Curriculum History

Slavery, Images, and Memory

My students at school and I worked through a wide range of human experiences in our study of World History last week. We finished the fourth week study of the Early Modern Atlantic World. Students were familiar with colonialism and coerced labor systems. This week focused on Africa and the Transatlantic Slave System.

I have been using primary source images more than ever this year, and posting them on Mastodon using the #TeachWorldHistory Teaching about the Atlantic Slave system requires much more carful use of images, because of the intergenerational trauma that some students will experience looking at the images. One of my classes only has two Black students, and seeing projecting such images can be isolate those students from class. As I mentioned recently, tutoring AP US History students has made aware of how much unfiltered racism in US History. Images of viciousness of 19th-century anti-Black racism are common in AP US History texts, and I know that this makes those classes less comfortable, if not emotionally dangerous, for Black students. I am committed to avoiding this in my own classes, especially unmediated images.

Although World History textbooks tend to be better in this area, in part, perhaps, because there is less white washing of other architects of White supremacy such as John C. Calhoun, they do have an issue, in my experience, with images from Africa. Chapter 25, “Africa in the Atlantic World,” in the 5th edition of Traditions and Encounters that my district adopted and I use in class, presents many images from a European view, most of which are from outside the time period. The bronze depiction of a Portuguese soldier by an artisan is a notable exception, and I used an image of one of ivory salt cellars depicting Portuguese traders as a keynote image for class one day. Otherwise, the early modern chapter on Africa is filled with images created by Europeans, most of them the nineteenth-century, which is outside of the time period for the chapter.

Bronze relief of a man in helmet with a gun and a dog at his feet
This image is the exception in a textbook’s illustrations of early modern Africa.

In a 2006 article describe Jerome Handler and Annis Steiner the role of commercial photo libraries in the proliferation of inaccurate and/or anachronistic images of Atlantic Slavery. Textbook authors are not necessarily making the decisions about images in their books, and, like the drunk man looking for his keys where the light is better as opposed to where he lost them, publishers source images based on convenience. Even if textbooks were to have improved since 2006, and I suspect that they have not, these images remain in use in countless slide presentations as teachers search for illustrations online. For instance, a frequently used image for illustrating the early modern Atlantic slave trade, such as in this Wall Street Journal article, is actually a nineteenth-century British drawing of trafficking Africans toward the Indian Ocean. I suspect most history teachers have encountered this image showing Africans walking in a coffle across a savanna with pairs of people joined by a double wooden-collar. (In fact, it came up in an internet search when I checked the spelling of “coffle” just now.) This image does not tell us anything about early modern slave trading in West and West Central Africa, or is easily explained.

If I do use an anachronistic image, it is one that I have selected to illustrate an less known aspect of the past, especially one that shows a marginalized group in a more favorable light. Jessica Marie Johnson hightlights such an image in her brilliant book Wicked Flesh (Penn Press is running a 40% off sale through 12/31/2023). Johnson features the image of an elite West African woman, painted by a French artist in the nineteenth century as an illustration of the role and status of such women in the early modern period on which she focuses. My students discussed a few excerpts from Wicked Flesh, and many expressed their surprise in learning about how some West African women profited from dealing with French enslavers. Students also read Johnson explaining commodification of enslaved people in unflinching detail. This also produced discussion that included, but went far beyond, the brutality of slavery. Again, my goal was to encourage students to understand

Color painting of a Black woman in colorful clothing, including a matching head wrap and sash. Material appears to be silk. She is sitting alone on a bench smoking from a pipe. Her feet are near water and the background includes field, forest, and hills.
The use of “Queen” in the title this image seems figurative. Source: Wikipedia.

I understand the importance of teaching students to read against sources against the grain, and I know that students will come across difficult material in in World History. Images need to be handled more carefully than texts because of their immediacy. Bram Hubbell’s newsletter for World History teachers, Liberating Narratives (well worth the subscription), has sources and techniques for doing this with the Atlantic Slave System. sources and perspectives. To teach reading against the grain Bram suggests a particular text from an enslaving captain, and that is paired with an image from an abolitionism that is sympathetic to the enslaved. Students can work through difficult material, but this topic is difficult enough for Black students, especially those in predominantly White space, without having to bump to brutal images without direct value in understanding the topic or in developing skills.

Art as Intervention

One intervention that I have experimented with, although not this year, is using twenty-first century artistic representations. Ana Lucia Araujo’s Slavery in the Age Memory has insights for high school history teachers, who are often custodians of historical memory.

The Mouth of the King

Several of the pieces that Araujo uses include the role of West Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Romuald Hazoumé’s installation La bouche du roi (The Mouth of the King) is one of her examples. I found this piece fascinating when I read Araujo’s book. The downside to using it in class is the difficulty of conveying the impact of the an installation with images on a screen. The Mouth of the King is body of water of the coast of Benin that enslavers used to traffic Africans while also alluding to the greed of Kings, European and African, who profited from the slave trade. Hazoumé arranged gasoline cannisters painted to look like tradition masks or royals and arranged them to resemble the famous diagram of the slave ship Brooks. The use of gasoline cannisters refers to present-day smuggling of gasoline between Benin and Nigeria.

Romuald Hazoumé: La bouche du roi
Romuald Hazoumé: La bouche du roi
Romuald Hazoumé: La bouche du roi

Most students are familiar with the diagram of the Brooks, and they can see how Hazoumé is evoking it. It is more difficult for them to grasp the meaning of the installation’s reference to gasoline smuggling. The installation included smells and sounds which cannot be replicated in the classroom. Still, I think that students gain from considering how African artists today reflect the Atlantic Slave System.

Red Atlantic

Araujo also highlighted Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino, a woman of color whose work interrogates “social, ethnic, and gender issues,” especially the lives of Black women in Brazilian society (artist’s website). Her piece Atlantico Vermlho (Red Atlantic) connects Portuguese colonialism, the long history of slavery and slave trafficking in Brazil, and nineteenth-century scientific racism. Like with Mouth of the King, students will need explanation of the meaning of the elements in this piece. But, it is also an excellent opportunity for them to practice observing and thinking.

Rosana Paulino, Red Atlantic (image from artist’s website)

Araujo explains that the blue tiles in three of the four central sections recall Portuguese colonial material culture, and that the photograph in the top left was made by Louis Agassiz, resident of Brazil who attempted to use photography to support white supremacist ideology. When using all of these images in class, I read from Araujo’s book. This shows students how I, too, am always learning about World History. Her commentary makes the image more legible.

The Black Ocean

William Adjété Wilson’s L’Océan Noir (The Black Ocean) also creates opportunities for students to unpack a complex; and, like The Mouth of the King, it shows students how African artists consider the African role in Atlantic slave trafficking. The image that Araujo highlights and that I have shown students is panel five from an eighteen panel series on the Atlantic slave trade.

Wilson is the son of white French women and a West African (Togo, Benin) father. He was self-taught as an artist before studying with a Beninese textile artist to learn applique technique. Applique panels once adorned the walls of the Dahomey royal palace, a kingdom that included much of present-day Benin and that profited from slave trading. Panel five shows European slavers, the King of Dahomey, and an enslaved African man.

William Adjété Wilson, Black Ocean

Students can see the complexity of the slave trafficking along the West African coast in this image. Students come to class knowing that slavery was bad, and these images are meant to help them to think more deeply about what that meant in the past and what it means in the future. The art pieces are not necessarily less difficult for students to confront, but they do show honest attempts by artists of color to grapple with this hard history. Also, I would not just post or link to these in the online pltaforms that my class uses. When I showed them in class I used Pear Deck, an extension for Google slides that allows students to respond individually.

After reading Araujo’s book and experimenting with these images images in class, the historian Marcus Rediker tweeted another piece of art that would be useful.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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