The year was 1984. Producer Debbie Allen had just finished reading a book of essays and articles titled Amistad I and II. She couldn't imagine why she'd never heard of the Amistad or of "Cinque," the courageous leader of the Amistad slave revolt.
"I was filled with so many different emotions," Allen recalls. "I felt empowered and excited that this had actually happened, yet I also felt robbed and cheated that I had never been taught about it in school. I knew it was a true story -- a pivotal moment in time -- that should be told to the world."
Now, with the December 12 debut of Steven Spielberg's movie Amistad (produced by Spielberg and Allen, with Colin Wilson), the story -- with some embellishments -- is finally being told. Future generations will know of many of the rich themes that surround the events of the Amistad. They'll know of Cinque and his fellow slaves, and of their rich Mende heritage. And they'll know something of a time in American history -- a time when 2.5 million black people were kept as slaves, mostly in the South; a time when the abolitionist movement was growing in strength; a time when President Martin Van Buren couldn't take a stand against slavery because he needed the votes of slaveholders in the South to win re-election....
Indeed, this little-known episode from our nation's past has found its way into few U.S. history texts. And less in the way of curriculum material has been available for teachers who wanted to teach about this "pivotal moment in time."
The balance of this article focuses on some of the curriculum tools available to teachers who want to work this inspiring historical drama into their classroom lessons. (For a brief retelling of the story, see The Amistad Comes to Life!, a story on this week's Education World LESSON PLANNING page.)
"All We Want Is Make Us Free" is a feast of a video documentary, available to schools from The Amistad Committee. Narrative is woven together with historical images, original source material, art, and a rich musical score. Voiceover readings -- including the hair-raising story of the revolt as told by one of the surviving Spanish sailors -- bring to life this important story.
"The story of the Amistad is one of murder and mutiny," states Priscilla Searles in the preface to the teacher's guide that accompanies the video. "Or perhaps it is really a story of how a firm belief in human rights and the strength to stand up and speak out for those rights really can make a difference."
"But this is not a story, it is a fact a page out of history, a page that contributed to the end of slavery in this country," she continues. "There are still lessons to be learned from this brief incident in history. The cooperation of peoples from different cultures and backgrounds and their determination and belief in the freedom of man still applies today."
The video includes an emotional retelling by actress Vinie Burrows of the story of Josiah Gibbs, a professor of languages at Yale University. Gibbs visited the Africans in jail. He was determined to break the communications barrier so that the slaves' stories could be told:
"He held up one finger, and the Africans told him their word for one: e-ta. He held up two fingers: fe-le. Then three: sau-wa. And four: na-ni. After learning to count from one to ten in the Africans' language, Gibbs went to the port in New York City hoping to find someone who could serve as an interpreter. He walked up and down the docks counting out loud until he found James Covey, a young African who himself had been captured by slavers, freed, taught English, and employed on a British warship. Professor Gibbs brought Covey to New Haven.
"One of the captives coming to the door and finding one who could talk in his own language took hold of him and literally dragged him in. All seemed to be overwhelmed with joy, all talking as fast as possible..."
This rich video retelling of the story of the Amistad is a "must-have" for schools -- especially for students too young to see the new R-rated (due to the intensity of its subject matter) theater release. The video and curriculum are recommended for use with students in middle and high schools, but I think they would make perfect additions to the elementary school American history curriculum. Most of the teacher's guide activities could be adapted easily for use across the grades.
The teacher's guide is divided into six sections that offer a sequential retelling of the story: Mendeland (the African home of the slaves on the Amistad), The Revolt, The Mende in America, Slavery in 1839, The Trials, and Return to Africa. Vocabulary and discussion questions accompany each section. Map and other extension activities are included along with a sample of Mende writing, a reproduction of the autographs of some of the Mende captives, a poem about Cinque written by 19th century poet and writer William Cullen Bryant, a glossary, and a bibliography.
For more information about the "All We Want Is Make Us Free" video documentary, write to Mr. Al Marder, The Amistad Committee, P.O. Box 2936, Westville Station, New Haven, CT 06515.
Update: October 2008. The curriculum described below, produced by the education department of The Connecticut Historical Society to accompany an exhibition, is no longer available, but many of the resources and some great additional lessons are now available on this Web site: Exploring Amistad: Approaches to Teaching.
Free Men: The Amistad Revolt and the American Anti-Slavery
Movement is a curriculum rich in primary sources from The
Connecticut Historical Society. Included among those primary
Primary source documents are linked to a complete retelling of the Amistad incident. The story, while provided for the teacher's background, would be an ideal text for students in upper elementary grades and above. Each document is detailed (including full transcriptions of each handwritten document) and supported by an assortment of activities -- including document handouts, student worksheets, and answer keys -- appropriate for students in grades 3 and up. Teachers will find a crossword puzzle, a word search puzzle, and a wide variety of other activities:
For example, students are asked to read the slave biographies from Barber's book (provided in this curriculum as a handout) and are then invited to chart and graph the heights of the slaves. And the retelling of the story of the voyages that carried the Africans from their Mende homeland to Connecticut is accompanied by a map so students can chart the slaves' course. (A couple additional activities from this curriculum are part of The Amistad Comes to Life!, this week's Education World LESSON PLANNING story.)
The documents included in this curriculum are intended to help students explore
On the Internet you'll find a wide variety of sites with material related to the story of the Amistad. I'll hit a few of the highlights here, but for additional sites related to the Amistad and to slavery (in general), be sure to check out this week's Education World LESSON PLANNING story, The Amistad Comes to Life!.
Among the best sites I've found are:
U.S. Navy and the Amistad
A telling of the Amistad story from the U.S. Navy's Naval Historical Center. This site includes information about the U.S. brig Washington that discovered the Amistad anchored at Montauk Point, New York, on August 26, 1839; facts about the brig's officers; and a bibliography of related resources.
Read of the plans of Amistad America, Inc., a new not-for-profit educational organization formed to promote the building of a replica of the Amistad. About 160 years after the Amistad incident, the Amistad will sail again. The site also includes tons of history in an online exhibit.
A new site from the National Archives offers several primary source documents related to the case and a handful of activities for students to do using those documents.
Many books are being issued or reissued to coincide with the December 12 release of the film AMISTAD. Following is a selection of titles related to the Amistad incident. Descriptions are provided, where available, from http://www.amazon.com.
Books for elementary or middle school students:
For students who are doing research and for adults:
Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2004 Education World