Key Takeaways from the Gilder Lehrman Center 24th Annual Conference: Teaching Race & Slavery in the American Classroom

November 16, 2022

By Daisha Brabham

On November 5th and 6th, I was honored to participate in the 24th Annual Conference for the Gilder Lehrman Center. The theme this year was Teaching Race & Slavery In the American Classroom. The conference invited speakers from various academic fields and regions of the country to discuss the importance of anti-racist education and its implementation in K-12 contexts.

Including a range of stakeholders - from journalists to historians to elementary school teachers - each panel provided new insight into educators’ specific craft. Each of us has a role to play in the fight for anti-racist education. Our success depends upon us sharing resources and working together for the greater public good.

In the paragraphs below, I offer a few key takeaways that I hope will tempt you to engage with the panels directly via video if you haven’t watched them already.

Key Takeaways 

This is a fight

As an educator in Connecticut, you can sometimes feel protected from the onslaught of attacks on racial education. Horror stories emerging from places like Florida and Mississippi, where teachers face acute surveillance in their classrooms, can seem like an alternate universe. But it is important to remember that contemporary attacks have long and broad reach. 

During their panel, Gloria Ladson Billings and Hasan Jeffries detailed the history of attacks on public school education. Dr. Jeffries, for example, pointed out that in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education a long fight to integrate schools ensued, including efforts to use public school dollars to fund private school education.

And the attacks remain coordinated. Library Media Specialist from Fairfield, Kevin Staton, demonstrated the dangerous degree of coordination among current attacks. During his presentation, he shared a seemingly benign website titled booklooks. The opening page reads: What’s in a book? Find out what objectionable content may be in your child’s book before they do. When you click on the book review section, up pops an alphabetized list of familiar texts, including the Hate U Give, The Bluest Eye, and many more. Each book has been rated on a 5-point scale with “problematic” excerpts organized by page number.  As Staton points out, opponents no longer need even to engage directly with or read a book; they can simply print out decontextualized objections and present them to a local school board. 

We are not without hope 

Despite opposing efforts, panelists remained optimistic about the enduring possibilities of public school education. Across the teacher panels, there were several examples of anti-racist work being implemented in states, districts, schools and classrooms - everything from stocking library shelves with banned books, to pursuing legal defenses and new legislation, to sharing resources with other teachers. Resistance and organizing are always available options for fighting back. 

Ed Donnellan, a teacher from Gonganza High School in Washington, DC, shared how his students went on a three-year journey to study the history of slavery in their local area. Students dove into archives to research how slave labor helped not only build most of the country but also connected to the very land on which their school was built. Projects like Ed’s, Nataliya Braignsky’s Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Walking Tour, and many more show what’s possible when teachers believe that students can and should be critical analysts and leaders in and beyond our classrooms. 

The conference was an inspiring reminder that - with the right resources and a commitment to teaching and learning hard truths - history classrooms can be life-changing and empowering spaces for all.

I encourage everyone to watch the conference’s rich panel discussions below. Each one offers important insights and together they capture and convey what was a truly amazing event.