Teaching Slavery: The Sensitivities of Hard History

Looking at both sides, from student to teacher, of learning the hard history of slavery: to what extent is too much too much?

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A black and white slide reads: “The Human Cost, and Monetary Profits, (Late 1600s). A male slave cost 20 pounds, Produced 20 pounds worth of exportable sugar per year, how long must he stay alive to profit his owner?”

A plethora of reactions rippled through the student body, after the @blackatspecialized Instagram account uploaded an image of the slide from an anonymous submission. This slide came from a United States History classroom, taught by Social Studies teacher Eric Barry, where he paraphrased a quote from a plantation owner as a math problem.

In an e-mail interview, Barry clarified his original intentions. “I started by telling the class that when I was preparing this slide I was eating and I had to stop because it was so upsetting to see these numbers. I wanted to share my own vulnerability and model for the students that being upset at genocide is a normal reaction,” he wrote. “The second part of the slide [is] paraphrased from the journal of such a planter (from Barbados) [...] I envisioned my students empowered with knowledge, able to explain to skeptics that this genocide was deliberate, that in fact slave owners on sugar plantations literally calculated as a math problem how much they could profit by genocide.”

Barry also noted that because it was the end of class, he didn’t give the slide the sensitivity it deserved. “Unfortunately, I was rushing because it was the end of the class period. Because I was hurrying, I didn't spend as much time as needed to frame what students were seeing.”

However, this context was not provided when the slide was uploaded to social media. Anonymous junior A, who took the photo of the slide, recounted the last moments of that class period. In their class, a non-Black student gave a numerical answer to the question on the slide, which Barry confirmed. “This is a humanities class and it felt more like, ‘there’s a set answer to this, and we’re just going to move on from it.’ I don’t think the point that he was trying to prove was proved in the way that it should have been. And it was the last slide so that was my last impression of the class for that day. I had taken a picture of it after the class ended, because the more I thought about it, the worse it got,” A said.

A did not expect the widespread attention from other students and the Stuyvesant administration. “When I posted it, I did not expect the uproar that it brought. [...] I knew people would not agree with it, but I didn’t think that it would spread on a scale that it did because it reached specialized high schools that I wasn’t even attending. And it got to a point where everyone was talking about Stuyvesant, which they didn’t have enough context for, I’ll admit that. But it’s definitely a conversation we had to have,” A said.

Senior Nya Masoni, who learned about the situation through Instagram, understood the discomfort that students felt from the slide. “From what I’ve seen, I think it’s pretty messed up—the slide. [...] I’m not saying that [Barry] was doing it to be racist or anything. But I am saying that it was perfectly right, for, especially my Black peers, to call out his slide.”

The growing attention to the original @blackatspecialized post prompted a meeting with several members of the faculty and administration, the Black Students League (BSL), as well as Barry himself, intended to initiate understanding and reconciliation between students and teachers.

Prior to the meeting, Barry noted that he did not know about the extent of the reaction from students. “I was invited to come explain my slide having only been told that there was a meme of my slide saying ‘It’s not a math problem.’ No one had informed me either of the breadth and depth of the reaction, nor of the specific objections or feelings of the students. Some BSL members at the meeting expressed that they were upset that I had not addressed their concerns in my first statement, but at that point no one had shared those concerns with me.”

Even though Barry was initially uninformed about the situation, Anonymous, who knew about the situation from peers and the Instagram post, was frustrated by Barry’s lack of an apology after hearing the feelings of other BSL members. “We were questioning him, asking him for his reasoning, ‘Why would you do that?’ We were trying to tell him how insensitive it was.”

Senior and BSL Events Coordinator Samantha Farrow was also disheartened at the reluctant apology offered to BSL and the initial lack of understanding from both the administration and Barry. “So, he started talking about what he was thinking behind the slides, didn’t apologize, and then he opened it up for questions. We made a couple of statements talking about how it’s not necessarily about the intent of the slide, it’s the effect that it had on the students in his class. [...] He should have started with an apology.”

Barry explained that his intention behind the slide was not malicious, but rather to show the stark economic realities of slavery. “My hope in showing my students the horrifying statistics on slavery was to arm them with knowledge they can use to empower themselves in the world outside of our classrooms in which large numbers of people actively deny the brutality of slavery and seek to ban its teaching.”

Despite this, however, in an e-mail to The Spectator, he apologized for any hurt and discomfort it caused students. “Unfortunately I miscalibrated my presentation of this upsetting material and some students were deeply hurt. I offer my sincerest apology. I have heard their voices and I understand much better the vulnerability they felt,” Barry wrote. “In the future, I will take more steps to make everyone feel safe when we discuss historical atrocities. And my door is open to anyone with concerns about this incident or other aspects of my teaching.”

Perhaps what was most upsetting for the students was not the content of the slide itself, but rather the degree to which students felt that they were pitted against adults who did not understand the emotional sensitivity needed in the meeting. “A lot of the members of BSL and people affected started getting emotional. And then I remember [an administrator] saying, ‘Oh, he doesn’t have to be here.’ What do you mean he doesn’t have to be here? He should hear what we have to say,” Farrow said.

The administrator, when contacted, declined to comment.

Barry wrote that he believed that the meeting was helpful in fully understanding the sentiment of the students toward his slide, though it did not fully resolve the tension between the administration and students. “The main point of the meeting, for BSL students to share their reactions and thoughts, was accomplished. In hindsight I think the meeting could have been more successful at achieving understanding and reconciliation if the students had spoken first,” he wrote.

For multiple parents of students in BSL, this was not the case, prompting a second meeting. “My mother, actually one of the people who spurred the second meeting with the principal, called Principal Yu. [...] I think he got a call from another parent, which spurred him to e-mail all the people who were at the meeting and say, ‘I just want to talk to you. It’s just gonna be me,’” Farrow said. “And then we had the second meeting, and it started with Principal Yu apologizing for how poorly the first meeting went, which was appreciated.”

Rather than fixating on defending the original catalyst behind the situation, the second meeting focused on students’ feelings and gave space for them to voice their experiences, and for the administration to listen. “We were just sharing our experiences with racism at Stuy. Mr. Yu was telling us about how he knows how we feel because he was also one of two East Asian kids at his school. [...] So he understands how it is,” Anonymous said. “[He] was trying to make us feel safe in the school.”

Though it is important to explore the potentially upsetting sides of history and sensitive subjects, many students agree that such discussions should be handled with more time and care. “[The situation] shows that you need to be sensitive when it comes to relaying information and at least teaching students of color and students who aren’t of color. Just overall being inclusive in what you teach, and teaching it in a way that’s not censored, but also in a way that is effective and doesn’t make students uncomfortable,” senior and BSL president Suki Ferguson said.

This sentiment is echoed by Barry in how teachers should approach teaching sensitive topics. “As teachers we need to be sensitive to student voices and aware that feelings and standards shift,” he said. “What the BSL expressed to me is that it’s also important not to go so far in teaching slavery that it feels like an attack. So we have to adapt, and we will.”