My learning objective that day wasn’t necessarily related to slavery. I was teaching about the characteristics of different colonial regions and wanted to provide a context for understanding the uniqueness of American slavery in the South. To do this, I began to lecture about the concept and origins of slavery, explaining that slavery had existed in many major civilizations for thousands of years prior to the enslavement of Africans on the American continent. Jordan raised her hand, “Are you saying there were Asian slaves and white slaves, too?” I replied in the affirmative and searched my mind for some good examples, but before I could even get started, she interrupted me – “There were no white slaves. They were the masters. I don’t believe you.” What started as a curious question was quickly turning into an act of intellectual defiance. I went on to show pictures of European, Egyptian and Indian slavery and explained that these civilizations had enslaved their own people as a means of extracting labor. My goal was to make clear the distinct type of slavery used in the Americas – one in which people were enslaved and involuntarily transported to a different civilization for labor, rather than a people enslaved by their own rulers. Despite my best efforts, Jordan was still unconvinced by the end of class. Afterward, I thought to myself, “was this concept too deep for them? Should I have approached it differently or skipped it altogether?” I decided that my intentions were good, but I had certainly been unprepared for such an obstacle.
Instead of simply moving beyond it, I found Jordan after school to have a conversation. I sat her down in my room to discuss her thoughts on slavery and to feel her out in a more private atmosphere. Perhaps she had just been showing off for her classmates when she dueled with the teacher. I told her that although I appreciated her input and skepticism, she couldn’t decide what to believe and not believe in history. “There are different ways of thinking about history,” I told her, “but history happened – whether it makes sense to you or not.” Jordan walked over to our class set of American history textbooks and laid it on the desk in front of me. “If it happened, then show me.” I was taken aback by her forwardness and conviction to proving me wrong, but it only fueled my desire to win her over. I probably searched that text for 10 minutes before giving up. There was nothing about slavery before America, nor was there any mention about the unique nature of the Middle Passage or the Atlantic Slave Trade. From Jordan’s perspective, she was the victor. My words were just that – my own thoughts and ideas. In her eyes, they had little credibility. It was in the textbook that Jordan found truth, and that scared me.