Seven tips for better lessons about the slavery past

The Slavery Past Commemoration Year begins on July 1. How do you pay attention to this in class? Seven tips.

  1. Focus on the stories of victims

    Ineke Mok conducted research among Amsterdam teachers into education about the slavery past. “In almost all classes I saw comic books about the Second World War, published by the Anne Frank House, where I used to work myself.” Personal stories make a major theme such as the slavery past more tangible. That is why, together with artist Eric Heuvel, she developed a comic book about Quaco, a boy who really lived and fell victim to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. “It is written in the I form, to invite sympathy.” The comic book Quaco: my life in slavery with accompanying teaching material, is also used in schools in Suriname.

    Dwight Wielingen grew up in Suriname and learned about the slavery past at school. As director of primary school Crescendo in Amsterdam Southeast, where groups 7 and 8 regularly pay attention to the history of slavery, he was involved in discussions with the Minister of the Interior on this theme.

    He thinks it's important that the experiences of enslaved people are discussed, but other perspectives should also be discussed, he says. “Look with the students at why the Netherlands became rich through slavery. And to the slavery that already existed in Africa. Give students the opportunity to think about it, so that together we can ensure that this does not happen again.”

  2. Do not discuss slavery as an economic phenomenon

    Ineke Mok: “Education often focused on the transatlantic triangular trade.” This means that merchandise from Europe was exchanged for gold and ivory in West Africa. And for people, who were then brought to the Americas. The products from the plantations there were shipped to Europe. “The triangular trade is a European concept,” says Mok. “For the people who were shipped, it was a one-way trip.”

    Joandi Hartendorp, who conducts doctoral research into education about slavery and the Holocaust, says: “If you only talk about trade and the 'plantation economy', now in the 21st century, you are still talking about people from an economic perspective. as goods in that trade. Look at slavery itself and the impact on people's lives.”

  3. Pay specific attention to slavery in the colonies

    Enslaved people were renamed and could no longer decide about their own bodies, what they ate, where they lived, what they believed. And, specifically for slavery in the colonies, they could also lose their children. “Slavery was intergenerational,” says Joandi Hartendorp. “Children who were born were automatically enslaved on purely racial grounds. Now that I'm a mother, I realize even more how revolting that is." It is also good to look at the Dutch slavery past around the Indian Ocean in Indonesia and South Africa, among others. “This is currently very little discussed in education.”

  4. Don't view enslaved people as victims only

    Ineke Mok: “The comic book about Quaco deliberately does not start with him being enslaved, but with his life before that.” Joandi Hartendorp adds: “Enslaved people should not be seen just as victims. There were revolts. In Suriname, enslaved people fought for freedom and founded free communities. Pay attention to emancipation movements and do not treat the abolition of slavery only from a European perspective.” For stories about plantations and resistance, some teachers focus on the American ones civil rights movement. “Why would you do that if the Netherlands itself has a history of slavery?” Crescendo primary school is located near a square named after the Surinamese freedom fighter Anton de Kom, who was involved in the resistance in the Netherlands during the Second World War. He is mentioned in class.

  5. Don't condone the past

    “Don't say: it was terrible, but there were also good things,” advises Hanneke Felten, researcher at Movisie and Knowledge Platform inclusive living together. “If people have the opportunity to whitewash something, they do so quickly.” Joandi Hartendorp: “If you assume that slavery was normal during the seventeenth century, you are only discussing the norms of that time from the perspective of the perpetrators. Then you don't realize that it was of course not 'normal' at all for the enslaved at that time.” In discussing slavery, it may be necessary to explain what terms were used to speak of enslaved people at the time. “That is sensitive. Discuss why this language was used and what the consequences of certain words are.”

  6. Discuss racism explicitly

    Hanneke Felten: “It is important that the stories not only evoke empathy, but also critical reflection. To this end, actively establish the connection between the slavery past and the present. Don't try to teach 'color blind', but discuss racism explicitly, especially with white students who don't automatically make that connection from their own experience.”

    Joandi Hartendorp taught postcolonial history at the University of Amsterdam. “It also addressed the scientific racism of the late 19th century: biologists and anthropologists portray black people as deviant, non-humans. That was used to justify slavery and other forms of oppression against non-white people. That campaign continues to this day. Awareness is important, as Rutte also mentioned in his apology for the slavery past.”

  7. Don't shy away from painful facts

    Naomi Nagtegaal, a history and social studies teacher at the Hervormd Lyceum West in Amsterdam, asks students questions such as: 'Do you think that white people looked at black people differently when slavery was abolished?' “I hope that this will help students understand that what happened in the past influences how we think, interact and look at each other. Why do you run into certain problems, or do you have more opportunities than others?” She would like the teaching methods to make it clear that after the abolition of slavery, colonialism and imperialism continued to exist, and we still have to deal with discrimination, racism and segregation. “You have to talk about this with students and teachers themselves. As a teacher, study research into the slavery past in your own area. Visit an exhibition, watch a documentary or listen to the podcast The plantation of our ancestors. If you don't shy away from the painful facts, you can have a much more in-depth conversation with students about the past and its consequences in the present.”