Difficult Conversations



Gravestone of Peter Cranston (1771) son of Peter and Phyllis Cranston, drowned at age 10, of Mr. A. Lopez in the God’s Little Acre section of the Common Burying Ground (Newport RI). Photo by Laura Leibman, 2008 (Jewish Atlantic World Database)

When I did a workshop a few years ago with grade-school students on gravestones related to Jews in the colonies, I naively included a gravestone of a young slave Peter Cranston Jr. who had belonged to Aaron Lopez, a Jewish merchant. This stone caused at least one child in the class some sadness and distress, and provoked many questions.  Jews had slaves?  How many Jews had slaves?  Did they treat them well? Why would people who had suffered through the Inquisition turn around and own slaves?

These questions have also plagued scholars, in part because sometimes Jewish history is part of a heritage project, or other times just because slavery and race instigate what I refer to as “difficult conversations.” That is, conversations that at first seem troublesome, but in the long run may help students work through useful concerns.  I have designed this set of pages on difficult conversations to model some of the ways that I work through “difficult conversations” in and out of the classroom.

Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations is a book and theory by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  In it they argue that conversations that we dread and find unpleasant come in three main varieties:  What Happened Conversations, Feelings Conversations, and Identity Conversations.  By identifying what kind of conversation you are having, you can help transform  “damaging battles of warring messages” into learning conversations (Stone et. al. xxx).

I believe these conversation types are helpful for understanding some of the academic and internet battles regarding the dispute over Jews and the Slave Trade.  They can also help us understand our own limits for exploring the intersection of Jews, Race, and the Slave Trade in the classroom and in scholarship.  More often than not, these conversations are not about the facts (most scholars agree some Jews owned slaves), but what those facts mean (Jews were [not] responsible for the slave trade).  The battle over meaning is not unusual: as the authors of Difficult Conversations note, “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right.  They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values” (Difficult Conversations 10).

To continue with this topic, feel free to go through the pages in order, or jump around as you see fit:

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