The following is an excerpt from our new curriculum guide, Revisiting the History of Enslavement in the United States: A Curriculum Guide for Engagement and Transformation, by Ann Holmes Redding, Ph.D. and Pat Russell,Psy.D., presented by Eastern Mennonite University in partnership with Coming to the Table. Download a free PDF of the entire guide. To request a hard copy, email us at email@example.com with a description of your plans to use the guide.
Theoretical Framework for the Curriculum
The framework of engagement and transformation used here is based on an approach called Transforming Historical Harms, developed at Eastern Mennonite University in partnership with Coming to the Table, an organization that addresses the legacy of enslavement. Transforming Historical Harms rest on four pillars: history, relevance (originally called connection), engagement (originally called healing), and action.
History: The process of transformation begins with an understanding of what happened or awareness; history provides us with that awareness, as we learn the multifaceted stories that have been told:
The history often has to be uncovered, inaccuracies, myths and lies need to be identified and because it relates to a societal event, a number of people from the different groups involved in the history are required to research and recount it…
Learning and understanding what actually happened from the perspectives of the dominant group and those on the “margin” is a vital step in dealing with the ramifications of historical events. . . When history from all perspectives is not conveyed, it leaves people out…
When stories of trauma are not conveyed, the silence and omission becomes an on-going hurt because the traumatic experience of a group of people remains unacknowledged. When two or more groups in a community hold different and conflicting histories, it keeps them apart. (Hooker & Potter Czajkowski, 2012)
Relevance: Once we have an understanding of the history, we need to understand the relevance that it holds for us today. Relevance is identifying the current cultural, political, social, and psychological manifestations of the history. Once those manifestations have been identified, connecting them to ourselves, our families, our communities, and ultimately our nation shows us just how pertinent they remain for us today:
In order to come together, it’s often first important to connect one’s own story (or group’s story) with history. Many are unaware of how their lives, opportunities and outlook are impacted by history of trauma. One needs to move beyond “that’s the way it was” or “that’s just the way it is” thinking. When sufficient reflection has gone into one’s story, there is more of a possibility of being understood by others and for people to find a common sense of humanity even if their lives and histories are different. (Hooker and Potter Czajkowski, 2012)
In the sections on relevance in this guide, we also ask about the “sacred stories” that relate to historical events. By “sacred stories,” we mean the popular myths, beliefs, stories, images, characters, films, etc. that represent and interpret the historical episode in question and show attitudes and beliefs about that event. These “sacred stories” show how the history lives on in our cultures and communities. When we tell them across racial and ethnic groups, they allow us to understand and renegotiate our differences.
Engagement: After identifying the relevance of the history today, we must then acknowledge the significance of its impacts and our responsibility to engage in transformation. Engagement means dialogue and discussion, which can often be a challenge when the topic is race, one of the most difficult topics to raise in this country. The emotions of guilt, anger, shame, often with accompanying denial we must construct a nurturing environment, a safe container for that engagement. In the sections for each unit of the guide are frameworks and exercise to use for these purposes.
[Historical events impact] people on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and spiritual levels. People continue to be self destructive and/or harm others in all of these areas, sometimes unaware of the genesis of their behaviors and reactions. Efforts for groups that have been historically divided to work together in any capacity are limited . . . Distrust, suspicion, fear and not knowing how to act or what to say can limit potentially constructive projects.
Finding ways to face [history] and work toward healing is important. However, the challenge is that bringing up the topics related to the historic trauma will usually spark the . . . reactions of flight, fight or freeze. Intentional spaces, processes and rituals need to be created to support a person or group in facing the trauma. In the case of historic harm, because it has been buried for some time, there is often a need for groups to come together and support one another because the larger society creates a pull to ignore the harms. (Hooker and Potter Czajkowski, 2012)
Action: Finally, we must take action to be full participants in real transformation. By taking action we are, either literally or in spirit, beginning to right the wrong. Choosing an appropriate action will depend largely on the particulars of your circumstances, including the male-up and focus of your group.
Identifying [the appropriate] people, building trust and identifying barriers to working together are all part of building a team that can take action. With representation from different groups and honest conversation, the group can avoid pitfalls common to people who have grown up in divided societies. When issues do come up that threaten to get in the way of the groups’ ability to work together and progress, reflection about unhealed trauma is helpful and can often identify that the problem is not the other person or people in the room but on-going patterns that have been passed down for generations.
This curriculum guideline will assist you and your group in getting beyond the “facts” of history, in order to both identify the scars left and provide you with a way to address and redress our common past.