By Stacey Pontoriero
Even teachers can benefit from a chance to be students of the world. An innovative new program created by three Rutgers professors allows New Jersey teachers to visit Africa to learn about the history and the aftereffects of the slave trade, then come back and share that experience with their students.
Rutgers English Professor Abena P. A. Busia worked with History Professors Allen Howard and Carolyn Brown in developing the summer travel seminar, which was then supported by a Fulbright-Hayes Group Projects Abroad grant and coordinated by the Rutgers Center for African Studies. Their goal is to revolutionize the way schools and colleges all over New Jersey teach the history of the slave trade.
The seminar began this past summer, when a group of twelve New Jersey educators, from grade school teachers to college professors, journeyed to historic sites in Africa for a transcontinental collaboration with scholars from the University of Ghana and the African Heritage Museum in Benin. They also sought out stories from local residents, including the descendants of both slaves and slave traders, who shared powerful memories and helped to place the African slave trade within its larger social context.
Based on this experience, Professor Busia is now developing a new course for graduate students in which she plans to focus on issues of memory and representation by comparing historical records, slave narratives, and oral recollections. She intends to use materials from both sides of the Atlantic, including oral histories collected on the trip. In addition, Professor Busia and her fellow travelers continue to meet regularly to discuss new curricula for use in classrooms at all grade levels, working toward their goal of making their lesson plans accessible to New Jersey teachers through the state’s Department of Education. They recorded more than seventy hours of videotape while they were in Africa, including many interviews with Africans for whom slavery is part of living memory through family history. The footage will be edited into a documentary for classroom use.
Remnants of the painful past are very much a visible part of the present in Ghana and Benin. Screws used to shackle human beings to trees still rust in the bark. In Sandema, Ghana, a traditional festival and dance commemorates the defeat of a local slave trader. On the outskirts of Salaga, the former site of a large slave market, Professor Busia met a priestess who performed a ritual twice a week to honor those who died in the process of being sold, which she describes in a few lines of a long poem called “Ancestral Milk”:
You of unnamable ancestors, and unknown descendants, come
Here, after all, you are safe.
Here every Friday and every Monday
one woman at a time, through the centuries, has prayed for you
has fed you milk under a baobab tree scarred by your iron
and swathed in calico to greet you through the centuries
unwitnessed, unacknowledged, unmemorialized.
Professor Busia noted that even as a native Ghanaian, she discovered things about her country she could not have known on her own. “It’s hard to convey the impact of making a journey like this and meeting people with a living memory, people who have shackles as family heirlooms.”
The tremendous intellectual and personal impact of the experience, on all of the participants, encouraged Professor Busia to work to expand its reach. She now hopes to develop a year-round student exchange with Ghana and continuing summer seminars for high school teachers, to add to the programs already run by the Center for African Studies and Rutgers Study Abroad.
Continuing to uncover the untold stories of the slave trade will do more than just revitalize classroom lessons on the subject – it will ensure that those who perished will not remain “unwitnessed, unacknowledged, and unmemorialized” in the future.
The Center for African Studies
A Brief History of the Slave Trade in Ghana