Thursday, April 5, 2007

In Progress: "All men are created equal"

After reciting the alphabet and doing mental math, my Senior ESL students reviews a couple of USCIS 144 Qs posted on the whiteboard. Today's questions:

When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

What did the Declaration of Independence do?

Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.

Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?

When is his birthday?

Then my director walks in the classroom. My normally very talkative class clams up. The director tries to prod the class into speech. No go. My director then begins to talk about Jefferson's very radical idea of equality. Silence. He the talks about Jefferson owning slaves. More silence. He then asks if we still have slavery in the US. The students say no. The director says, "Yes, we still have slavery." and starts talking about slave-like labor in overseas factories. One very advanced student, Nam Van Nguyen, ventures, "Neo-slavery..." and then the director starts talking about sex-slaves in the Bay Area. I'm thinking, "This will take me the rest of the semester to dig out of this, and we still need to read the Easter Story and dye eggs today."

After my director leaves, the class re-groups and we complete the questions. The were particularly happy to learn an easy way to remember Jefferson's birthday: April 13 = 04/13 = 04 for the 4th of July (stess again the Declaration of Independence); and 13 for the 13 original colonies. I assure them that this is not a new USCIS question.

Then it was time to capitalize my director's comments. I said:

1) Jefferson wrote "All men were created equal."

2) Jefferson was from Virgina. Slavery was legal in Virgina in 1776.

3) Jefferson was a widower (several "Ohs!" from the class). His wife died in 1782. They had six children, but four died in childhood (More "Ohs!" Translation activity begins to ramp-up).

At this point, I draw a very rude family tree on the board showing Jefferson, his first wife (Martha--unnamed) and children. As I talk about Point 4, I draw in the first wife's father, mother, slave-mistress, and half-sister (Sally Hemmings--unnamed)

4) Jefferson fell in love with his wife's half-sister. The father was white and had a white wife who was the mother of Jefferson's wife. The white father also had children with a black slave. A child of a black slave was still a slave. It did not matter who was the father or how white the child looked. The child was still a slave.

(Murmurs of sympathy).

5) Jefferson had five children with his first wife's half-sister. Because their mother was a slave, they were slaves. When George Washington died, he freed his slaves.

(I pause and ask, "Who was George Washington?" The students immediately reply, "The first US President." The ex-military students add, "The first commander-in-chief." Several other students say, "The father of our country." I continue...)

This is another reason why George Washington was a great man, because he freed his slaves. When Jefferson died, he did not free his slaves. The children from his second family left Virgina and moved to northern cities where no one knew them. They looked white and tried to live as free white people.

(Everyone in class is nodding furiously and are very sympathetic. There are thousands of stories like this in China. I continue: )

6) During the USCIS interview, you are asked: "Have you ever been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution?" Can a prostitute become an American citizen? (Most students say no. I continue...) The USCIS does not like prostitution because it is a crime. However, some girls are invited to the US and are promised good jobs or marriage. But when they get here, they are trapped into prostitution.

(There is a major explosion of primary language. Advanced students quickly translate and then regroup to talk in English about recent articles in a local newspaper, which were initally criticized as racist and sensationalist. Nam Van Nguyen repeats, "Neo-slavery." I continue...)

7) What can a woman do? If she complains, she will be beaten and sent back home with nothing. If she is married, her husband says, "You must take this punishment, or I will take the children, and you US gov't will deport you." Or maybe the men simply say, "If you complain, I will kill you." And they can't say anything because they can't speak English. But there is a solution. An abused woman or woman trapped into prostitution can stay in the US with a T Visa from the USCIS.

(Nodding and general relief. Back to Jefferson and the whiteboard).

8) Jefferson wrote "All men are created equal," when there was no equality for slaves and women. The Civil War brought freedom for slaves and the 15th amendment brought the right to vote for all men. The 19th amendment brought the right to vote for all women. The Civil Rights movement strengthened civil rights for African-Americans and inspired other groups such as women , Latinos, and Native-Americans to work for better laws for everyone. Freedom is a process, an ongoing struggle. That is why America is a great country, because we keep on working for freedom for everyone.

(Universal approval. Much more discussion/translation in native languages. We then rise to exercise stress away.)

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