The Hard Part of Black History: How to Talk to Young Kids About Slavery

We like to share the occasional Thoughtful Thursday post to promote community learning, reflection, and support. This Thoughtful Thursday post is written by Associate Teacher, Aurora JeffreyThis post was inspired by the reflective conversations between teachers, the curiosity of students, and the importance of sharing stories (even the hard ones) in honest, developmentally appropriate ways. Aurora has been working primarily with our first grade students and wrote this post to support teaching, learning, and conversations at school and at home. 

The Hard Part of Black History: How to Talk to Young Kids About Slavery


Talking about our nation’s history of slavery might seem like a hard topic to explain to your young children. However, with an age appropriate discussion of the subject, students begin interrogating oppression and are reminded of the power of change. When questions come up, do your best to offer an accurate summation of slavery’s injustice and lasting impact. We hope these tools below facilitate open conversations with your child about one of the hardest parts of U.S. history. 

Peel back the layers of injustice slowly. 
This gives students time to reflect on the new information. 
Give time to answer questions and talk about feelings as well.

First things first, you’re not in it alone! 

We have been giving attention to discussing race in our Homeroom and Humanities classrooms. We introduce the topic of skin color and celebration of differences to promote a positive relationship to identity and respect for others. We want students to know it’s okay and important to recognize skin color. What’s not okay is treating people differently because of it.

Second suggestion, guide the conversation with one of these accessible topics!

  • The meaning of freedom
  • Slavery is when someone owns another person, when people are forced to work and aren’t paid
  • Enslaved people came from diverse cultures and traditions
  • Enslaved people’s families were separated

Thirdly, semantics hold weight!

Be wary of your language and try to use the terms “enslaved people” or “people who were made slaves” instead of calling them “slaves.” This emphasizes the humanity of the people who suffered and is a subtle way to teach that slavery was created and cast on people.

Fourth thing to mind, emphasize enslaved and free people’s resistance to slavery!

Focusing on the heroic stories of resistance will ensure that there is no misunderstanding of some enslaved people as happy in their captivity, emphasize the progress of Emancipation, and give a chance to discuss abolitionists of many races working together to free people.

Fifth tip, look for African American and African stories for your child’s bookshelf!

Slavery and the racism that was formed around it work to dehumanize people and erase their cultures. To combat that, remind students that enslaved people’s lives began with centuries of history before their capture. Reinforce the humanity of Black people by including stories about their contributions in this country since Emancipation. 

“Every where the years bring to all enough of sin and sorrow; but in slavery the very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows.” - Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897; born into slavery) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Our library’s virtual shelves, assembled by librarian extraordinaire Lisa Levin for book suggestions that celebrate Black History.

Netflix’s “Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices” for extra content featuring prominent Black voices - authors, athletes, actors, musicians, and comedians - reading children's books from Black authors that highlight the Black experience. The series is hosted and executive produced by 15-year-old activist, author and founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign Marley Dias.

Embrace Race webinar archive. Offering a library of webinars dedicated to children’s racial learning for parents, grandparents or other caregivers or for early childhood educators. Their work is inspired by a growing body of research and evidence that makes clear that children’s racial sensibilities begin to form in infancy, that almost all children develop racial and other biases by kindergarten, and that those biases become fairly entrenched by adolescence.

Being American is more than the pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it. 
- Amanda Gorman, "The Hill We Climb"

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