The Slavery Math Question

Here’s the deal….Welcome to Gwinett County, Georgia.  Third Grade Math.

“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”

“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

If you have a “teach to the test” curriculum where math and reading are the main thrust of schooling, subjects like history and social studies largely feed into those disciplines.  That’s not a good way to start anyhow.

It has been reported that the local NAACP is asking that the teachers be fired.  I TOTALLY DISAGREE WITH THEM, with all due respect.  This is an opportunity to educate.  This is a classic “teachable moment.”  Firing them will not get the message across, rather it will only fan the flames of misunderstanding.  This isn’t about “political correctness,” such an unfortunate phrase. This is about educational integrity, cultural and historical sensitivity, and the ability of African American parents not just to be incensed, but be proactive, interactive, and personally equipped to be representatives of our people in any educational situation.    Do not discipline these teachers by firing them–discipline them by giving them a better education.  What is the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people here?   The third graders–will bounce back–the question is, can the adults?

http://www.ajc.com/news/gwinnett/norcross-parents-upset-by-1292851.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-emdin/5-messages-from-the-slave_b_1193028.html

If a teacher was trying to integrate other aspects of the curriculum into mathematics, then okay I can understand that.  However…let me break it down.

Let’s try this another way—the word “slave” should be “enslaved person.” The word “slaves,” should be “enslaved people” or “the enslaved.”

Let’s rephrase the word problems to see if the teachers get it: use the following groups–Native Americans, women, Jews, we can keep going, take your pick!  When they go “Oh,” and frown, then we get to indict the fact that in America’s common discourse–being enslaved was somehow less painful, less devastating and less meaningful than an infant being shot at Wounded Knee, a woman being “assaulted” in Bosnia or a starving man in Auschwitz.  All of these examples would make completely insensitive and distasteful language for a math problem, a “joke,” or other such discourse.  So…we should demand the same sort of accountability for the lives of enslaved people.  But remember, dear reader, I am the food historian who will not call MY ancestors “the slaves,” as if they were “the help,” “the caste of Blacks” etc.  The very fact that slave is synonymous with “Black,” is problematic and factually and historically inappropriate.  Such language and such ideas permanently trap our ancestors in the status of being property and not being regarded as human.

Slavery must be dealt with by our society as a whole because it IS the root cause of most of  our racial ills in the West, and it is the root cause of much of what ails the African American community.  More Africans have come willingly to America since 1990 than were forcibly exported and exiled here in the 17th-19th centuries.  What’s the difference?  One group are immigrants from majority-Black societies with aspirations set by colonialization, nation-building in Africa and globalization; the other are people who have always lived as minorities in a society that was designed to set people of African descent at a permanent societal disadvantage. Both groups have their problems, but one of the two has more unique problems owing to the enslaved past.  Don’t get me wrong–I am ALL FOR DISCUSSING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY, INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY AND COMMUNAL RESPONSIBLITY AND SELF RESPECT and CULTURAL INTEGRITY.  No oppressive system should ever get more credit than the human will to overcome it….but….Racial chattel slavery was centered in robbing individuals of their right to person–in body, mind or spirit; their individual liberty, their communal authority, their self respect, and their cultural integrity.  It was a system so morally bankrupt and so intellectually powerful that it has outlived its existence in terms of self-hatred, willful ignorance, community and family divisions, and an interrupted “group-think,” which is to say the corporate mind of a group, nation, ethnicity or so-called “race,” to survive, thwart competition, carve a niche for itself and compete in the marketplace of ideas and to plead its case in the court of public opinion and public discourse.

Another element–the school is majority Latino.  This isn’t just about Black vs. white.  This is a case where Latino American students are being taught reinforced insensitivities and really bad language to discuss American history and culture.

African Americans!  We have to discuss slavery with our children and own it.  Own it.  Own it–and don’t let other people own it……That means we have the right and the responsibility to be experts on our own history and determine the language and talking points about our history–with open eyes.  Taking a step back from this micro-incident, I have been a part of many micro-incidents where African Americans listening to my presentations or present for one of my demonstrations look noticeably dismayed and embarrassed at the mere mention of the word “slavery.”  It’s ridiculous.  By not going into the heart of our history and our collective experience–that which makes us African American—we are ceding our history, ceding our power to define ourselves and ceding our  responsibility to be aware and vocal.

One of the reasons I am embarking on The Cooking Gene and fleshing out the project the way I am is because I want to keep this conversation and this discourse going in a more positive and informed direction.  With all due respect to the cliches….there are some of us–there are MANY of us who are historically and culturally literate and incredibly informed about our history.  That means you start the conversation from a place of knowing–and not from a place of mystery.  It means having the intellectual integrity to explore the matter at hand with completely open eyes  and hands.  By using food to explore slavery, what it meant and where it brought us—and what comes down to us today, we can have a better discourse and have a more educated sense of humanity in a way that deflects but does not ignore, the “elephant in the room.”   We are what we eat so by cooking our history, we can’t help but own it and acknowledge it is a part of us.

Read Christopher Emdin’s piece on Huffingtonpost.com (link above) for a succinct guide to troubleshooting this matter in the future.  This isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time something like this will happen.

I have a math problem, how many people does it take the change the word and repair it–the answer is simple, 7 billion and counting.

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About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
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