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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 6: Historical and Cultural Context - Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Langston Hughes
Biography
Work
Christopher Moore
Biography
Work
Interview
Joyce Hansen/ Gary McGowan
Biography
Work
Barbara Chase-Riboud
Biography
Work
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
Talking with Christopher Moore
(as interviewed by the students in Stanlee Brimberg's classroom)

What was it like to write the screenplay about the African Burial Ground?

It was a lot of hard work, but I actually enjoyed it because, again, it's the family interest. I had an opportunity to tell the story about how Africans had helped to build New York, which was something that was totally missing from New York history books. The discovery of this burial ground was really proof that Africans had been here, not just a few, but -- you may know the burial ground was about five to six acres in size, and they estimated about 20,000 men, women, and children were buried there. So for me to be able to help correct the history of the city of New York, it was a lot of hard work, but it was very gratifying, one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

It was difficult for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was finding images of the Africans. I think one of the most difficult aspects of putting this documentary together was collecting the illustrations of enslaved Africans at work. But I found a wonderful artist by the name of Charles Lilley, and his illustrations are used throughout the documentary. I gave him illustrations of Europeans at work, and through those early illustrations we basically were able to indicate the manner in which Africans did their work. And that work, in New York, was clearing the land, clearing the roads. Broadway then was actually a narrow Native American trail that the Africans had to widen. Greenwich Village, in the 17th century, was made up of farms. So getting the illustrations to help people understand the lives of the workers was really the most difficult part.

Did you find any of your family inside the burial ground?

No. I tried to find documentation, and I now maintain that I have a reason to believe, and a belief beyond reason, that I had family in that African Burial Ground. But, no, I do not have documentary evidence of that.


What relationship did the Native Americans have with the African Americans?

You came to the right guy. It's an interesting relationship that Native Americans and African Americans have, because many of the first Africans who were brought here as slaves intermarried with the Native Americans. Many of them ran away. A lot of the slave runaways went to Native American communities throughout the East Coast. That's why today if you meet the Native Americans from Maine -- the Mi'kmaq, the Narragansett, the Pequot, the Ramapough, the Shinnecock, the Powhatan -- and all the way up to the northeastern seaboard, they're usually identified as "black Indians" because they have intermarried with Africans as well as with Europeans.

My family history is the Lenape [Native Americans] who intermarried with the first Africans and some of the first Dutch. My great-great-grandfather was Samuel DeFreese -- my mother's name was DeFreese, that's a Dutch name. Some others in the family were named de Groot and van Dunk, and, basically, they are the descendants of the Lenape who were here for thousands of years. And so when the Africans and the Dutch arrived in the 1600s, in my family they didn't just fight, they also married. And so that's the legacy of this particular family.

Do you feel that your research on the burial ground has left a lot of questions unanswered or a lot of information that you don't know?

When you're really doing research and finding answers, that always leads you to areas where you've got more questions. And it's very true at the burial ground. Just by bringing the information about the burial ground to light, in this particular case, at least we have a classroom on Manhattan Island that's thinking about the burial ground. You have your own questions. You pose questions today that I've never heard about the burial ground. So, hopefully, the whole track of learning and discovery is going to lead to more information.

Why, in your opinion, was the burial ground excavation such a big discovery in New York?

I think the burial ground excavation was a big discovery because of the opportunity to learn about a part of American history which really has not been explored. Most of the history books written before the discovery of the burial ground usually place the presence of African Americans on the periphery. They say, "There was slavery, but it didn't really happen in the North." Well, a five-acre burial ground with 20,000men, women, and children on Manhattan Island is an indication that there was a presence of Africans here.

I think the discovery of the burial ground is very important because it really opened the window into the past. It gave us an opportunity to see what the role of slaves was in the United States. Very often we think of slavery as being something in the Southern states -- the Carolinas and Mississippi and Alabama -- of blacks picking cotton. Well, you learned an important part of history in that the presence of Africans on Manhattan Island showed that they were colony builders. That when they came here with the European settlers, they were the ones who cleared the land for the town of New Amsterdam, they were the ones who cleared the roads, they cleared the fields for the farms. And they didn't just do it on Manhattan Island, they did this literally from Albany to Argentina. All along the eastern seaboard in the Americas and the Caribbean, enslaved workers in the 16th century and 17th century were primarily helping to build the colonies.


I heard a lot of statistics in the video, like infant mortality rate or how slaves were treated. What statistic is most important to you?

If I had one statistic of slavery to share -- and I'm not even sure it's in the film -- it's the fact that from 1492 to 1776, of the 6.5 million people who came to the Americas, 5.5 million were Africans. If there's a statistic from the burial ground, it's the fact that of the 419 remains that were excavated, over 40 percent were children under the age of 12. Those to me are some very important facts to know.

You know all this information to write that script for the documentary about the cemetery. How did you find this out? Did you find out from interviewing people, or if you knew it previously, how did you find that out?

I was fortunate in that my family history went back to the era of the African Burial Ground and earlier. So when the burial ground was unearthed in 1991, I had that as a sort of background. That gave me a passion; it didn't give me much information. But then I had to go study more at the various libraries, and find as many experts as I could. I found some of the finest experts, like James Shenton, who is on the burial ground video. He is a professor at Columbia University and author of some of the most popular history books in America. And T. J. Davis is another historian. I found some of the finest historians, sociologists, archaeologists, scientists who were knowledgeable on the subject, and they helped to tell the story, which is the way you put together a documentary. You get as much research as you can, and then you find the people who know more than you and you tap them. You have to learn to take advantage of the sources, the resources, because if you want to tell the story, you want to get the best information.

How did finding the skeletons in the African Burial Ground affect you personally?

I sort of marveled at the skeletons. I never had a real interest in skeletons; they were just part of the project that I signed on to do a documentary about. I frankly didn't think it was appropriate to photograph the skeletons. I didn't think it was appropriate to excavate the skeletons, but this was something that was being done. And, to me, if we're going to find any value in this whole project, I felt that I had to try to do right by the skeletons. I would try actually to tell their story. They certainly weren't capable of telling their own story. Maybe they do in some ways, just by the images. Maybe I was totally wrong about it being inappropriate to videotape them, because they themselves are now the evidence of their own lives, and they allow students and adults to see them. You can form your own conclusions and raise your own questions about their lives.

When you went on the site, did you find it very emotional to be able to see all these bodies and skeletons -- like what could be your ancestors and everything?

You hit the right button. Any connection, any thought I had that this was an ancestor of mine, then it would move me. But I would try to use that passion to contact another expert, read another book. It was empowering to me. It was invigorating whenever I connected my own family to the burial ground.

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