There Is No Zen in Teaching Slavery

Today marks the conclusion of Black History Month. I sincerely hope this month has caused you to become more aware of the significant contributions of Black American leaders, innovators, educators, inventors, etc., that have built this country. I found social media particularly helpful with some accounts paying particular attention to historically significant Black Americans most of us are less familiar with.

If school systems national wide had any sense at all, Black History lessons have been front and center in February’s curriculum. And in my opinion, no, parents do not get the option for their kids to opt-out of Black History Month lessons, as was what happened at a school in Utah this school year. In a very challenging season in education, there have been many intrepid educators who have sought to teach lessons in more innovative and creative ways than in years past and there is much to be applauded. However, there are educators that make me wonder how they were ever entrusted with a license to influence the minds of children.

Case in point: the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware is currently investigating a situation where a kindergarten teacher incorporated yoga into her teaching of slavery and the Middle Passage. Buckle your seatbelts folks, your jaws are about to hit the floor.

The teacher in question is likely aware that yoga is a helpful tool for young children to exercise, learn focus, and calm their emotions. A wonderful activity for P.E. or quiet time. This teacher was wise to believe her Kindergarteners would be well served to learn about the crime of slavery and its role in the building of the United States from that young age. But she put the two together. And it was. … no. Just no. As the children were learning virtually, a parent was able to record the “lesson” and posted it to Facebook, much to the horror and disgust of parents and all non-racists.

According to this report in*, the teacher combined yoga poses with her version of how Africans were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to America. I’d like to emphasize “her version.”

“’ African people came to America on boats to become slaves,” the teacher says in the video. So, here’s the great big country of Africa. They crossed the Atlantic to come over to America. So right now, I need you to get into your boat pose,’ she says, demonstrating the yoga post.”

Let’s unpack this, shall we? (I can feel my blood pressure rise as I write this). 1. African people came to America on boats to become slaves. More like human trafficking and robbing human beings of their agency. 2. This great big country of Africa. Africa is a continent comprised of countries. How did this teacher get past elementary school not knowing? And she got a teaching certificate? But then again, most Americans are notoriously pathetic at basic world geography—that has been well documented. 3. Get into your boat pose, so the children can understand exactly how enslaved people were trafficked to America. This teacher knows nothing—nothing about the truth of how human beings were forced to American shores and being treated worse than animals in utterly horrific conditions. Questions? Just read Alex Haley’s well-researched account in his classic, Roots. How anyone survived that is evidence of superhuman strength. So no, not quite the same as balancing in boat pose while focusing on some light inhalations and exhalations.

But wait. There’s more.

“’ Africans were treated very poorly, even though they farmed the land and plowed the fields to make America beautiful and help grow our food,’ the teacher continues. ‘They worked in the fields all day. If you’re at home, you can try the plow pose.”’


Africans were treated very poorly, even though they farmed the land and plowed the fields to make America beautiful and help grow our food.

Yes, treated poorly. Farmed and plowed. No mention of overseers standing at the ready to whip a slave at whim, or that children were bred by masters to increase productivity and monetary value and said children could be torn from their mothers to be sold off, abused, and murdered.

But I hear where some might say, “She was teaching kindergarten students. She can’t talk about those things so she had to speak in language they could understand.” As a parent, I completely understand age-appropriate language, tone, and delivery in teaching children. But children are much more capable than we give them credit for in understanding difficult things. So much so, they often develop more empathy and righteous indignation in a way adults seem to miss altogether.

Children can be told that white people kidnapped African people because those particular people were mean and hateful. They know that kidnapping is wrong and very scary. We have taught them that well by the age of five and six. Children can be told that people were beaten and hurt very badly. They can be told that slaves had chains put on them and it hurt them. They can be told that the ships that brought them to America were not Royal Caribbean cruise ships with waterslides. They can hear about and understand the terrible conditions enslaved people endured in the passage. They can be told that working in the fields was hard and painful work and that enslaved people were hurt by mean people, that their families didn’t get to stay together, and that they were hungry, cold or too hot, and scared.

These are hard but understandable facts kindergarten children can digest. And comprehending this can go a long way toward helping them reject racism, inequality, and violence long before many think they are capable of doing that.

And no, yoga has no place whatsoever in the presentation and dialogue of these difficult but necessary truths of American history.

What in the world was this teacher thinking?


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