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Understanding Slavery

Accessed: 2 August 2007

Understanding Slavery is an educational project designed to aid and progress the teaching of enslavement in British schools. The project was installed in 2003 with the support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and what was the Department for Education and Skills. The project has also formed partnerships with prominent museums to facilitate their objectives and to provide museums with assistance in developing projects to work with teachers and young people.

The wide-ranging consultation the project engaged in before publishing teaching tools has enabled a detailed framework for implementation of educational materials in the classroom. The project covers significant areas of interest and concern for teachers including, the key historical facts, significant issues including the legacy of enslavement, teaching approaches and tools. The project provides teachers, education coordinators and museum workers with a resource from which to draw all the information needed for the inclusion of the teaching of slavery in schools. An original feature of the project is the concern for integrating museum displays of artefacts of enslavement with the teaching of enslavement in schools. The project places great attention on the value of these objects as educational tools, to draw young people's attention to enslavement and to make it accessible. The issue of understanding is also important in the project's guidelines as are the use of language and the representation of slavery. The way in which the history of enslavement is described to young people is considered highly important by the project; terms such as 'enslaved' is preferred rather than 'slave', 'freedom fighter' rather than 'rebel' and 'African countries' rather than 'Africa.' These distinctions are thought important as according to the project, 'many words are considered offensive and dismissive because they served to objectify the people who were enslaved and disregard the African perspectives of the history.' The visceral history of enslavement is deemed important as well as the project argues for a place for the violence of the Atlantic slave trade. Issues of revernce and respect for the images of torture and oppression are also raised by the project.

A noticeeable omission of the project is of any debates concerning guilt, complicity, shame and reparations. The project suggests that a teaching of the 'full history' of slavery is needed to prevent a 'them' and 'us' situation developing in the classroom. This could well be considered to negate the historical significance of slavery for those who consider themselves to belong to the African diaspora. To avoid the issue of guilt and reparations would appear to damage the project as it avoids one of the prominent areas of debate which surround the bicentenary of the 1807 Act. To prevent young people accessing this debate may well be more harmful than the healing process which the project attempts to install. Another signifiant absence is the ability to locate the history of slavery into the local areas of school. The project provides no strategies for connecting particular places with the history of slavery. The difficulties, sensitivities and the potential divisive nature that this history may have in communities is significant and failing to tackle this area could be considered a shortsighted approach.

The project nevertheless represents a valuable tool in the teaching of a difficult area of the past. Its innovative collaborations with museums marks the project as forward thinking. However it is open to the accusation of sanitising history and focusing on a national history rather than a regional perspective.

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