Shoulders of the Ancestors

April 2014

The reason I appear to be standing so tall is because my feet are firmly planted on the shoulders of my ancestors

Discussing 12 Years a Slave & Slavery




The HBO documentary UNCHAINED MEMORIES (2003) provides the stories of former slaves interviewed during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project. Narrated by actors emulating the original conversations with the Great Depression era interviewers, these slave narratives may be the most accurate in terms of the everyday activities of former slaves.


The MANY RIVERS TO CROSS documentary series presented by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. chronicles the full sweep of African American history, from the origins of slavery on the African continent through more than four centuries of remarkable historic events up to the present. Also consider BLACK IN LATIN AMERICA and AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES also produced by Professor Gates.


The HISTORY CHANNEL provides text and several short videos on slavery in America along with related topics. Consider assigning these short videos as Warm Ups or as lesson extensions.


Resources on American Slavery


Through primary source images and with text students will learn about President Lincoln's initial reluctance to recruit African Americans, the contributions of runaway slaves, and how African Americans contributed to the Union's victory over the Confederacy.

FREEDOM'S STORY on the National Center for the Humanities's site Teacher Serve contain readings, primary source images, and lesson plans on African American History.


THE SLAVE REBELLION WEBSITE created by professor Joesph E. Holloway contains a comprehensive listing of rebellions by enslaved people in North America, south America, and the Caribbean.


CHANGING AMERICA an exhibit from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. features one hundred years of African American struggles for rights from the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 to  the March on Washington, 1963.


IN MOTION: The African-American Migration Experience from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture  presents a new interpretation of African-American history, one that focuses on the self-motivated activities of peoples of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds.


AFRICANS IN AMERICA a documentary produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation portrays America's journey through slavery in four parts. Each era is accompanied by a historical narrative, a resource bank of images, documents, stories, biographies, and commentaries, and a Teacher's Guide for using the content of the Web site and television series in U.S. history courses.


BLACK IN LATIN AMERICA. Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans disembarked from slave ships in the New World during the Middle Passage. Of those 11.2 million people, only 450,000 came to the United States. The rest of the African slaves who survived the journey were taken to the Caribbean, Latin America and South America. In this important documentary series Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the legacy of enslaved Africans in the Brazil, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Peru.


Along with the Brazilian film QUILOMO (1984), the independent film SANKOFA (1993) is considered by many to be one of the most honest depictions of resistance to enslavement.

Interviews with 12 Years a Slave Winners

On PBS NEWSHOUR (Nov 18, 2013) Jeffrey Brown talks to 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley about the challenge of humanizing the dehumanizing institution of American slavery.

Citizen Weekend: One on One with Lupita Nyong'o on Kenya Citizen TV. In an insightful interview for Kenyan television the Yale University graduate discusses the emotional impact of leaping from an unknown to an award winning actress.


The PRODUCERS of 12 Years a Slave Brad Pitt, Jeremy Klein and Dede Gardner of Plan B discuss 12 Years A Slave from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Courtesy of The Variety Studio.

On ITN News (January 8, 2014) 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen discusses why slavery is an important story for cinema to explore. Report by Laurie Blake.

A Black Tree TV (BTV)  Sep 3, 2013 segment on 12 YEARS A SLAVE provides an overview of the film along with interview clips from the film's scriptwriter, director, producers, and actors.

Hopefully by winning the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year 12 Years a Slave will continue to generate conversations about slavery in America. Originally published in 1853, 12 Years a slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.


As a high school teacher I have found that my unit on American slavery can excite my students both positively and negatively. Teaching about slavery is challenging, not because of it's brutality, but because we rarely engage in open and honest discourse on the subject we do not have a vocabulary for it.


While many of my Jewish friends can retell a story of their family's experience during the Nazi Holocaust, or Russian pogams, most African Americans do not know the names of their enslaved ancestors. Why have we decided to forget them? Possibly discussions of slavery generates emotional pain. But the presence of pain indicates a that something needs healing.


Like any past family tragedy, discussing slavery can hurt. but it can also heal, as we uncover how it defines our contemporary human relationships. Slavery is America's "dirty little secret".  But we do ourselves, our youth, and our nation a disservice by not discussing one of the most defining element of our national character.


In my sixteen years of teaching African American history I have found that defining and focusing the slavery unit on "resistance to enslavement'  provides youth with a spirit of empowerment rather than feelings of defeat.

Below is an except I discovered years ago on the Internet on how the "blues idiom", which is a cultural creation of slavery, is characterized by both pain and joy, both tragedy and heroism. Over the years I have loss the name of the essay's author, but I continue to use their insightful words.


 "Consider for example, that the institution of American slavery was not only characterized by suffering and limitation, but also by heroic response. The author Albert Murray terms this situation 'antagonistic cooperation'.

Recalling the notion that resistance is a necessary component of art, he writes that an artist should regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards racism as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.  According to Murray’s the “dragon of racism” will be destroyed because racism creates heroes. To Murray within the African American aesthetic (artistic expression) one can only be heroic when one is engaged in destruction or the reduction of the evils of chattel slavery and its more contemporary partner - racism"


The film Django Unchained presented audiences with a hero fighting the dragon of slavery.  Like Django 12 Years a Slave is story of heroism within the context of brutality. There are thousands of these stories that need to be uncovered from our family histories. But for now lets keep talking.


Below are a few video interviews with the film's creators and actors.



SHOULDERS OF THE ANCESTORS is a division of AFRICAN AMERICAN POSTERS & PRESENTATIONS (AAPP) . AAPP provides classroom tested educational posters and learning charts that utilize the new scholarship in African and African American history and culture. The graphics on our learning charts are selected to engage students. Visit us today at www.aahistoryposters.com.


This educational kit contains four full color posters and a CD with a Powerpoint presentation.