New Interest Around Old Issues
Slavery has always been an intriguing, but uncomfortable subject to discuss in this country. Growing up, most of us probably learned the same few things about enslaved Africans and the institution of slavery: Slaves escaped bondage via the Underground Railroad with the help of Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves — officially, that is.
Outside of the classroom, many of us familiarized ourselves with the slavery experience through popular media, which brought us the enormously successful TV miniseries Roots. For many Americans, Roots was the first close encounter with the slavery experience. More recently, Steven Spielberg brought us the motion picture Amistad, which offered a dramatic account of the 1839 revolt that occurred aboard the Amistad slave ship.
In this edition’s cover story, “The Peculiar Institution,” Black Issues correspondent Paul Ruffins examines some of the problems attendant to popular culture telling the slavery story. Historians say public interest in slavery is on the upsurge, which has made its study a growth industry on campus. Ruffins explores why the subject of slavery has sparked new interest among scholars and mainstream America. Among the questions he asks are: Should we celebrate the Underground Railroad when it played a relatively minor role in helping slaves escape? And how has America’s “low tolerance for tragedy” influenced the way the slavery experience is taught in our schools?
Today, slavery is being approached and taught in new ways, at least on the college level. Once explored mainly in courses on Southern history or American history, slavery is now emerging as an important question all by itself, according to University of Maryland professor Ira Berlin.
At historic sites in and near Washington, the effort to honor the slaves who worked at pre-Civil War homes and plantations is entering a new phase, The Washington Post
For example, Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, recently began offering 30-minute tours devoted to slave life at the estate. And at Arlington House — the former Northern Virginia home of Robert E. Lee — a one-room slave dwelling, that until recently was used as a storage building, was opened to public visitors in March. Perhaps these efforts to tell the slaves’ story correctly will lead to a deeper acknowledgement of their place in American history and their contributions to this country’s development.
Also in this issue, research associate Sophia Kellman debuts her first article for Black Issues. The story, prompted by a recent report by the National Association of Scholars, revisits an issue that has been hashed out for years — the inclusion of more female and minority authors on English departments’ reading lists and the debate surrounding the literary canon’s content. Dr. Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, an English professor at George Mason University, says that as a college student, reading Black female authors such as Zora Neale Hurston opened up a whole new world for her. “Suddenly I wanted to know, what other Black women writers are out there? What other Black writers are there, period?” says McKenzie. Isn’t that what education is all about?
Lastly, Black Issues would like to congratulate all of the recent graduates! Their success is a form of restitution that I’m sure our ancestors would approve.
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