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Teaching Slavery: Overcoming Artificial Barriers to Past, Present

Teaching Slavery: Overcoming Artificial Barriers to Past, Present

Recent discussions of reparations to African Americans for slavery prompted me to reflect on the ways I have been taught about slavery in graduate school. My educational experiences with the study of slavery have varied according to the professor’s chosen topics for discussion and their selection of readings. My instructors have been both Black and White, and my classmates have ranged from entirely Black to mostly White. Delving into the massive topic of slavery has left me with a variety of thoughts and feelings. At times I have left the classroom with a sense of pride and empowerment, while other experiences have been, to quote a classmate, “soul deadening.” Although I do not think slavery classes should devolve into therapy sessions, they certainly should not act to shame Black people once again.
Overall, my education on slavery can be divided into two camps. On the one hand, I learned the traditional classic texts of slavery. We focused on this generic prototype of a slave but tried to differentiate the slave experience by region and time. We heard a lot about patriarchy and paternalism.
On the other hand, I learned new approaches to studying slavery, including the works of many scholars of color and women. Here, more emphasis was put on where people stood in relation to the institution of slavery — their subject positions — based on age, gender, skin color, relation to their owner and status as slave or free.
When I first imagined slaves, I thought of Black male figures. But, after classes with historians Dr. Darlene Clark Hine and Dr. Wilma King, I now understand that gender and age are important components in assessing the slave experience. In other words, women and children had
particular experiences under slavery.
Before these classes, I also thought that slave resistance came only in the form of rebellion or revolt; however, my professors taught me to see resistance in more covert, subtle ways. Resistance not only took the form of slaves running away or poisoning their masters, but also included work slow downs, the destruction of tools, feigned stupidity and infanticide.
In addition to gender and resistance, race has been one of the key factors in shaping my understanding of slavery. Classes on slavery walk the tenuous terrain of remaining historical while dealing with the contentious issue of race in the United States. The recent change in the census’ race category allowing for multiple check-offs highlights the confusion over the meaning of “race” in our society. Historical analysis allows a consideration of the development of modern racial groups. Understanding how and when rigid racial categories developed is critical to assessing our current situation.
Slavery is the period when the notion of Blackness and Whiteness became more concrete. Thus, it boggles my mind that I could have a class on slavery without discussing race. Yet, I did. Time and time again the professor refused to allow discussions of race to occur. Perhaps the instructor felt that the issue would divide the class along racial lines or that the class would develop into a discussion of current racial trends, losing a sense of history. Whatever the reason, this gap in our discussions did not enable a fuller understanding of slavery or freedom.
With one course in my graduate education left and after beginning to teach classes of my own, I understand the fear of losing control of the classroom or stumbling into controversial topics. Still, the need to honestly deal with these issues outweighs these artificial barriers between the past and the present.

— Joshua C. Woodfork is a Ph.D. student in American Studies at the
University of Maryland College Park.

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