New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth
reviewed by Sophia Bell - February 09, 2010
Alan J. Singers 2008 book, New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth is a passionate argument not only for the importance of slavery to the history of New York state, but also for the manner in which K-12 curriculum standards, educational officials, and prominent corporations have in fact obscured the significance of slaverys presence in the Empire State. Singers book offers an array of teaching resources and techniques, recovered local history, global economic analysis, and current political debates in education that deliver on the urgent message of his title that it is time to teach the truth about New Yorks relationship to slavery.
The curriculum guide that the book grows from, New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance, is available through the New York State Council for the Social Studies and through Singers page at the Hofstra University website. The New York State Department of Education now offers information about these links, as well as the awards the curriculum guide has received. The book blends those materials about the past and connects them to a larger critique of the way powerful voices in determining curriculum the New York State Senate, the New York Department of Education, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History want us to understand this history as a blip in the narrative of national progress. Connecting landmark New York corporations like Citibank to origins in the slave trade, commemorating slave auctions at South Street Seaport, and teaching about the executions of alleged African rioters and about the white violence against black New Yorkers in the draft riots of 1863, Singer aims to tell a story that is much less comfortable.
Singers unflinchingly Marxian analysis of slavery gives him fresh eyes on slaverys role in New York that are at once dramatically local and panoramically global. The book uses a variety of strategies to make legible what he claims has been erased from history the complex story of New Yorks colonial, republican, and antebellum treatment of free and enslaved Africans, the regions ties to the global slave trade, and resistance to slavery and the slave trade by black and white New Yorkers such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Solomon Northrop, Jupiter Hammon, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Gerrit Smith, William Seward, Henry Ward Beecher, and William Cullen Bryant. Singer tells fascinating stories from the archive he developed for his curriculum guide; describes the results of surveys conducted with students who used that curriculum; excerpts ideas and debates among historians on the big questions of American treatment of enslaved Africans; and provides an annotated guide to films, websites, and books on slavery.
Singers first and second chapters, as well as the final four chapters, focus on curriculum, pedagogy, and student understanding of slavery. He offers a pair of lists -- Ten Main Ideas About Slavery in the Americas and Ten Main Ideas About Slavery and the North -- gleaned from his years as a classroom teacher, historian, and teacher educator, and asserts that,
[a]ny educator who wants to effectively teach about a subject as sensitive and controversial as the history of slavery in the North has to see her- or himself as a political activist willing to fight to ensure that these main ideas are included in the curriculum. (p. 26)
Such teachers will be fighting against the image of America as the land of the free, in which slavery was at worst, a tragic mistake, rather than an inherent feature of imperialism and capitalism, as well as a global economic system.
The core of the book chapters three through nine is a historical review of American history, from the perspective of New Yorks involvement with slavery during the rise and fall of its legal and illegal global trade. The view from this local perspective at times confirms, and at others sharply contradicts, national narratives about the African American experience. His chapter on Dutch settlement brings to life the ambiguity of race as a legal concept in one particularly interesting story of 11 enslaved Africans who successfully petitioned Dutch officials for their freedom, as well as farmland on the border of the city, in 1644. The Land of the Blacks stretched from Greenwich Village to Herald Square and acted as a buffer between Dutch settlers and Algonquians. Other particularly strong stories are the alleged 1741 slave conspiracy; the strong antislavery Quaker community in Flushing; the draft riot of 1863; and Elizabeth Jenningss (New Yorks Rosa Parks) successful suit against a streetcar company after she was forcibly thrown off a Whites-only streetcar in 1854.
One missing piece in the history Singer tells of New York as a microcosm of the national debate over human enslavement (p. 76) is the debate over New Yorks 1827 manumission of enslaved Africans. I expected to learn more about this as a local antislavery political victory, which I am sure Singer has the knowledge and ability to render in its full complexity. Rather than critiquing this missing element of his project, however, I mention this as a suggestion for future editions of his curriculum guide.
In addition to providing historical and educational resources for teachers, Singers book picks a larger fight. The books opening scene describes an activist project begun in 2006 by Michael Pezones twelfth-grade United States Government and Politics class at the Law, Government, and Community Service Magnet High School in Queens. Frustrated by the invisibility of key sites in the history of African American slavery in New York City, these students organized some guerilla theater by designing their own historical markers for these sites, visiting the sites and hanging them up in Lower Manhattan. They sent out press releases, invited politicians, and handed out information about what they were doing to people they encountered along the way. Some of their tours, and tours in subsequent years, can be seen on YouTube. Their complaint of historical erasure may sound like a broad one, but it is actually quite timely. Singer, and the teachers he works with in the New York area, were frustrated by the 2007 New York State legislatures failure to pass a symbolic resolution apologizing for the states role in slavery, and establishing a commemorative day in honor of those enslaved in New York.
The struggle continues, as the New York State Department of Education appointed an Amistad Commission in 2005, charged with reviewing the teaching of slavery in New York and making recommendations to the governor and legislature on facilitating the inclusion of the African slave trade, American slavery studies, African-American history and special programs in the educational system of the state (p. 57.53.). Singer alleges that such commissions are little more than public relations pronouncements designed to pacify important voting blocks, and points out that a year after its establishment, only two commissioners had been appointed. Brief research at the time of writing this review supports his complaint. The commission has met only once, four years after its establishment, and has produced no reports or other activities. In contrast, New Jerseys Amistad Commission, established in 2002, offers two Amistad Summer Institutes for New Jersey teachers, awards 10 Annual Amistad Exemplary Practice Grants to support schools and teachers who develop and implement original programs on the teaching of slavery, and provides extensive curricular materials online.
New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truths real work rests not in the pages of a book, but in the fight to make these ideas available and supported by the New York State Department of Education. As a supplement to a very rich body of documentary sources, this books title points to its frustrations reaching past the excellent curricular offerings Singer has already made available in New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance. If this book succeeds beyond its curricular and pedagogical recommendations, it will be because the members of the Amistad Commission will read and heed its call to teach the truth about slavery in New York. According to Singer, this would require that they implement a strong curriculum across the state, create landmarks making this history visible to New Yorkers, and engage in a more rigorous conversation about reparations. In the words of the state law authorizing the Commission,
All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.
Singers book challenges the state and all teachers in it to educate New York citizens on the full truth of that history.
Singer, Alan J. (2005). New York and slavery: Complicity and resistance. Social Science Docket 5: Retrieved February 12, 2010, from, http://www.nyscss.org/resources/publications/docket/docket-5-2.aspx
State of New York. Dept. of State (2005). Article 57B (57.51-57.54) The Amistad Commission. 57.51. 2. New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law. Retrieved February 12, 2010, from, http://www.dos.state.ny.us/amistad/amistad_law.html
State of New Jersey. Dept. of State (2007 January 8). New Jersey Amistad Commission. Retrieved February 12, 2010, from, http://www.nj.gov/state/divisions/amistad