Telling the Story of Slavery Through Triptychs – 8th Grade ELA

IMG_1020Ms. Felton’s 8th grade ELA class is in the midst of studying slavery in America. After reading numerous texts, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, poetry, first hand accounts, articles and stories, students developed a thesis idea about slavery that was the main idea for both the art triptych you see before you and an essay that accompanies the art. The thesis was expressed both in words and in pictures.

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Education in Slavery – by Delilah M (image above)

In the early years of slavery, most if not all slaves were denied the right to an education. Most slave states felt very strongly about this, and believed that attempting to teach a slave was a punishable offense. In 1830, a law stating that any free person who gave a slave a book or pamphlet, taught or attempted to teach one to read, write, or do figures (math) in the state of North Carolina was at risk of being accused of the crime in a State court. Denying slaves their education was necessary for most slave masters to keep control because if the slaves had been given their educations they would have had the potential to surpass their masters and break free of the chains holding them down.

Slave masters and owners in slave states had many reasons for not allowing slaves to become literate, but the main reason was that they were afraid that an educated slave would have the knowledge and power to threaten the slave master authority. Slave masters were afraid that their slaves would be smarter than them if they were literate, and would then realize that they had every reason to be unhappy with their slave status, and would rebel, therefore winning their freedom and leaving the slave master without a slave to do their bidding. In the case of Frederick Douglass, a black slave who was eventually freed, the fears of these slave masters and owners were justified.  Douglass once said, “I didn’t know that I was a slave until I found out that I couldn’t do the things that I wanted,” (Why am I a slave?, an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass). He realized that he was enslaved when his owner, Mr. Hugh Auld, tried to withhold his education from him, saying that teaching a slave to read was unconstitutional and dangerous. He said that “niggers” should only know how to obey orders from their masters, and that learning would ruin the best slave and was harmful because they would become unhappy with their life, making them uncontrollable and unfit to be a slave.   For these reasons, slave masters and owners validated their actions with the notion that unkindness was the only way to keep their slaves under control.

To their credit, they were partially correct because when given an education, many  enslaved African Americans did break free of slavery and became great. Frederick Douglass learned the ABC’s from his master’s wife, Mrs. Sophia Auld, but when Mr. Auld found out he forbade Mrs. Auld to continue the lessons saying, “If you give a nigger an inch, he’ll take an ell.” (The ABC’s, an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass). In this case Mr. Auld was saying that if you give a slave a taste of an education, he will become obsessed and will do anything in his power to continue his education. Mr. Auld was correct because that is exactly what the young Frederick Douglass did, even after Mrs. Auld stopped teaching him. He was sent to Baltimore, Maryland when he was eight years old to work in a shipyard. It was there that he finished learning the ABC’s, and learned how to read and write by tricking other boys into giving him lessons, or paying them for lessons with bread. Then, at the age of 21, he ran away, escaped slavery, and became a spectacular lecturer, editor, writer, organizer, diplomat, and most importantly, a leader for the black people. He was also involved in helping emancipated slaves through their transition into the free world. Eventually he wrote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845, and became an immediate success in Europe and the United States. One other case was Phillis Wheatley, who was brought to Boston as a slave for the Wheatley family in 1761. Phillis was educated by the Wheatleys who strongly believed in education and culture. She wrote a collection of poems which was published in 1773, but only after 17 men verified that they were actually written by her, and were not stolen or copied. She married a free black man who eventually left her and their last child. She died as a poor lonely woman surrounded by people that she didn’t know with her child on December 5, 1784. Throughout her life she accomplished many great things such as her published collection of poetry, and a few of her more well known poems written for George Washington. Although Frederick Douglass, and Phillis Wheatley were in very different situations, they were both able to accomplish great things once they were educated that they would not have been able to do bad they not gotten an education.

For these reasons, slave masters felt that it was necessary for their slaves to be illiterate to keep them under their control. They believed that their slaves would not only have the power to find freedom, and push the academic boundaries set in place by the white community, but also to challenge their master’s authority. This potential challenge to the slave masters’ authority was the largest threat because when one slave rebelled, or made trouble, than other slaves raised their heads and realized that there was another possible life that did not include being enslaved.


Slavery by Prayosha D (image above)

Slavery has followed mankind everywhere it has gone. In fact, Western slavery dates back to approximately 10,000 years ago to Mesopotamia. Even though we think of slavery as a demolished act, it is still continuing in different parts of the world. But what comes to mind most when the word slavery appears, is the Africans that were imported to the United States and were forced to do farm work in the South. The preponderance of the population also thinks that slaves achieved freedom when they escaped or were freed from their masters. However, that is only the physical component. The mental part of it is believing. Slaves had to have the the belief in themselves that they were not who they were told they were in order to achieve freedom.

Slaves were not treated like humans and were stripped of their identity by others telling them they were someone who they were not. Aristotle once said, “Slaves are human instruments” signifying their use as tools. It was as if Africans were only good for work. Others did not make things any better. Most whites demeaned slaves so much as to not even recognizing them as humans anymore. A ship heading for Jamaica in 1781 with a cargo of 417 slaves was running out of water and a deadly disease had broken out. The ship’s captain made the decision to throw the slaves overboard because if they were to die, the insurance would pay for it. Soon some abolitionists heard about this and went to court however the jury ruled in favor of the ship’s owners. Since it was permissible to kill animals for the safety of the ship, they decided, it was permissible to kill slaves for the same reason. Slave owners also punished their slaves harshly and very severely for trying to run away, stealing, or self defense. Some punishments included getting put in shackles, branded, body parts cut off, and even death.

Even though slaves were stripped of their identity, they still had the belief in themselves and achieved freedom. Take Frederick Douglas for example. His mistress taught him the ABCs but when her husband found out, he gave her a stern talk by saying that a slave should not know anything but to obey his master and that by giving him an education, she would ruin the slave’s life and make the slave be of no value. However, Douglas put these discouraging words to the side and continued to learn how to write by doing whatever he could. At the age of 21, he fled slavery and became one of the most brilliant American writer. Another example is Sojourner Truth. She was a slave in New York and was often beat by her owner and was treated particularly poorly. Nonetheless, she grew up to be a brave and extremely impactful person. On one such incident, Sojourner Truth even went to court and won her case! Not only was she an abolitionist, she also spoke for women and women’s rights. A very famous stanza from the poem ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou signifies how slaves persevered and got through so much. The stanza is “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise”.

In order to be free, slaves had to believe in themselves that they were not who they were told they were. Hardships came and went, but most slaves had the self confidence that they were still of as much worth as a white person. A quote by Mahatma Gandhi states, “The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters will fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others.” The quote summarizes this writing piece’s point completely. Slaves had to realize that what people were telling them was wrong and even though sometimes things  got tough, you had to have hope that things were going to get better and the strength to defy against the odds.

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