The Peculiar InstitutionNew Trends and Controversies in Researching and Teaching Slavery By Paul Ruffins
Because of its richness and controversy, the study of slavery has captured the interest and imagination of many different theorists. In turn, these researchers have discovered new documents and reinterpreted older sources of data. Because these scholars’ sources and conclusions are themselves being subjected to new technologies and research, the study of slavery is entering an accelerated cycle that is yielding even more data to be analyzed in order to produce new theories.
Coming to Grips with Slavery“There hasn’t been this much interest in slavery since 1865,” says University of Maryland history professor Dr. Ira Berlin, describing a recent upsurge in interests that has made the study of slavery a growth industry on campus and a hot topic in overall American society. “Today, colleges and universities are offering courses on the history and sometimes even the literature of slavery,” says Berlin. “Just a few years ago, slavery was seldom examined by itself but incorporated into courses on Southern history, or African American history. Now it’s emerging as an important question all by itself.” Exploring the question of how slavery is being taught in so many different venues raises another question: Why has the issue of slavery become so popular? “Because as a topic, slavery contains all the elements that make for drama and excitement,” says Dr. Loren Schweninger, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “It involves murder, love, sex and violence, as well as heroes and villains, rescues and revenge.”In addition, Berlin says compared to 20 years ago, “slavery is more likely to be linked to an understanding of developments in world events, and … scholars and lay people are realizing that coming to grips with slavery is critical to understanding the great question of the 20th century because slavery is inescapably linked to racism.”
New Scholarly Theories Scholarship on slavery has always centered around arguments and counter-arguments about how slavery actually operated, or more recently, what being a slave was really like. In Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, written by historian Dr. John Hope Franklin with Schweninger, the authors explain that more than 80 years later, scholars are still trying to correct the image of slavery posed by Ulrich B. Phillips in Life and Labor in the Old South.Phillips’ 1929 portrayal of slavery was essentially apologetic, seeing plantation life as a rational economic and social system that involved “conscript labor” but was largely benevolent, and that most slaves were docile and largely content. According to this logic, under the plantation system, management and labor weren’t as alienated from each other as under the sweatshops and wage slavery of the industrialized North. It simply didn’t make sense for an owner to abuse his slaves, because that would mean damaging his own property and reducing the efficiency of his labor force. Phillips’ perspective could now be considered, at best, a romanticized, Gone with the Wind view of slavery, or at worst, ignorant racism. But at the time, it was well-respected and influential, earning Phillips a Pulitzer Prize.It is fair to say that much of the research on slavery has in some way been a reaction to Phillips’ portrayal. During the late 1960s and 1970s, pioneer scholars such as Herbert Aptheker (American Negro Slave Revolts, 1969) and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman (Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 1974) grappled with questions such as: What was the day-to-day reality of slavery? Were slaves simply victims of their situation, or to what extent did they resist or rebel? Others such as Eugene Genovese (Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, 1976) presented slaves as creative participants in the formation of American society. They actively melded religion, music and their African heritage into a unique expressive culture that helped Black people to survive slavery and oppression, and helped America to produce the blues, jazz, spirituals and oral traditions that have transformed the popular culture of the entire world. These and other scholars laid the foundation for contemporary research into slavery and African American studies, partly by incorporating the theories and research methodologies of sociology, economics, cultural anthropology and other social sciences. The desire to view slavery through more disciplines has been a major factor in the current explosion in writing and research on the issue. “Traditionally slavery was either taught as political science, which considers it a cause of America’s most wrenching political events, which were the Civil War and Reconstruction, or taught historically as part of Southern history, or viewed economically as a system of organizing labor,” says Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, associate professor of history and art history at George Mason University in Virginia. “These perspectives often asked what factors made things so different in the North vs. the South. In contrast, today there is more of a tendency, particularly in African American studies departments, to view it from the perspective of what it was like to be a slave, and the greatest comparisons usually involve African American life before and after freedom. Some of the most creative research is being done by Black women scholars, such as Dr. Deborah Gray White, chair of the history department at Rutgers University, who are examining slavery through issues of family and gender,” says Stewart. In the exhibit catalog for “Before Freedom Came” White examines, among other things, the complicated role that becoming a mother played in a female slave’s life. On one hand, it increased a woman’s worth to her owner, which decreased her chances of being sold away, but it also greatly reduced her chances of ever successfully escaping. “I believe that an important contribution of feminist scholars has been to take an in-depth look at communities of slave women, slave children, slave artisans and other communities within the larger slave community,” says history professor Dr. Paula McGhee Underwood of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “This allows historians to make use of non-written sources, such as oral histories and cultural artifacts. Additionally, slavery taught from a subcommunal perspective serves to make these persons, seen as less than human in the larger society of antebellum America, much more alive within the context of their own history.”There are other scholars who feel that the focus on individual experiences has gone so far it has led to missing the larger picture. “Over the years, the pendulum of opinion has swung back and forth between seeing slaves as happy and childlike, or pure victims, or creators of their own destiny,” says Dr. Ibrahim Sundiata, chairman of Howard University’s history department. “Right now I think there is too much of a tendency to focus on the psychologically sadistic aspects of some individual slave owners because it makes for dramatic storytelling. “Some of that is true, but as someone who specializes in comparing U.S. slavery to other experiences around the world, and is a strong advocate for financial reparations, I think that it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, slavery was an economic system involving 300 years of forced labor. Our ancestors transformed the American economy from New England yeoman farms to a world powerhouse. For about 100 years before and after the revolution, our biggest exports were cotton goods and tobacco, primarily produced by Black slaves.”
Literary Theory One of the most significant trends in the multidisciplinary study of slavery is that not only have other disciplines influenced the study and teaching of slavery issues but the documents of slavery have recently had an impact on other disciplines. Perhaps the most important catalyst to this development has been the ongoing work of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard University, who has been applying modern literary analysis to slave narratives. Gates is often credited with bringing attention to the hitherto overlooked novel Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black which was a lightly fictionalized, largely autobiographical book written by Harriet E. Wilson in 1859. Until recently, slave narratives were largely viewed as primarily historical documents which described life under slavery, or as political tracts since their collection, publication and dissemination played a large role in the abolitionists’ legislative and legal strategy to end slavery. However, Gates and others are now reinterpreting these stories as “stories,” viewing them as some of the earliest examples of African American autobiography and literature. Today, a sophisticated study of one important phenomenon might involve crossing a large number of disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Franklin and Schweninger’s Runaway Slaves describes itself as the first systematic study to answer the historical questions surrounding the characteristics of slaves who ran away. Why did they leave? How many were successful? And what happened to those who were recaptured? To accomplish this, Runaway Slaves depends on examining journalistic and legal sources such as newspapers and court petitions to yield demographic data (sex, age, occupation, sex of owner, etc.) which is then entered into a computer database and used to create a statistically valid portrait of the slaves who took the often-fatal risk of trying to escape.
Risks and Conflicts “Coming to grips with slavery involves not only academic scholarship, but a broadly shared desire to explain an institution that appears so contradictory to the values of a democratic society,” says Dr. Joseph P. Reidy, professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Howard University. “The result,” he explains, “is that traditional scholarship, popular memory and contemporary political imperatives have been blended together in unprecedented ways.” Like others, Reidy is implying that the rising tide of interdisciplinary and popular interest in slavery is not without its drawbacks. The flood of information also has brought some misinformation. Some historians at least, have questioned whether all methodologies for examining slavery are equally valid, and whether the practical and political requirements of teaching slavery in public history venues, or to young people, actually conflict with the emerging scholarly data. For example, Stanley Elkins’ famous attempt to use the group psychology of Holocaust victims to explain the behavior of slaves is now generally considered to be bankrupt. Franklin and Schweninger point out that Elkins’ Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life portrayed slaves as not unlike Jewish inmates in concentration camps during World War II. In order to survive, they developed “childlike, loyal and docile dispositions.” In response, Franklin and Schweninger go on to quote Eugene Genovese’s criticism that “…we must recognize that all psychological models may only be used suggestively for flashes of insight or aids in forming hypotheses, and they can not be substituted for empirical investigation.” Elkins may or may not have been accurate in describing the mentality of the concentration camp inmates. However, his conclusions about the docility of slaves have been thoroughly rebuked by both earlier and later studies documenting widespread evidence of slaves continuously resisting the demands of slavery as best they could, sometimes resorting to violence and insurrection. Likewise, it was a famous Black sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, who popularized the notion that the social problems of the underclass were due to a “matrilineal family structure” that resulted from the Black family being destroyed during slavery when Black men couldn’t perform the stereotypical traditional male roles of protector, patriarch and breadwinner. Frazier’s thinking was so influential it became the basis of national public policy in the form of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, The Negro Family: A Case for National Action. In 1976, Herbert Gutman published The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, which comprehensively disproved Frazier’s arguments. Nevertheless, many of Frazier’s assertions are still widely believed to be true. Genovese’s criticism of the use of individual psychological theories to analyze a 300-year-long global phenomenon like the Atlantic slave trade has been echoed by some historians who are uncomfortable with the application of literary theory to slavery. For example, from a literary perspective it is perfectly legitimate to create an entire English, African American studies or women’s studies course exclusively made up around the literature written by women who are escaped slaves. However, because the group of women who escaped and then wrote about it is so atypical, it would be important not to mistake a course on the history of slave literature with a course on the history of slavery.“I think that there are some examples, like the African Burial Ground Project in New York City, where history, anthropology and hard science, such as DNA testing, have been very successfully combined,” says Dr. Edna Green Medford, associate professor of history at Howard, and the project’s historian. “But that involves a very close scholarly collaboration. I get very uncomfortable when history is being written or taught without the involvement of trained historians.”
Problems with Popular Culture Portrayals of slavery in popular culture also can interfere with students achieving a historically accurate perspective. “Many students think they know something about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings,” says Dr. Adam Rothman, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. “But they probably don’t know anything about the more important issue, which is his writings on the governance of Virginia where his ideas about interracial relationships were so extreme many of his proposals were even rejected by the Virginia Legislature.”Reidy of Howard University believes that exposure to popular culture has sometimes left even students who took Advanced Placement history courses believing many stereotypes that are hard to dislodge. “A perennial favorite is the notion that stud farms (where masters actually successfully bred Black men and women as if they were cattle) were a staple of the antebellum South.” Medford gives another example of misinformation refusing to budge to scholarship observing that “many of my students still take the infamous 1712 statement by Willie Lynch to be gospel truth.” Lynch, whose name supposedly gave rise to the term lynching, was allegedly a successful plantation owner in the West Indies who was invited to come to Virginia to teach American slave owners a guaranteed method of controlling slaves that was more effective than violence. Lynch’s method primarily involves using the slaves’ differences to psychologically divide them: “Don’t forget you must pitch the old Black male vs. the young Black male, and the young Black male against the old Black male. You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves. You must use the female vs. the male, and the male vs. the female.” His statement was quoted by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan during the Million Man March and is widely distributed on the Internet. Scholars have pointed out that Lynch’s document contains obvious factual and contextual errors, that there were very few light-skinned slaves in the Caribbean in 1712 and that searching tax records reveal no evidence of a successful Lynch plantation. The document appears to be written to reflect a contemporary Black Nationalist sentiment rather than the perspective of a 16th-century Caribbean slave owner. However, many Black students stubbornly maintain it is true.“Too many people accept historicized fiction as if it were fact,” says Sundiata of Howard University. “In the book Beloved, Toni Morrison fictionalized an event that took place on one farm in the 19th century. Then Oprah Winfrey made a movie of it. Then Oprah went on TV and described how traumatic it was to film the scene where she, or more probably a body double, was raped and then milked. Now some of the millions of people who watch Oprah believe that it was commonplace for Black women to be milked like cows.”
The Limitations of Public History Most academic scholars recognize that when history is being taught to grammar — and sometimes even high-school — students, it is necessary to soft-pedal the horrors in favor of a more optimistic view that emphasizes the possibilities of freedom and justice. This is why today’s young people are most commonly taught to understand slavery through lessons about the Underground Railroad and the revolt on the Amistad slave ship. Both of these incidents involve interracial cooperation that successfully frees the slaves. Unfortunately, these are both also highly atypical. These happy distortions may be acceptable when dealing with schoolchildren. However, this “celebrationist” perspective becomes more troubling in public history venues such as museums and historic houses, where it sometimes flies in the face of growing evidence that brutality and oppression were the hallmark of slavery.These institutions may be committed to historically accurate research, but their bottom-line missions are generally to celebrate a specific idea or individual, and in many cases their survival is predicated on attracting a diverse group of tourists and visitors who sometimes must pay to gain entrance. In addition, historians and staff in public institutions and historic houses aren’t protected by the academic freedom of the university, and their audience may carry more clout than the staff. “In colleges, when professors speak, students usually take notes; at historic sites visitors often write notes — sometimes to their congressmen and senators,” says Dr. James O. Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Civilization and History at George Washington University and curator in the cultural history department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “People trying to teach history under those circumstances often lack any protection from someone being offended by their interpretation. There are still thousands of people who come to National Park Service battlefield sites and want to learn everything about the Civil War without hearing a single word about slavery.” Dr. Spencer R. Crew, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, says, “There is no doubt that the interpretations in most museum exhibits lags a few years behind the cutting edge of academic scholarship. However, it is that scholarship that always forms the factual foundation that prepares the public to accept an exhibit that may be painful or controversial.” Professor Underwood of UNC-Greensboro says the study of slavery is an evolving process. “I believe that as slavery scholarship matures, historians will be able to deal with topics both good and bad that depict slaves and former slaves as living, breathing human beings, neither romanticized or ostracized, but just plain old ordinary people who were resilient enough to overcome the debilitating effects of forced emigration, labor and human exploitation and changed the history of this nation.”
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