Thursday, October 22, 2015

Teaching about Slavery

There has been much chatter lately about the new round of Texas-approved American history textbooks, because critics say they whitewash American slavery:
The books play down the horror of slavery and even seem to claim that it had an upside. This upside took the form of a distinctive African-American culture, in which family was central, Christianity provided “hope,” folk tales expressed “joy” and community dances were important social events.
Another critic is incensed by this passage about slave religion:
Religion was a second refuge for slaves. It ​gave enslaved Africans a form of expression ​that was partially free from their slaveholders’ ​control. Slave religion was primarily Chris​tian, but it included traditional elements ​from African religions as well. Religion gave ​slaves a sense of self worth and a hope for ​salvation in this life and the next. Spirituals ​were a common form of religious expression ​among slaves. Slaves also used songs and ​folktales to tell their stories of sorrow, hope, ​agony, and joy.​
I understand that in a school textbook with limited space, the editors shouldn't give so many lines to the good things about slave life that they crowd out the horrors. But it is simply not true that slave life was all horror, or that slaves never experienced hope, joy, or fun. Some slaves managed to live fairly decent lives despite their condition; slaves really did create a distinctive and vibrant African-American culture. Relationships between slaves and their owners varied enormously, from sadism and degradation to love; dozens of Americans slaveowners tried to free and marry slaves they had fallen in love with. Why does the Christian hope of slaves have to be rendered “hope,” their joy described as “joy”? Does it do any justice to the memory of American slaves to say their condition completely destroyed them? To deny that many were creative, productive, clever, witty, warm-hearted or cheerful despite their bondage? I am well aware of the many ways that oppression can be internalized, and I could recite you pages of statistics on how the lives of the poor are blighted by their condition. But that is not the same thing as asserting that all poor, oppressed people are miserable and defeated.

I have written before about a scene that made a big impression me: in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, a group of northern reporters touring the field met several slaves who were searching for their masters' bodies, so they could take them home for burial. The reporters were astonished; why didn't these men just walk away to freedom? Because life is complicated. Over the course of two years of war these slaves had had plenty of chances to learn about what was happening in America, and they probably understood that slavery as it had been was ending. So they perhaps felt no great urgency to bolt for freedom when they felt sure it was coming anyway. But some probably had warm feelings about their homes and wanted to go back. Some of them went to war as the body servants of men they had grown up with and knew well, and toward whom they felt something more complex than resentment. Some probably felt that to find the young master's body and take it home to his family was the right thing to do, and if this sense was influenced by some sort of Stockholm syndrome acceptance of an oppressive order, perhaps it was also influenced by humanity.

I am not really sure what these critics want in a history book. Is every sentence supposed to have a conclusion that reinforces the horror of slavery? Like, Many slaves married and established families, but some of those families were broken up when husband, wife, or children were sold. Some slaves learned valuable skills and were proud of their work, but most worked in the fields and many were whipped for not working hard enough. Slaves developed a remarkable religious culture and wrote many wonderful spirituals expressing their sorrows and hopes, because of course they had a great many sorrows to lament and no hope but God. That sort of thing? Maybe that is what elementary education requires, but it seems tedious to me.

The controversies surrounding the work of Eugene Genovese, whose Roll, Jordan Roll is my favorite book about American slavery, show that these conflicts show up in the work of professional historians as well. Nobody could much fault Genovese's facts about slave religion and culture, but many leftists hated his books because their overall tone was too positive. The ratio of attention he paid to torture and murder vs. spirituals and dances seemed to the critics wrong.

These are questions of taste, or ideology, and we will simply never agree about them. I think to be relentlessly negative about any group of people is insulting to them, since it denies their capacity to create something good amid horrors. Others think that any positive thought about slaves erodes what should be our monolithic opposition to the institution and its perpetrators.

At least all of these textbooks do give substantial space to slavery, and some account of both its importance and its wickedness. That is probably the main thing.


Susi said...

Reading the Texas slave narratives, dictated by the slaves, themselves, confirms the view that it was not all horror. When it was good it was OK, but when it was bad it was horrible. Humans are so very complicated. Opposing views can be held and never examined, much less admitted. Slavery exists, even now, and people actually put themselves in the position of slaves, accepting brutality as their lot. However, the systemic slavery that the Civil War ended will not again be tolerated, hopefully.

G. Verloren said...

Maybe instead of speculating pointlessly on how much or how little joy slaves had in their lives, and how much of that could maybe be attributed to belonging to The Jesus Fan Club, history books should be talking about the history of slavery?

Ya know, explaining the larger historical context? Start with slavery in antiquity, describe how it was a largely universal human behavior for much of history? Then move into the Medeival and Renaissance European theatre specifically, the establishment of Triangle Trade, the importance of slave labor to Colonial efforts?

From there, it's a natural progression to the rising wave of Liberalism and Humanism, and the growing moral outcry against chattel slavery. Maybe even touch upon which nations were the first to outlaw slavery, just how early on, and to what degrees of totality. Point out that often even when the trade was officially outlawed, it still persisted illicitly, and that it would take most a millenia for full global abolition to finally come about, with the vast majority of the progress occuring in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Just the facts. Leave the morality and subjectivity out of it. Our history books should not be a platform for assuaging the lingering guilt and molifying the hand wringing of various uncomfortable parties by trying to focus on the supposed joys of slavery, any more than they should scathingly condemn and unyieldingly judge anyone and anything to do at all with the topic.

We need history, not apology. Tell us what slavery is. Tell us how it existed. Tell us the effects it had on civilization. Tell us how it changed over time. Tell us what led to abolition.

Leave everything else aside. Present the major facts, and let the reader judge separately for themselves whether slavery was joyful or horrible or not, if they so choose. History is not concerned with such nonsense.

Unknown said...

All this is very fine, but surely the actual point of the kerfuffle is political. What the critics want is a textbook they can trust was not conceived with the main purpose of pleasing Republican focus groups composed mainly of elderly southern whites who want to stick it to the pointy-headed liberals and bathe themselves in sentimentality about how "the colored were truly happy on great-grandad's plantation." And of course, there are powerful political forces in Texas that flourish the more they give voters precisely those things. In any case, if you want to see these textbooks change fast, create a meme that congratulates Texas schoolboards on adopting a view of slavery most famously argued by the well-known Marxist historian, Eugene Genovese. (Of course, if you want to see them change even faster, create a meme that college admissions committees are starting to lower their rankings of Texas public high schools.)