Slavery's Lesson Plan

Amistad'' is a history lesson any high-school teacher could envy. It's in living color and bigger than life--full of conflict and human emotion, a vivid retelling of an almost-forgotten incident in which the slaves, for once, rebelled and won their freedom. But Hollywood teaches history only rarely. What's going on in the classrooms?

The surprising news is that the history of American slavery has never been taught better. That is partly because historians have spent the past 20 years revising the traditional view of slavery's place in U.S. history, and partly because publishers have finally incorporated much of that research in their textbooks. The changes are striking: greater emphasis on the buried history of African-American resistance, and a belated recognition of the significance of slavery and race in American society from colonial times to the present day.

In the 1950s and '60s, most texts said the ""War Between the States'' was caused by disagreements over issues like tariffs and states' rights; slavery was but one of several causes. Slaves were often depicted as happy Sambos, slave revolts went unmentioned and abolitionism was presented as the view of a small number of northern extremists. The Reconstruction Era was interpreted as hard times for the South because of the corrupt rule of carpetbaggers and scalawags, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan was passed over in tactful silence.

By the mid-'70s, virtually all history texts agreed that the cause of the Civil War was slavery. ""Sambo'' had disappeared, and black liberators like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass earned at least a mention. Still, segregation, race violence and the economic oppression of African-Americans generally got short shrift. According to James W. Loewen, author of ""Lies My Teacher Told Me,'' few textbooks made the connection between the federal government's decision to abandon Reconstruction in 1877 and the civil-rights crisis of the 1960s-- although they involve the same issues, voting rights and black political power.

Not anymore. New texts like ""The Americans,'' forthcoming from McDougal Littell, discuss the historical links between slavery, Jim Crow and the civil-rights movement. The book also presents disturbing facts about race violence in America. Here are two that every American should know. Between 1885 and 1900, at least 2,500 blacks were lynched or murdered as the KKK consolidated its hold on the post-Reconstruction South. In 1741, 14 slaves were burned at the stake and 18 others were hanged because of fears of a slave revolt--in New York City.

But facts are only facts. ""Without explaining its relevance to the present, coverage of slavery is like coverage of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff--just more facts for 11th graders to memorize,'' Loewen says. That's why good teachers go beyond the text to engage the moral imagination of their students. In a typical high-school course in U.S. history, slavery and the Civil War are discussed for about a week--five 45-minute classes. That isn't much, and it's the only exposure to the history of slavery most of us ever get. So by dramatizing a long-forgotten episode in America's racist past, a movie like ""Amistad'' can drive the essential lesson home: like it or not, who we were has much to do with who we are.