Three weeks into DukeEngage we’ve read pictures, mapped images, created picture alphabets, taken self-portraits, photographed professions, and thought out lesson plans. Throughout this process I’ve learned about LTP, creativity, language barriers, improvisation, and a lot about the art of teaching. Our hard work has been rewarding, for we’ve seen encouraging results both from the teachers and students.
However, the most impactful activity we’ve led so far for me has been the “Slave Trade Alphabet” with the teachers from different Pangani schools. We chose this topic because the city of Pangani was deeply affected by the slave trade, for it is from there that Arabs loaded people into boats to take them to Zanzibar, where they would be sold at slave markets.
Through LTP, I studied slavery in Durham by visiting Historic Stagville, a former slave plantation just 10 minutes away from Duke, and helped Durham 5th graders write narratives from the perspective of a slave owner and a slave. Although the activities would be different, in both cases interacting with powerful historic sites set a serious tone for the activity and I was sure our work would be meaningful.
To create a visual alphabet, you must first brainstorm different words for each letter and then pick one to photograph, print, and write about. We began with the word “A” and the first word that came to my head was “Abolition.” Theirs was “Africa.” A trend started, for as I thought of “Buying,” “Civil War,” “Danger,” the teachers thought of “Boat,” “Culture,” and “Death.” However, it was only when we got to the letter G and my DukeEngage partner Katie and I offered “Guilt” that the difference between our words really hit me, for the teachers looked at us quizzically and suggested “Gate” instead. I realized I had been unintentionally imposing the way that I learned about slavery as a white person in the Americas on people who experienced the other side of it. The other words they chose included “Oppression,” “Resistance,” “Torture,” and “Violence,” revealing a tragic, brutal history. This was difficult to absorb as these raw words evoked so much pain and suffering I had never been directly acquainted with. With the word “guilt” still in my mind, it was surprising to see how openly the teachers threw around these words. I was instantly humbled; arrogantly, I had been expecting to teach them and I was grateful to be having such an intense, impromptu history lesson.
When we walked to town to take the pictures the teachers paused to photograph an old stone building in front of River Pangani. They explained that this was the old customs building where the captured waited for the boats that took them to Zanzibar. We learned there was underground tunnel connecting the building to the river so that the slaves would have no idea where they were being taken.
Standing on the coast looking up at that building I felt as I did in Durham when we visited Historic Stagville: awed, helpless, vulnerable, and deeply touched.