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The Middle Passage must have been as near as anyone ever comes to hell on earth.
- Barry Unsworth, author
On a map of Africa, find Olaudah Equiano's home (present-day Nigeria). Have students brainstorm a list of words that they think describe life in that part of Africa in the 17th century (e.g., family life, religion, economy). Now read "My Early Life in Eboe," the first chapter of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (New York: Bedford Books, 1995). You may want to read it aloud as a whole group or have students work in small groups. As they read, have students write down key words or phrases that describe everyday life in the same categories as above. Compare to the list generated before reading. Have students' knowledge or views changed? How?
Have students generate a list of the various groups of people who inhabited the American colonies in 1750. How might race, class, gender, national origin, and other factors influence an individual's or a group's legal and economic status? Ask students to note new information as they watch the program.
Who benefited from the establishment of British colonies in the Americas? What kinds of hardships did the establishment of the colonies create for Europeans, for Africans, and for Native Americans? What opportunities did it create? Revisit and update the list students made above (see Before Watching, Question 2)
What made the enslavement of Africans in the 17th century different from previous forms of slavery? Discuss ways in which Africans resisted enslavement. Give examples from the program of Africans making alliances with other groups.
Create a Venn diagram (interlocking circles) that compares indentured servitude to slavery in the 18th-century British American colonies. Who became servants? Who became slaves? How were the lives of servants and slaves alike? How were they different? What rights did servants have that slaves didn't?
In preparation for the first activity, you may want to have students read, "The Slave Ship" in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, as well as John Henrik Clarke's "Introduction" in The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo by Tom Feelings (New York: Dial, 1995). Fictional treatments may also be helpful, such as "The Transmission" in Africans in America by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Series Research Team (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998), The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (New York: Atheneum, 1990), and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (New York: Norton, 1992).
In The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo, artist Tom Feelings tells the story of the brutal trans-Atlantic crossing through a series of sixty-four narrative paintings. Have students review the paintings. What do the paintings tell you about the Middle Passage? How do they convey the struggle for survival? Why might Feelings have chosen to use pictures instead of words to tell the story? After discussion, invite students to read Feelings' preface, in which he describes how he came to tell "a story that changed me forever." Have students reflect on what the paintings express about the Middle Passage and explore their personal reactions. Then have students write a response to the book -- in the form of a journal entry, letter to the author, or captioned illustrations.
Using the library and the Web (see General Resources), have students find examples of newspapers and broadsides of the colonial era. Then, ask them to create an advertisement for indentured servants. What terms of employment might be offered? What skills or qualifications would be required? How might such an ad differ from that for buying or selling slaves?
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