We’re dealing with some pretty meaty topics in Yosef and Juan Carlos’ class.
Every year, the fifth grade teachers at Greene Elementary dig deep into the legacy of slavery in the United States. In addition to the non-fiction social studies material, including a number of excellent resources from the educational wing of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the teachers read two works of literature aloud to their students. One is The Land, by Mildred D. Taylor (best known for her Newberry Award-winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry); the novel tells the story of a biracial child coming of age during the years of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Paul-Edward Logan moves uneasily between the white and black worlds, never fully accepted within either, working to acquire land of his own. It’s a powerful book, with universal themes and memorable characters. Most significantly, it gives the reader an unvarnished account of the legacy of slavery–how it impacted hundreds of thousands a century or more ago, and how some of those impacts can be felt even now. The teachers thread it skillfully into ongoing study of African-American history and the Civil Rights Movement; when, towards the close of the year, each student chooses a famous African American to research and present on, it is with a much deeper understanding of the tumultuous hard path to that person’s success.
In order to understand the world after slavery, one must first come to understand, as much as one can understand it, slavery itself. For that, 5th grade reads the novel Nightjohn, by Gary Paulsen.
Nightjohn is narrated by Sarny, a twelve year old slave girl who lives and works on the Waller plantation shortly before the US Civil War; it is written largely in the vernacular of the American South, and it is unflinching at times in its depiction of the violence inherent in slavery and cruelly perfected at the hands of Old Waller. For many reasons, it is a read-aloud book in the fifth grade class–there are passages that are simply too graphic which the teachers summarize instead of presenting verbatim, and there are frequent pauses and discussions to explain and process. There is honestly a part of me that wants Nightjohn saved for late middle school or high school, when, perhaps, students are more ready to grapple with its themes.
But then again, I don’t know if we’re ever really ready to grapple with Nightjohn. As Judith Y. Singer says in an article entitled “Teaching Young Children About Slavery Using Literature”, “Slavery is a painful and frightening part of our history as Americans, a part which many
elementary school teachers sentient human beings would rather not discuss.”(edits mine). However, she makes a lucid argument for getting beyond our squeamishness:
But our silences about slavery are potentially more damaging to the well-being of our children than the pain associated with learning about slavery. The silences hide from Black children who they are and prevent all children from thinking about what kind of people they want to be.
Children of all backgrounds need to feel empowered when they are faced with the fearful events of slavery, and…stories about resistance to slavery and the hope of freedom are critical to giving them that sense of power. Children also have to learn about the pain of slavery, however, or they won’t be able understand why people struggled as they did to become free.”
Okay then. Even as the general education teachers adapted Nightjohn for their classes by condensing some of the more gruesome passages, I adapted the adaptation for Juan Carlos and Yosef. Specifically, I pulled them into my office to seriously discuss the topic of slavery, at an appropriate level for them, so it wasn’t permitted to sail over their heads. I boiled the novel down to 16 powerpoint slides, typically about 20 words each, only half of which were the actual plot of the story. Most were meant, in the simplest way possible, to help my students understand what is fundamentally beyond my own understanding–that once upon a time, in a nearby place where even now, children grow up, it was legal for a man to buy someone else’s child and own that child’s children. In slavery, I wrote, people bought and sold other people, and made those people work without getting paid at all.
The main plot of Nightjohn is a simple one, in a sense. A new slave is brought to the Waller plantation–Nightjohn, who offers to teach Sarny to read in exchange for tobacco. Old Waller gets an inkling of what is happening without knowing who the culprit is (do I need to tell Gentle Readers that slave owners weren’t typically patrons of slave literacy?), and, in his rage, almost beats another slave to death before Nightjohn stands up. A slave is too valuable to kill outright; punishment codified in an 1830 North Carolina state law for a slave teaching another slave to read is up to 39 lashes, but Nightjohn suffers the amputation of two toes (this does hold up as historically done.) The novel ends with Nightjohn, having escaped the plantation after his punishment, returning to continue his work teaching Sarny and the other slaves, with her help. “We all have to read and write so we can write about this—what they doing to us. It has to be written.” And it is.
Over the years, my students have been confronted with a great deal of written information, though–and not all of it has sunk in. Last year, Yosef read three distinct paragraphs outlining the rich cultural history of the California Maidu, then immediately opined that their traditional dance was the prancing horse atrocity from Psy’s Gangnam Style video. Juan Carlos makes less stuff up, God bless him, but his retention is equally poor. Despite the reality that both boys have been in general education classrooms, exposed to general education curriculum, for several years, it’s not a safe assumption that they understand the basics of what Nightjohn addresses.
“What is slavery?” I ask them, in my office with the PowerPoint in front of us. Yosef shrugs, and when pressed, says, “I have no idea.” Juan Carlos furrows his brow. “I think maybe it’s like jail.”
That’s more than enough to get started from. “Juan Carlos, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part of it. Let’s think about what you know about people in jail. Can they do what they want to do? Can they go where they want to go? If a person is in jail, is that person free ?” We thought a little bit about it, and realized that people in jail don’t really get to make any choices for themselves. They don’t get to leave unless someone says it’s time to leave; they don’t choose what to eat or what to do when they wake up in the morning.
“Usually, we think of people going to jail who did something wrong. And that’s where it’s very, very different. People in jail aren’t free. And people in slavery aren’t free. But the people in slavery didn’t get there because they did something wrong.”
Next slide. I ask them both what they know about money, what they can do with money. “Buy things.” What sort of things? We talk about food, and clothes, and toys, and then I break it to them. “Well, in the 1800s, and even before then, there was slavery. And in slavery, you could buy PEOPLE.”
It is, when I say it, as obscene to me as it is to the boys; Juan Carlos’ eyes bug out, and Yosef mutters, “gosh.” The words on my PowerPoint are too much and not enough.
In slavery, people bought and sold other people, and made those people work without getting paid at all. It was a horrible thing—so horrible that the United States fought a war about it, so horrible that it still causes problems even now. Slavery was wrong. But during the 1850s, not everyone understood that.
From there, we delve into the plot of the story: what life was like on the plantation before Nightjohn got there, how the slaves were forbidden to learn how to read. Yosef disengages, off and on, even in this small group setting, and I find bile rising in my mouth as I redirect him. One of his tendencies is to run SpongeBob movies in his mind when he spaces out. As he giggles right at the moment when I show a poster that advertises a slave auction, I feel hard pressed not to yell at the child.
“Yosef, what we are talking about right now is not funny. And I know, when you laugh like that during instruction, that it means you are thinking about something else. But other people might not know that. And when they are talking about slavery, it is especially important that you NOT laugh, because you will really upset people if you do that during Nightjohn. Brain back in the group, please.”
“Okay”. Juan Carlos gives his friend a stern look; Yosef breathes deeply. We do half the Powerpoint in the first session, with Juan Carlos utterly heartbroken by the dark history of the country he loves almost as much as he loves Mexico and Yosef still, intermittently, thinking of an undersea pineapple. I dismiss Juan Carlos with extra snack, praise, and a promise that slavery is over for America. Yosef and I read the slides two more times. It’s hard to get through to him: I don’t feel successful. Because of Yosef’s inherent challenges with perspective taking, he can best understand only that which he’s experienced himself. Even as I work with him to stretch his mind a little, a part of me is thankful that he doesn’t connect.
The next day, I meet again with the boys to finish the slideshow. And we get to one of the parts that the classroom teacher had to paraphrase–the chapter where Nightjohn, having surrendered himself to stop Mammy’s beating, loses two toes for the crime of teaching Sarny to read. I couldn’t find clip art that matches, exactly, but the painting I use is a real one, of a bearded white man kicking a slave on the ground. Behind them both, a well-built house; beyond the house, my country. Our country. Juan Carlos listens in horror as I summarize the chapter.
Old Waller punishes Nightjohn. He cuts off Nightjohn’s toes. Old Waller thinks the way a bully thinks: if he hurts Nightjohn enough, Nightjohn will be too scared to try anything again.
I give them a moment to read the slide again, tap the table sharply because Yosef is staring out the window. We summarize, together, so I know they understand: Old Waller took a knife, and he cut off Nightjohn’s toes.
I ask them the most open-ended question I can think of.
“What do you think about that?”
Yosef says just one word. “Terrible.” It’s enough for now, for him; his eyes drift toward the ceiling and I don’t bring him back this time. Juan Carlos wants to take things a little bit farther. He is doing the thing that all good readers do, something that we used to think folks with autism couldn’t really do. He is putting himself in a character’s position. Even when that character’s position comes to him as just a handful of cold sentences, Juan Carlos shows that he’s taken in the full heat of this book.
“I feel nervous. And I think, if I was Nightjohn and there was a knife, I would run away from the knife.”
“Juan Carlos, he couldn’t. Remember what we said earlier, that slaves were people who couldn’t do what they wanted to do.”
We sit silently with that, for almost a minute, and then I lead both boys through making a prediction. “What do you think will happen next? Nightjohn was just punished for teaching Sarny to read. Do you think he’ll stop, or do you think he’ll keep doing it?” Yosef, dispassionately, opines that he’ll stop. Juan Carlos believes that Nightjohn will keep going. I can get neither of them to explain what they’ve chosen, but that doesn’t stop me from drawing my own conclusions. There is something fitting, I think, in the contrast between Yosef’s acceptance of the idea that Old Waller’s way could work and Juan Carlos’ optimism that good will prevail: only one of these two boys really felt what’s at stake here, really used the empathetic imagination that is at the heart of why good books make a difference.
The next day, we wrap up Nightjohn by re-reading all the slides so far, and then I tell them to pay close attention when their teacher reads the ending in class. We read the last slide together.
Old Waller is wrong. Nightjohn will never stop teaching his fellow slaves to read. And Sarny will help him. They will both change their world.
Juan Carlos is properly delighted. Yosef agrees politely. And I set Nightjohn down, to prepare for The Land.