does not include organ trafficking, and is devoid of references to sweatshop workers.
This definition limits students’ perception of slavery. Consequently, they cannot recognize slavery in the modern world, and are therefore unable to combat it.
The current New York State Common Core Social Studies Framework for grades K-8 includes this limited discussion of slavery within the fourth and seventh grade curricula. In fourth grade, it is found in unit 4.5, “In Search of Freedom and a Call for Change,” which focuses on the idea that “different groups of people did not have equal rights and freedoms.” The content of the unit includes information about the “rights... denied to Africans and African-Americans,” the “people that took action to abolish slavery,” and the Civil War.
African-American slavery becomes a large focus of the seventh-grade year, discussed extensively during units 7.2, 7.7, 7.8, and 7.9. Unit 7.2, “Colonial Developments,” teaches students about the growth of slavery in the colonies. Similar to the fourth-grade unit, unit 7.7, “Reform Movements,” centers around the idea that “social, political, and economic inequalities sparked various reform movements and resistance efforts.” This includes information about the abolitionist movement, historical abolitionist figures, and “the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the public perception of slavery.” Unit 7.8, “A Nation Divided,” is also similar to the fourth grade curricula, as it educates about the Civil War and the clash of the North and the South, although it goes more deeply into the reasons behind the clash (such as the disagreement over whether slavery should be legal in new territories). Unit 7.9, “Reconstruction,” discusses a new topic: how “freed African Americans created new lives for themselves in the absence of slavery.” Rather than continuing to discuss slavery, this unit covers post-slavery African-American experiences.
And the New York curriculum is not alone. In the teacher-developed “Slavery in America” units available online, slavery is taught only in the context of African-Americans. The elementary school package includes six lessons: “Slavery's Beginnings, A Slave's Life, The United States of America, Slave Rebellions, The Underground Railroad, [and] Famous Abolitionists.” The middle school equivalent has a longer, more detailed list of essential questions, including “Was slavery a benign or evil institution?”, “Was the Civil War inevitable?”, and “How did cotton affect the social and economic life of the South?”
Since units titled “Slavery in America” discuss only the African-American narrative, it becomes clear that students are not receiving a complete education about slavery.
In a curriculum that aims to help students become proficient in“reasoning, justification, synthesis, analysis, and problem-solving,” it is essential to provide enough information to give them the tools necessary to properly utilize problem-solving skills. Therefore, I propose that human trafficking be incorporated into the Common Core seventh-grade curriculum.
In New York’s unit 7.9, “Reconstruction,” the last lesson in the last section, 7.9c, is an examination of the “effects of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.” This concludes the seventh grade year and ends the discussion of slavery. I propose that this be altered so that another section, 7.9d, is added in order for students to conclude their discussion of slavery with a lesson on human trafficking.
This group of lessons would ideally segue from the earlier material by bringing up the idea that students have only been learning about one type of slavery. The concept of human trafficking--modern-day slavery--should be introduced here. Students will learn about the different types of trafficking (sex and labor trafficking) and how they connect to African-American slavery. An example outline (adhering to the format of the New York State Common Core Social Studies Framework) would be as follows:
7.9d: Human trafficking continues today in many forms, in ways that are both similar to and different from the enslavement of African Americans.
- Students will examine the source/destination country system of global sex trafficking. They will read (non-graphic) accounts written by sex slaves who were born in source countries and brought to America, and compare them to accounts written by African slaves.
- Students will examine statistics about modern trafficking in the United States, comparing victims of labor trafficking (those who work for little to no pay in the farming and health and beauty industries, and in factories with unsafe conditions) to African-American slaves in the 1800s.
- Students will re-examine the Thirteenth Amendment, this time finding examples to argue for or against the idea that the Thirteenth Amendment protects victims of human trafficking.
As the owner of an Instagram account that educates about modern-day slavery (specifically child prostitution), I see every day how little our students know about human trafficking. This is an issue that many of them view as something that happened in the past, or something that happens in other countries, but that does not affect them. They are not aware that of the $32 billion dollars that support the trafficking industry, $9.5 billion comes from the United States. They are not aware that street prostitution is a way that children are exploited in America. They are not aware that sex trafficking is rape. And they depend on schools to educate them. This is a generation that can and will make incredible changes within our world, but if they do not know an issue exists, there is no way for them to fight it.
I know that the United States wants what is best for its students. I have faith in our country--a strong, immovable faith that despite controversy over education, we are trying. We are trying so extraordinarily hard to ensure that our students’ futures are as full of possibility and success and meaning as possible. And by doing so, we are raising a generation of fighters. We are fighting for them, and they are fighting for justice. As the government, it is your responsibility to aid them and educate them so that they have the tools to fulfill the mission of Declaration of Independence: create a country where we are all free.
This piece won a Silver Key in the 2016 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.