Identity and Dignity in the Teaching of History

Education for Liberation

This is an exercise which uses the concepts heritage and nationality in a way that teaches students about the struggle of their ancestors, and about difference in a way which upholds the dignity of the subjects.

In teaching American History the instructor naturally bypasses the white supremacist fantasy that holds the United States to be synonymous with America. The community teacher teaches this history from the southern most tip of Latin America, to Central America, the Caribbean, and all of North America. Using a student-centered approach we focus on the ancestors of students in the classroom. In any Boston Public School classroom, for example, the class will have students of African descent, particularly African Americans, Puerto Rican students, Dominicans and Haitians.

We use excerpts from Ward Churchill’s Since Predator Came, From a Native Son (1996), and Indians Are Us? (1994), from Jack Forbes’, Columbus and Other Cannibals (1992), Ronald Fernandez’ Prisoners of Colonialism, The Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico (1994), and from Dangerous Memories, Invasion and Resistance Since 1492 (Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, 1992).

These texts are all written on a college literacy level. Therefore, we read paragraphs out loud together. The technique of reading aloud is, first, a great equalizer — when the reading is done separately and the discussion is done collectively, the “good readers” will always dominate the discussion. When the paragraph is read aloud, the instructor encourages each reader to read slowly, we stop for words whose meaning may escape some of those in the circle — everyone has a dictionary out on the table. By reading aloud this way the hierarchy of “more literate vs less literate” is broken down — every one has an equal chance to get the meaning of the paragraph. Reading aloud in this way is a group literacy development exercise.

Secondly, regularly reading aloud helps people learn how to read. While some students who do not read well will resist at first, the teacher who spends time on creating a circle in her classroom, an atmosphere in which the students feel like they are part of a group of people who have each other’s back, in this atmosphere it is possible to utilize the each-one-teach-one spirit in which students who read better help, in non-intrusive ways, those who struggle with their reading. In this way those who struggle move from struggling to not struggling through the course of the semester.

This present exercise takes place at the end of the semester when the class has learned something of the ways of Native peoples before the European invasion. They have learned of the Columbian encounter, and the origin of the invasion of Africa and the slave trade. They’ve learned about the way native people of the Americas struggled and the similarities and differences between the ways these indigenous people struggled from those of the African continent.

The teacher poses the following scenario:

If it were possible to take the entire nation of the Dominican Republic, put all the people in a room and put a camera on them, and do the same in a room next to them with Puerto Ricans, the overall color (pigmentation of skin) of the Dominicans could be seen to be darker than that of the people in the room full of Puerto Ricans. “Given that the skin color of Puerto Ricans and that of Dominicans run the spectrum from the lightest light to the darkest dark, nevertheless if you could see the entire two nations in two rooms next to each other the Dominican room would overall be darker.”

There will be some back and forth on the validity of this hypothesis, but for those who are familiar with these two nations there will be general cooperation in going on with the exercise.

The question then comes from the instructor: “Why? Why will the Dominicans overall be a darker-skinned people than Puerto Ricans?” Depending on the group it will take varying amounts of time before random guessing gives way to historical analysis. Someone in the room will remember that Columbus annihilated the native population on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic); and that the native people on the island of Puerto Rico, the Taino were not annihilated but were enslaved. The Taino women were raped by the Spaniard slave masters and mated with the African slaves. Therefore, Puerto Ricans have a heritage mixed with Spanish (their “whiteness”), Tainos (“light skinned”) and African (“dark skinned” — the vast majority of the Africans were stolen from West Africa where the people, before the European encounter, were dark-skinned).

Meanwhile, Dominicans are a mix of Africans and Spanish. Minus the light skinned Tainos (who along with the Arawak were exterminated by Columbus on the island of Hispaniola), Dominicans are a darker-skinned people than Puerto Ricans.

The next scenario from the instructor comes: “Put all of Haiti in a room next to all of the Dominican Republic; what will the difference be in the way they look?” Inevitably someone will point out that Haitians are darker-skinned. Again, of course, Haitians span the gamut of skin colors from the “whitest-white” to the “blackest-black,” but overall Haitians are a darker skinned people than Dominicans.

Again, depending upon who is in the class and how much the study during the semester took hold, the random guessing will give way to someone who remembers that the Spanish and French fought over the island of Hispaniola — they fought to determine which European country was going to be the colonial (slave) master of this island and these people; that the two colonial powers split the island in half, with the Dominican side being ruled by the Spanish, and the Haitian side being ruled by the French slave masters.

Then someone will remember that Toussaint L’Ouveture and the Haitian slaves were the first and only slave population in the history of the world to rise up in revolution, militarily defeat the slave masters, and become their own government, a government of ex-slaves. In the course of this revolution the French were routed and kicked off the island. The amount of “mating” (that is, raping of the slave women resulting in mixed birth children) was much less than that taking place on the Spanish-ruled side of the island.

Therefore, Dominicans are a mix of Spanish (where their “whiteness” comes from) and African. Haitians are the people of the Caribbean, by virtue of their successful slave revolution, with least mixture with the slave master. Hence their retention of West African physical features, hence their overall darker-skin when compared to Dominicans who inhabit the same island.

This lesson takes all the racism we’ve been taught about how we look, the deep scars associated with dark skin color, the “colorism” which still permeates the way folks of all three of these nations look at each other, and scraps it, in favor of a dignified way of looking at ourselves and our ancestors.

The Haitians happen to be the darkest because they were raped the least by the slave master, because the slave master wiped out the Native Peoples on the island (the Taino and the Arawak), so it was impossible to mate with them; and because the Haitian slaves annihilated the slave masters in their successful prosecution of a people’s war.

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