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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

How to Talk About Difficult Subjects

Race, Slavery, Violence, Morality

I’m giving a talk on the Age of Exploration to 5th grade teachers this weekend, and was reviewing the focus of the meeting with my host. We came to the place in the talk where I explore the question of morality, and the nature of the tragedy. Historians estimate that the death of the native peoples of America was the largest single demographic tragedy in history — the population may have declined by as much as 90%, primarily due to disease. How do we speak about that — as conquest, as accident, as genocide? The problem, as I see it, is that as there is no simple narrative. As historical fact, the main reason for the immense death was disease, which  the Europeans, the Americans, and the Africans who arrived with the Europeans did not understand. The attitudes of the Europeans were in many cases harsh, even exterminationist — but so were the attitudes of, say, the Aztecs towards peoples they enslaved. So there is no single villain, no Hitler, no Stalin, no Mao — and yet there is tragedy. My host encouraged me to explore these difficult gray areas with the teachers. "They are teachers," he said, "be direct."
   And yet I hear tell that a controversy blew up at a local high scholl when a teacher suggested that the violence of slave revolts was understanbable — that the murder of white women and children needed to be seen in the context of the experience of black slavery — which one student saw as giving blacks a pass — as if murder was not murder if done by a black slave. This exchange sent ripples through the parents and students. Clearly the student had a very limited perspective — to say that you need to see violence in context does not mean you justify it. The Jews who fought back in the Warsaw Ghetto did what they could, the slaves who revolted did what they could. Sometimes being terrifying is a terrible tactic used not just to exact revenge but to spread fear — there is nothing nice about it, but it is a tactic every group has used. So why did this exchange about violence and morality create tension in a high school community, while I’m being encouraged to open up discussion about violence and morality in middle school?
     To put all of this in a different why — what is out of bounds? What kinds of subjects are too hot, too raw, too charged, to bring into classrooms? What is the line between open up kids minds, preparing them to think for themselves, and assaulting them with adult preoccupations they cannot handle? My guess is that the kid who saw the discussion of the slave revolt as a being too easy on the slaves was actually speaking about the present — about how speak to each other now — not about events a century or more in the past. I would love to have been there in that assembly — to get the student to consider what options people have when they have so little control over their lives, and to then lead to the present, and what the current tensions are that would make him so angry about the past. Maybe that is the take away for the talk with elementary students — talking about the difficult past is also about the difficult present, and that is an opportunity, not only a warning.