When I was in sixth grade in Nebraska — around the time Alex Haley’s ovaric “Roots” novel was making its debut in the world conversation about America’s shameful treatment of slaves — our teacher, who was Lily-white born and bred and a staunch conservative from Oklahoma, decided to hold a “historical” debate with a bunch of 11-year-olds on the topic of abolition.
The teacher asked for volunteers to be “on the slave side” and I was one of three who held up a hand to volunteer.
Then she asked for those to be on the “side of the landowner” and the rest of the class shot up their hands. The teacher picked five of her best oral argument students for “that side” and those not picked, audibly sighed.
Everyone in the classroom, elementary school, and neighborhood, were White.
I was cocky. I was confident. How, I wondered, could anyone make a case for slavery? “You can’t own other people,” I thought, and that one sentence alone, I felt, would win any debate on how we were supposed to treat each other.
We were instructed to go home and “study up” on slavery linked to the side we were to support the next day in class. We had no argument training or preparation. To us, “debate” meant, and became, yelling at each other.
The day of the debate had opposite sides sitting on plastic chairs facing each other. The teacher strolled in between the two sides. Each side made opening remarks.
The anti-slavery side made the point that owning people should not be done.
The pro-slavery side countered that the lack of slave labor hurt the South and slaves were actually business partners in the success of the cotton fields. Without slave labor, they argued, the entire South collapsed, never to rise again — and it was all the fault of the slave.
I asked the teacher if we were debating the view of slavery in the 1970s or the 1860s because it made a difference.
She told me it didn’t make a difference because the result was the same.
I was arguing slavery in America from 1619-1865; while my opposition was taking a postmodernist view of losing slave work after the Civil War and the resultant destruction of the the Southern economy.
I was arguing people; my opposition was arguing business.
When I, unwittingly then, started raising the moral question of how one human being owning another could never be right, under any circumstance, I was gaining some ground of understanding from my opposition.
That’s when the teacher started asking me questions about the morality of destroying the deep South based on unappreciative, incompetent, workers who had been well-taken care of by their landowners.
One young woman on the other side repeated everything the teacher asked me and then added, “What about THAT, David?” to the end of every question.
The gang mentality was rising against me!
I, of course, had no answer for the argument of my teacher, and oppressor, who was four times my age. I started asking her questions about families being taken from Africa to live on a foreign land to work for free.
I was told I was being immature and unsophisticated in understanding just how the real world worked.
With the entire other side egged on by the teacher, the debate devolved into the insanity of inequity and the other two kids on my side of the bar were totally uninterested in standing up against the rest of the rising classroom storm led by an angry Sooner!
As a final gasp at trying to make my point, I stood up and took off my shirt. I’d pre-painted bloody red stripes on my back to indicate whip lashings from a slave master. I pulled up my pant legs to show my calves were also similarly bloodied.
“This is what slavery meant,” I shouted back at them, “You disobeyed your owner and you were whipped and beaten! And you were alone from your family. How would any of you like that? That’s the mark of slavery in America! And it’s on the backs of Black people, not Whites!”
Instead of being taken aback, my opponents laughed. The teacher accused me of being overly dramatic, and not “following the rules of debate” and the whole conversation shrank into humiliating fits of finger-pointing.
As we retook our seats before we broke for the lunchroom, I felt the divide in the classroom between those who believed in people and those who only pretended to say the right thing to get along with the rest of the group. It is always easier to follow than to point your eyes in the other direction and walk another way.
After lunch, we took a vote on who won the debate. I abstained. The two other students on my debate side voted with the landowners and I was skunked in an 29-0 tally as the “loser” of the Great Sixth Grade Slavery Debate.
I was roughly, and routinely, reminded — over the next 20 years in Nebraska by those who were in the classroom that day — of the whipmark wounds I painted on my back, and while their tone was always contemptuous and condescending, I found slight comfort in knowing they visually remembered what I could not effectively orally argue in the sixth grade: Slavery leaves marks on everyone involved and we must remember that pain and never forget it.
I’ll take that small victory sustained across time over the large arc of indignation.
Faux debates like the one we had in sixth grade is precisely how slavery becomes excusable and validated in the young, mainstream, mind. Straw man fallacies are set up to be gleefully toppled down, and, bit-by-bit, argument-by-infusion-of-hatred, the tender of us are taught that slavery was actually right, and it was the landowners who were wronged — and all Blacks have an illegitimate claim on the hard working history of what really made America great in the first place.