Clark professor, alumnus examines slavery’s depiction in contemporary children’s books

The legacy of slavery might be discussed widely in the Caribbean, but here in the United States we struggle with how to teach the past to our children.

So noted Raphael Rogers ’94, assistant professor of education at Clark University, in his Nov. 13 Higgins School lecture, “Slavery on their Minds: Representing the ‘Peculiar Institution’ in Contemporary Children’s Picture Books.” The talk was part of the Higgins School of Humanities’ ongoing exploration of the power of narrative.

Rogers has been using contemporary children’s books to help University Park Campus School students understand slavery. These books, written as historical fiction, depict slavery in a way that helps young people comprehend the experience, he said.

He brought his entire UPCS class of high-schoolers to the lecture so they could share what they’d learned. One student remarked that he initially had little interest in the project, but acknowledged that “it changed me.”

Rogers recalled his own childhood growing up in St. Thomas and St. Kitts, where he would listed to the “really smart adults” in his life reflect on the institution of slavery. During his presentation he played the reggae song “Slavery Days,” by Burning Spear, to illustrate how the culture of slavery was woven into modern music. History classes in Caribbean schools often focus on slavery, he noted, and memorials commemorating the slaves who revolted for freedom dot the islands.

“On the islands, slavery is not seen as a shameful thing,” Rogers said. “The folks who came before were strong individuals.”

After graduating from Clark in 1994, Rogers taught history in several different school systems in Massachusetts. He learned quickly that he couldn’t go into depth on any one topic since standardized tests like the MCAS stressed the breadth of historical information learned. Some textbooks devoted little energy to covering slavery, he said, leaving students with only a basic understanding of the subject.

A rise in the number of films about slavery in recent years has heightened the demand to give this ugly chapter in U.S. history the attention it deserves, he said, and children’s picture books and young adult fiction are doing it right.

“If you look before the 1960s, the writing was about what black folks are like, [about] slaveholders being paternalistic and kind to slaves. This is still in some books today,” he said. According to Rogers and the University Park Campus School students, today’s students who have read books featuring more modern depictions of slavery won’t stand for those misperceptions.

Rogers is now putting together a chapter delving into the history of slavery for a book about new ways of looking at children’s literature.

Several of the UPCS students noted that they are more conversant on the subject of slavery than they’d ever been and were shocked to learn some of the details they’d never been taught in elementary school. Going forward, the students said, they will not allow themselves to be sheltered from the truth.

 — Kate Rafey ’08, M.P.A. ’09