Guest Column: Learning and caring can go hand in hand

Recently, the Southold Historical Society curated an exhibit on the lives of enslaved persons in Southold Town, and we read with interest The Suffolk Times editor Steve Wick’s Sept. 9 column “Historical society’s slavery exhibit shines an overdue light.” Mr. Wick praised the exhibit as a starting point for much-needed discussion and expressed a desire for other local groups to pick up the work of acknowledging this painful, but important, history. We at Peconic Community School could not agree more: Discussions about enslavement and the lives of enslaved persons are vital conversations with the potential to activate profound change.

Last winter, I facilitated a unit on enslavement with my class of fifth- and sixth-graders at Peconic Community School. As an entry point into this difficult study we focused on learning the narratives of enslaved persons on Long Island during an integrated studies unit titled “Telling Our Stories.” It was important to us that we bring the stories of enslaved persons to light and honor their lives in the community. We sought out authentic learning experiences and research opportunities that we hoped would connect us most closely to the lives of enslaved persons on the East End.

The students and I visited historic sites of enslavement — museums, exhibits and historical societies. We consulted with historians and record-keepers to access, firsthand, primary texts and original documents, including writings, censuses and manumissions. With the help of people like Wendy Annibell from the Suffolk County Historical Society and Donnamarie Barnes at Sylvester Manor, we came to know the stories of local figures such as Jupiter Hammon, Venture Smith and Ward Lee, and were able to explore the living quarters of former enslaved persons and walk silently through ancient burial grounds. With David Rattray of The East Hampton Star, students had the extraordinary privilege to work with primary documents as part of the Plain Sight Project, which amplifies the narratives of enslaved persons by uncovering and recording as many names and biographical details as possible.

What emerged from our interaction with the materials and places we visited was that, what the students were really seeking, beyond facts or confirmations, was a connection to the people they were discovering. And that connection was formed by their learning. For these students, knowing became a way to care. And the more they cared, the more they wanted to know, and the more they learned, the more they questioned.

We were fortunate to find guides and resources like Ms. Annibell, Ms. Barnes, Mr. Rattray, Sylvester Manor and the “Long Road to Freedom” exhibit at The Long Island Museum, but much of our study was far from easy. Education about enslavement in America has been fraught with fear, misinformation and deep unease. As Mr. Wick pointed out in his column, many historians “did not just overlook the stories of the enslaved people here. They willfully ignored them. They did not fit the script.” When my students went looking for evidence of these stories — trying to gain access to historic legal documents, or trying to determine whether the bodies of the enslaved really were beneath the sign labeling an area a “slaves burial ground” — they were frustrated. Answers were difficult to find. There were roadblocks; omissions, inaccuracies and gaps.

One of the biggest takeaways from the end of our trimester study — in fact, our clearest conclusion — was that we weren’t done. We had to settle with having opened the door to a dark and difficult history. We peered in and came to care deeply, knowing more and wanting more for the people we met there. And then we had to sit with that door open. As it turns out, I think that is the work: to learn, to seek, and then to sit with the door open, and care and keep asking for more.

Three weeks ago, my class of fifth- and sixth-grade students (including four students returning from last year’s study) read a story in Newsday about an alarming history “lesson” at a middle school in Freeport, Long Island, where a teacher instructed her middle-school students to caption photos of enslaved persons and to “make it funny and don’t bore me.” I invited my students to respond in writing, and many wrote letters to the school. What amazed me about their responses was not their outrage at the teacher’s assignment, but the compassion they felt for the school community. They apologized to the students that the teacher had broken their trust and misused her authority. They expressed regret that the kids didn’t have the opportunity to do real learning about enslavement, and they offered resources they had used that they thought might be beneficial to a historically honest study of enslavement and racism. This is the kind of conversation that comes from care.

Last weekend one of my 10-year-old students visited the Lincoln Memorial and heard the park ranger leading the tour repeatedly use the word “slaves.” At the end of the tour, the student asked the ranger if he would consider using the term “enslaved person” because it’s more respectfully accurate. The ranger agreed, my student told me, and he hung around to listen to the start of the next tour using the revised language. This is the kind of change my students are willing to ask for.

What we are seeing at Peconic Community School is that when children are offered the opportunity to approach this difficult subject in a way that honors the lives of enslaved persons and acknowledges the true, and troubling, nature of our relationship to this past, they learn to care. And this care propels the kinds of courageous and compassionate questioning that creates positive change. Students are asking for more, from park rangers, from educators and from their communities. Let’s help them achieve it.

Ms. Timoney is a teacher at Peconic Community School in Aquebogue.