On 27 March, 1998 I posted the message which follows on the Slavery List ("The history of slavery, the slave trade, abolition and emancipation" <SLAVERY@LISTSERV.UH.EDU>)
A long and interesting discussion followed.
The Scout Report for Social Sciences -- March 24, 1998 SRSOCSCI@HYPATIA.CS.WISC.EDU contains a pointer to CROSSROADS: A K-16 American History Curriculum, Troy, NY: Council for Citizenship Education, Russell Sage College, 1995 at http://ericir.syr.edu/Virtual/Lessons/crossroads/sec6/
I was interested to see how the Slave Trade would be treated.
Perhaps my search of the site was not sufficiently thorough, but I found nothing on the subject. Would this be typical?
Let me make my question more general. Is the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade included in the school curriculum in the US and other countries in the Americas which have a substantial population of people of African descent? If it is not (a) why isn't it? (b) should it be? (c) why should it be?
Does this matter have any tie-in with President Clinton's present travels in Africa?
Is there anyone out there who could answer similar questions regarding the curricula of schools in Africa?
The contributions under the same head and under the heads `Teaching the Slave Trade' and `Reaching out to a General Audience,' follow, in sequence, reformatted but with the text of the contributions otherwise unedited. I have added an off-list message from Alva Moore Stevenson.
James W. Loewen
From: "firstname.lastname@example.org" 27-MAR-1998 05:58:50.75
Manu Herbstein has asked an interesting question which I hope prompts a considerable thread. I would suggest: the Atlantic slave trade should be a considerable portion of the curriculum in American schools, REGARDLESS of whether they have a substantial proportion of students of African descent, because the trade has had major impact on American institutions, foreign policy, ideology, culture, etc., to this day. (Herbstein didn't imply otherwise, but one MIGHT infer from his posting that a/the reason for including it would be to benefit African Americans, while it would benefit all Americans.) Also, every textbook discussion of the Atlantic slave trade that I have read states or implies that it ended in 1808. The ILLEGAL Atlantic slave trade continued until 1861 and had considerable impact on American foreign policy and domestic politics. It should be considered a period of "legal illegal activity," like booze during Prohibition.
James W. Loewen Try the quiz on my website: http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/
Jerome S. Handler
From: "email@example.com" "Jerry Handler" 27-MAR-1998 11:06:47.68
response to James Loewen--check out website http://www.virginia.edu/vfh/roots.nehinst
[Co-moderator's note: I have taken the liberty of reposting the description of the NEH seminar, Roots, The African Background of American Culture Through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, below
Jerome S. Handler Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: (804) 924--3296 fax: (804) 296-4714
Background: The underlying premise of the Institute is that Africa should figure more prominently than it often does in depictions of the genesis of American culture. The Institute will focus on the African background to American history, and the processes that brought Africans to the British Americas from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. From the perspectives of history, cultural anthropology, and historical archaeology, the Institute will emphasize what enslaved Africans brought to the creation of American (U.S.) culture by focusing on their social, political , and cultural backgrounds in West and West Central Africa. The Institute will also emphasize the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a major link between the formative American economies and societies and the rest of the world, thus a means to integrate the early American experience into world historical patterns of the time, and will consider the experiences of Africans as they settled into several regions of colonial North America.
The Institute will introduce undergraduate teachers from any discipline in American studies (e.g., history, anthropology and archaeology, sociology, literature, and cultural studies) to the lives, times, and experiences of the Africans who came to the British Americas. This Institute will particularly support the current academic trend to the broadening of the content of American studies -- emphasizing multiple perspectives, both personal and social/cultural, rather than homogenizing, implicitly Anglophone, male, white "melting pot." Throughout the Institute, participants will be encouraged to reconstruct enough of the Africans' experiences to sense -- and eventually convey to their students -- the slaves' courage, resilience, and creativity. They will be consistently faced with specifics of time and place so as to distinguish, for example, Asante from Angolans, the 1680s from the 1760s, the demands made of tobacco cultivation from those of sugar cane, as well as Virginia plantations from the Louisiana frontier, and Charleston (South Carolina) from Bridgetown (Barbados).
The context of early American history and culture is increasingly seen as a crucible in which people of exceedingly diverse backgrounds worked out the tense accommodations that became the foundations of American culture. The African presence is more and more emphasized but, owing to the emotional charges that it carries for most Americans, too often taken in through token, superficial endorsement rather than with due academic rigor. Compensatory positive stereotypes thus replace inherited negative stereotypes and inadvertently perpetuate division rather than promoting understanding. When enslaved Africans are taken fully into account, Americanists must come to terms with their backgrounds in Africa and with their experiences across the Atlantic up to the point of their arrival in the New World.
Africans created semi-autonomous "worlds" among themselves throughout the Americas, drawing on their African cultural backgrounds and experiences, and using them as the bases from which they influenced others living around them, even their nominal masters. African-American scholars of the Diaspora, from the late nineteenth century onwards, called for attention to their ancestors' presence and contributions, but they generally failed to influence the established (white) historical profession. Now, "Atlantic World Studies", with particular emphasis on the African trade's contribution to transforming Europe as well as America, is a major field of interdisciplinary research in American academic institutions.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest migration in history before the nineteenth century, creating black majorities throughout most of the Western Hemisphere. By 1807, when the trade was legally abolished by Britain and the United States, at least 9,000,000 Africans -- of an overall total in the range of 12 to 15 million-- had landed on American soils in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and North America. Few slaves entered North America and the British Caribbean colonies after 1807, but others continued to reach Cuba and Brazil until about 1870. Although the sex ratios and age structure of the Africans fluctuated over time and space, during the close- to- 400 years of the trade, approximately two-thirds were males, mostly youthful. More than a third of the captives taken to the Americas ended up in the Caribbean, and even more found themselves in Brazil; fewer than 600,000--a twentieth or less-- reached North America. Despite these relatively small numbers, Africans and their descendants in the new United States outnumbered Europeans south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1800; in fact, close to 50 percent of all immigrants (including Europeans) to the thirteen American Colonies from 1700 to 1775 came from Africa. A forced migration of these proportions had an enormous impact on societies and cultures throughout the Americas and produced a diasporic community of peoples of African descent.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade also transformed Western and Central Africa--the major regions from which slaves were drawn-- through violence, disease, commercial reorganization, population movements, agricultural reorganization around newly-introduced New World crops, imported material goods, and-- in restricted areas--Christianity. These profound changes in Africa, and the traumatic experience of the slaves who endured their harshest consequences, lie at only one remove from the American experience.
Although recent scholarship and teaching materials on American history and culture have made substantial efforts to include early Africa as "background," most of them inadvertently rely on stereotyped images of an "Africa" presented as culturally and politically homogeneous and sometimes exotically romanticized. Methodologically, these images present seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Africa as static, suspended in an ahistorical equilibrium that naively projects late nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic and travellers' observations back into earlier periods. They thus obscure the intense changes experienced by West and West Central Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Historical studies of the Africa that the slaves knew now make it possible-- even at an introductory level-- to discuss their experiences with regional and chronological specificity, and in terms that present the Africans' experiences as comparable to those of people elsewhere in the world at that time-- not merely as stereotyped and exotic "others."
From: "PBarr21106@aol.com" "PBarr21106" 29-MAR-1998 14:22:21.85
As a high school teacher, my question is: who would teach this material? The Anglo teachers I know do not want to make Anglos uncomfortable or to be made uncomfortable themselves and the Black teachers are uncomfortable with the material for other reasons. I just do not know who would teach the curriculum, no matter how well designed it was. Our textbooks have a little about the slave trade and one of our teachers reenacts a slave voyage, but all this occurs in an environment where the White viewpoint is the norm and anything that deviates from it is exotic, unorthodox and unimportant. Pat Barrett
From: “ email@example.com" 29-MAR-1998 17:27:22.20
I expect everyone to be uncomfortable when we talk about slavery and slave trade, but it is essential to experience the various sorts of discomfort brought by slavery and to learn from them.
I've had the good fortune to have classes on African history at Northeastern which are cross-listed in History and African-American Studies. The students are always a diverse lot; sometimes most are white, and sometimes most are black.
Aside from lots of reading, the device I have used for addressing slavery and slave trade is a class debate. Four to six students volunteer, and I assign each of them a historical role and a document to work from -- the roles include African kings, merchants, the enslaved (in Africa, on board ship, or in the Americas), those left behind, and European merchants, sailors and planters. (Relevant documents can be found in easily available books.) Each participant begins with a two-minute statement identifying their role, and speaking (within that role in the first person) on the question of whether slavery is necessary. After the initial round of statements, the participants question each other, and the questions soon turn to debate. After a while the remaining students join in the questioning and debate. Then in the last few minutes of class, we leave our characters and discuss the debate and our own interpretations.
Under these circumstances, the idea that there exists "the White viewpoint" or any other consensus quickly evaporates. The range of issues and emphases (gender differences, for instance) causes the development of many more than one or two interpretive positions. I'm sure it makes some kind of difference that I am a white professor, but it makes less and less difference as the debate heats up and the historical issues clarify.
Certainly the voices of black teachers and students need to be heard very clearly, to enunciate their understanding of slavery to their community, and as a universal issue. Just as certainly, we need white teachers and students who enunciate their understanding of slavery to their community, and as a universal issue.
I don't mean to suggest that the difficulties described by Pat Barrett in addressing slave trade are illusory. The dismissal of the issue in some circles as "exotic, unorthodox and unimportant" is a tough nut to crack. But I do think that much is to be gained by circumventing the lecture, and involving the students in identifying themselves with historical protagonists through role-playing and debate.
James W. Loewen
From: " firstname.lastname@example.org " 29-MAR-1998 20:36:18.75
Pat Barrett tells why some teachers do NOT teach much about slavery or the slave trade. But Barrett's apparent complacency cannot be considered OK.
If American history is taught from a "white viewpoint," then we cannot complain when Afrocentric scholars demand Afrocentric history for black students -- even irresponsible Afrocentric history. We do not come into the discussion with clean hands.
Worse, Afrocentric history for black students won't help the white (and other non-black) students who still suffer under smug boring Eurocentric history.
History/social studies is THE field where blacks show the greatest gap in performance, relative to whites. Surely this is partly because history as usually taught is more alienating to blacks. If history were taught so as to make whites uncomfortable once in a while, the gap might narrow. More importantly, Americans might be capable of learning something about the past, something that helped them to understand the present and future.
Surely we CANNOT accept more "business as usual" bland history about the slave trade or anything else. PLEASE know that as I go around the US, talking with teachers about the ideas in LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, I find that MANY of them are thirsty for new approaches and are already putting them into place in the classroom.
James W. Loewen
From: "email@example.com" " Karen Needles" 29-MAR-1998 20:50:04.20
In my classroom, I actually made students lie on the floor in close proximity to the space allotted slaves on the slave ships. I explained a slave auction, but used a white student, instead of a black student, and discussed the difference in slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome, with the American institution of slavery.
We read segments from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Physical and Moral Justification for Slavery", which I found in the Library of Congress, giving both sides explanations for their beliefs, and then we debated the issue, talked about how the 'peculiar institution' was different, and how it affected our country for over 300 years.
And I am sure that Amistad will be high on the list of videos that I will show to help them visualize this horrible period in our history.
Karen Needles History Teacher/Consultant
Clayton E. Cramer
From: “firstname.lastname@example.org" " Clayton Cramer" 30-MAR-1998 11:17:29.61
I think the reason that slavery and the slave trade don't get taught much boils down to two reasons:
First, and by far the most important, is that survey courses in American history are getting squeezed by the two semester format. When American history ended in 1930, two semesters made perfect sense. When I first learned American history in 7th grade, the semester broke at the Civil War. In many college classes now, the semester break is at Reconstruction.
Even the Civil War is getting quite abbreviated in college survey classes now. (I shudder to think of what happens in European countries, where they have several times as many years to cover.)
Secondly, I don't think that the powerful influence of slavery on American history has been broadly recognized. Slavery has ended up in what has become a component of two specialized fields: black history or Southern history. I don't think is necessarily race-based -- it's just not been thought about enough. Each of us has a responsibility to show the connections between slavery, race, and other areas of American history if we want to correct this problem.
As an example, my primary specialization has been the history of American weapons control law, which inevitably led me into a study of black history, since fear of armed blacks is one of the three roots of American weapons control law. As I have done radio talk shows around the country promoting my second and third books, this has provided me an opportunity to talk to non-academics who have generally paid no attention to black history and slavery at all--and the results have been interesting. I did a talk show in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the host and the callers had Southern redneck accents that were almost incomprehensible at times. The callers being whites, I wasn't sure how well it was going to come across when I talked about how gun control laws were used to suppress freedmen and their economic and political rights. But once the callers understood the connection, you could hear the gears starting to turn. I think that drawing connections can be an effective way of getting people to realize that slavery and black history aren't just minor interests, but part of the core of American history.
Clayton E. Cramer email@example.com
From: " firstname.lastname@example.org" 31-MAR-1998 13:55:18.94
A colleague who is a high school teacher out in Oregon forwarded to me a copy of a piece of a thread from your list that had been forwarded to him, concerning teaching about slavery, which has led me to join you. The piece I got was from last Friday, so if something below is redundant, please forgive me.
Regarding one of Manu Herbstein's questions, why there isn't more on the slave trade in curricula:
From our outreach director here at the African Studies Center at Boston University, Barbara Brown, who works primarily with K-12 teachers, I know that teaching the slave trade appears as a big problem to the teachers she works with. My strong impression is that the main issue may not be Eurocentrism so much as the emotional minefield involved, as the history in question has the potential to provoke feelings of anxiety and shame for students (and teachers) of all racial backgrounds that are hard to cope with, and consequent defensive reactions.
I think teachers tend to feel a special need for heightened competence so as not to be blind-sided and to be able to have a flexibility of response. It is also the sort of thing that is apt to elicit statements from students that other students find hurtful even when not intended that way, so that teachers have to feel confident about the material and the questions themselves so as to be free to help guide students to ways of talking about hard and emotional questions in general as well as the specifics.
Yet they probably haven't studied the issue much and materials aren't easily available, and the difficulty of the issue is also a disincentive to production of materials. There are probably political dimensions to this a la "culture wars" stupidities as well.
Presumably those of us who study and teach about slavery have also faced the difficulty of the issues and come to the conclusion that these are things that have to be faced, as they affect everyone -- I appreciated both James Loewen's and Patrick Manning's remarks on that score. The question is how to explain how we reached that conclusion and how to offer teachers something other than an incredible problem about it.
I like Manning's debate approach as one tactic -- when I was an undergrad I had a teacher who used a similar approach in a South Africa course to excellent effect. The virtue is that by creating an intervening "character" it allows a separation of an idea or perspective from the student who voices it, so the idea can then be examined critically without the student taking it personally or being taken personally; this lowers initial anxieties about "is it really ok to talk about this stuff?" or saying the wrong thing.
I used to teach courses on the comparative history of slavery at Reed College & have an abiding interest in the subject, and look forward to taking part in this list.
Thanks, Chris Lowe
From: "email@example.com" " Pamela Shands" 31-MAR-1998 13:56:09.91
Karen, I have shared a similar experience with trying to teach my students about slavery. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a group to see the Henrietta Marie exhibit in Charlotte, NC. I am not sure as to where the exhibit is now or if/when it will return. It was very beneficial as a starting point for trying to explain some aspects of slavery. I have also used the narrative of Olaudah Equiano to add some understanding. It was very difficult trying to teach this subject and I would be appreciative to any input as to how I could approach it differently.
From: "firstname.lastname@example.org" " David Nathanson" 31-MAR-1998 22:06:08.16
Regarding teaching about the trans-atlantic slave trade:
>teachers have to feel confident about the material and the questions >themselves so as to be free to help guide students to ways of talking >about hard and emotional questions in general as well as the >specifics.
I remember looking at Eric Foner's new pre-college oriented text regarding slavery. However, I don't remember if it addressed the trans-atlantic slave trade.
Have members of the list used this book in class? How have students reacted? Does it sufficiently address the above concern?
I'd be interested to know.
Atty. David Nathanson Criminal Appeals, Civil Rights, and Animal Rights
From: "email@example.com" " Tom Spencer" 2-APR-1998 12:54:44.96
Here are the items that I have my sophomores read in a one-semester history course on the U.S. Civil War
1. Selected passages from The Old and New Testament
2. Excerpts from Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul,
3. Excerpts from an 1858 debate in Philadelphia between W.G. Brownlow and Rev. Pryne
4. Selections from The Slave Narrative Collection
Tom Spencer Logos School 110 Baker St. Moscow, Idaho 83843
From: “firstname.lastname@example.org" " Paul Finkelman" 2-APR-1998 15:39:52.14
I second Jim's comments; I have talked to hundreds of high school teachers about slavery and about slavery and the constitution and they always seem to want more. Not just high school. I once taught the narrative of Fred Douglass to a 3rd Grade class; they asked great questions and we had a great discussion.
I also think Jim's point about white students is important; The integration of history matters not just to blacks, but also to whites who need to know about that part of our collective past.
New York State, by the way, has just passed legislation requiring that schools teach about the Underground Railroad. It is an important step.
-- Paul Finkelman, Chapman Distinguished Professor, University of Tulsa College of Law (title and e-mail address up-dated Sept. 2001)
Clayton E. Cramer
From: "email@example.com" "Clayton Cramer" 2-APR-1998 18:48:02.84
Concerning New York State mandating teaching about the Underground Railroad: Does anyone besides me cringe when they hear that state legislatures are getting into the business of defining such fine details of what is to be taught? California, for example, has mandated teaching about the Holocaust, I guess in the hopes that if kids learn about it, they will be less inclined to vote for the sequel. Has the teaching of history become so fractured that these sort of mandates are required?
Clayton E. Cramer firstname.lastname@example.org
From: " Steven Mintz, U. Houston" <SMintz@UH.EDU>
Subject: Reaching out to a general audience
President Clinton's African tour has given specialists in the slave trade an unprecedented opportunity to share their findings with a general audience. My sense is that the interested public is very eager to learn more about the slave trade and its impact on Africa, especially how it altered the nature and scale of African slavery and its political, economic, psychological, and developmental costs.
I wonder if specialists on the slave trade would be willing to share with the list 1) your sense of the challenges that scholars face in translating scholarly research to a general audience; and 2) the key points that you feel that the general public needs to know about the African slave trade and its impact on African development.
I look forward to your thoughts,
From: "email@example.com" 3-APR-1998 07:34:11.75
Regarding the question of New York state mandating the teaching of the underground railroad: Although I am glad more young people may learn about the UGRR, this is a bit disturbing, both as a principle and because the UGRR is so fraught with mythology. I, for one, would like to know more about how this initiative came about in the NY legislature. From politicians? From teachers? Professional associations?
David Blight Amherst College
From: "firstname.lastname@example.org" 3-APR-1998 08:26:58.32
The initiative began in the U.S. Congress with Louis Stokes of Ohio; the legislation is typical of most states; it is part from the education dept. and part under parks, tourism and recreation. Among the other tasks of the advisory committee is to create a "freedom trail" in the state. I think we will include things like Fred. Douglass house in Rochester, Jerry Rescue site, and other places. In the education area it is tied to teaching about the holocaust and the Irish famine; it is clearly ethnic politics as history. And, it is very interesting to serve on a committee with people from outside academic institutions, whose notions are not very precise and who are interested in glorification to build young egos, rather than dealing with history; we had a huge argument over whether we should call them "fugitive slaves" or "freedom seekers." The opponents of "fugitive slaves" said that it was wrong because it implied that they were breaking the law, and this is a bad thing to teach young kids; I pointed out that they _were_ breaking the law, and that is why it was the _underground railroad_. But, that is enough for one morning.
-- Paul Finkelman, Chapman Distinguished Professor, University of Tulsa College of Law (title and e-mail address up-dated Sept. 2001)
From: "redhead2@IDT.NET" 3-APR-1998 09:09:46.71
Dear Slavery List,
On the question of reaching out to a general audience, I have spoken with several journalists who rightly claim they call historians/scholars to check on information and do not hear back from us until it is past their deadline. We have no sense of the urgency and time demands for most journalists. We may be in a discipline, but most journalists are required to have discipline and produce in a timely fashion, which is clearly not part of our academic training.
And even when journalists have lead time they find it unhelpful when they are seeking background information for us to recommend this dissertation or that article--because they do not have easy access to this kind of material.
Further, even if we send them copies of work---we need to send syntheses or summaries--not to exceed a few paragraphs to make the material useful. They do not have the time to digest and process the tomes we might mail them, with all they are juggling.
And then we need to understand that editors can kill the piece, and that's the way it is....we have to give prompt, abbreviated and no-string-attached assistance if we want to be consulted.
Until we as scholars become more realistic and responsive about working with media---we will remain out in the cold.
I found so many of the comments rolling forth on Amistad last year--on this list and elsewhere--so depressing because they reflected scholarly thinking that was completely off the mark--for example, the scholar who wondered if Hollywood wants to do a story on slavery, why they would chose Amistad....these and other wildly naive speculations plunged me into despair.
Historians seem to have no idea that Amistad was a project that took years and years and failed developments, and actor/producer attachments that wouldn't fly--and was only made because someone like Spielberg, or perhaps even Spielberg alone, who was willing to take it on--and then look at the fallout--from scholars, from lawyers, "who owns history," "I want a piece" and other battles which seriously dampened the film's reception. Not to mention Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times from a leading scholar asking us to keep Amistad out of the classroom.
I took my children ( 13 and 8) the opening night of Amistad at our local theater and even though it was long and very tough going for a child in places--I wanted them to see, to feel, to experience what it is that their mother cares about--and this film, more than all the classes, all the books, all the stories I might try to tell, touched them.
It was quite a rude shock to turn on my e-mail and read dispassionate dissection, et al. This whole discussion and debate on our list filled me with regret, as I do not think it led to productive ways of thinking, but led us back into the dead end where historians remain stuck.
We are being cut off from the flow of the culture because we are failing to communicate--with our young people, our students, our wider audience....
If we want to make ourselves heard, we need to be the ones to make ourselves accessible, available and (yes, believe it or not) engaging.
The lack of intrigue and engagement in academic analysis is legendary. This is not lost on the media who rarely are willing to take the time and energy to wade through our whining to sift out a useful quote.
Cranky in Connecticut AKA Catherine Clinton email@example.com
From: "firstname.lastname@example.org" 3-APR-1998 11:27:28.96
Apropos of part of Catherine Clinton's remarks, last year then-AHA-President Joyce Appleby took an initiative to form a "History News Service" which inter alia seeks to help historians place op-ed and reflective pieces on historical perspectives on current events, or on events of "public memory" in one sense or another (including ones generated by us pointing out anniversaries less generally recognized), and also to provide editorial services to help us learn to write better for that sort of audience.
She distributes information & ideas about HNS periodically from <email@example.com>; if anyone is interested I am sure she'd be pleased to hear from you. From the 1997 annual report:
>HNS Steering Committee Members: > > >Stephen A. Allen, PhD candidate, Medieval Institute, University of Notre > Dame >James Boylan, Professor Emeritus of Journalism, University of > Massachusetts, Amherst >Ginger Ruseseal Carter, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Georgia College > and State University >Thomas J. Harvey, PhD candidate, University of Utah >Elizabeth Haven Hawley, PhD candidate, Georgia Institute of Technology >John Hurley, PhD candidate, Harvard University >Neil Jumonville, Associate Professor of History, Florida State University >Ralph E. Luker, Adjunct Professor of History, Morehouse College >Bryan Le Beau, Professor of History, Creighton University >Robert S. McElvaine, Professor of History, Millsaps College >Michael L. Oberg, Assistant Professor of History, Montana State University > - Billings
I agree with a lot of what Catherine Clinton says about our need to educate ourselves and be savvy about the constraints under which journalists and other mediators of cultural information operate. Supposedly we pride ourselves on capacity for self-critical reflection and as she suggests one way to do that is to take others' criticisms of our shortcomings seriously.
On the other hand I suppose that cuts both ways. There is a complicated grey zone where there are tensions between journalists' desires to "get it right" and purvey truthful and accurate information, their needs to speak to their audience "where they are" in terms they recognize and approve, and market pressures for lowest-common-denominator assessments of the latter. There is also a propensity of "speaking to audiences where they are" to keep them there, in terms of received stereotypes and cultural shorthands or place-holders for issues that people don't want to think about too much, because of lack of time, more pressing concerns, or difficulty; or in terms of beloved icons of one sort or another.
In that grey area academics may sometimes move too quickly to an adversarial relationship with journalists or other cultural producers. But at other times there are real conflicts of interest for journalists that they don't always like to face and I think we should claim a critical role in such cases.
But as I think Catherine Clinton is suggesting it may be wise to keep our powder dry and go in for issues where we think framings affect "big picture" truth issues.
From: "firstname.lastname@example.org" 4-APR-1998 14:06:28.72
Professor Martin Klein writes of his students and his teaching about the slave trade: "They have also taught me something, that one can best deal with the slave trade by confronting its emotional significance and not by trying to treat slaves like mere commodities."
It strikes me that all of us who teach about slavery must strive to do both what Klein does and what he is rejecting; we cannot run from the history of slavery, and deny the commodification of people; it makes no sense to try; indeed, the horror of slavery is to understand the economics of it; the use of people as capital goods, to be sold, worn out, amortized, and replaced by others. Slavery, and especially the African trade, was certainly about people being turned into commodities by others. That does not make them "mere" commodities, but it forces us to talk about how other people treated them as such. It strikes me that the value of what we teach is found in our willing to confront the horrors of the past, and not to run from those horrors.
-- Paul Finkelman, Chapman Distinguished Professor, University of Tulsa College of Law (title and e-mail address up-dated Sept. 2001)
From: "MAH0P33@SIVM.SI.EDU" " Alonzo Smith" 6-APR-1998 09:14:35.93
Since I am not a specialist in the field of slavery, but rather a serious student who has taught the Survey of African American History for about twenty five years, and currently a museum researcher, I'm going to address my response primarily to the second question, namely what major issues the public needs to know about.
It seems to me that there are three issues which stand out when we look at the Triangular Trade and the development of the plantation societies of the Americas. One is the enormous level of human suffering. This is why, beyond a certain level, discussions of exact numbers are somewhat beside the point. We have not only to consider those who perished, but the effects of the trade on those who survived, both in Africa, and in the New World. The calculated brutality of the Middle Passage must be juxtaposed against the intellectual and aesthetic glories of the Scientific Revolution, the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, and Renaissance and the Enlightenment. I personally love classical music, but I cannot listen to Handel without thinking that the society that produced him and his contemporaries was transporting thousands of my ancestors every year in a hellish journey across the Atlantic. It is one of the many paradoxes of European culture. Which leads into the second issue, namely that the glories of European "civilization" were built upon a very inhumane, undemocratic social system that used up a lot of people, including the rural and urban poor of Europe itself. In the long run, the liberalism of Europe gave rise both to movements to oppose slavery and racial dominance, and paradoxically at the same time to mass ideologies that were very antiliberal and retrogressive. And the final issue is that the Africans and their descendants were not simply passive victims, but active participants whose agency resisted subordination by creating a new Afro American cultural world.
It seems to me that requiring major themes in the history of slavery, rather than micromanaging a teacher's job by specifying one or another historical aspect of slavery, would do a lot to educate our children for the twenty-first century.
Sometime next year, we are planning present at the National Museum of American History a conference on the Middle Passage, with some of the aforementioned themes. I'd welcome any questions and comments from the members of this list.
Alonzo Smith, research historian, Program In African American Culture
David Brion Davis
From: "email@example.com" " David Davis" 6-APR-1998 17:18:16.89
Just for the record, I too cringed. And I'm a member of the Advisory Council for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and am an enthusiastic supporter of that project. But state legislatures should not dictate what should be taught in our schools.
David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History, Yale University
> From: “firstname.lastname@example.org" "Clayton Cramer" 2-APR-1998 18:48:02.84 Concerning New York State mandating teaching about the Underground Railroad: Does anyone besides me cringe when they hear that state legislatures are getting into the business of defining such fine details of what is to be taught? California, for example, has mandated teaching about the Holocaust, I guess in the hopes that if kids learn about it, they will be less inclined to vote for the sequel. Has the teaching of history become so fractured that these sort of mandates are required?
Alva Moore Stevenson
From: Alva Moore Stevenson (off-list)
Speaking as an African American parent of two children educated in Catholic schools, the Atlantic slave trade is included in the curriculum for the elementary school. The subject is not covered in depth - just the basic facts. I am the daughter of an educator as well as having gone through the public schools. During that time (1958-72) the subject never came up in our curriculum. It was only after that time that it was included.
Judging from what I have read on education here in the U.S. the slave trade is covered unevenly in the curriculum overall. Some teachers and school districts teach it better than others. One notable exception was a teacher who re-created a slave ship in her classroom. She then had her students lay down exactly as the slaves would have in the hold of the ship for their journey. I believe she wanted her students to imagine what that horrible journey must have been like.
As for your question on Clinton's trip to Africa. In Nommo (the African American student newspaper here at UCLA) it was reported that Mr. Clinton would not be issuing an apology for slavery on his trip to Africa because it is not something which is foremost on the minds of many Americans. I don't know which "Americans" they were referring to or who advised him on this. It is foremost on the minds of many African Americans. Those "many Americans" who are not thinking about it are probably Whites who would like to forget and feel no responsibility.
For your background, you should know that there have been calls for both reparations for the descendants of slaves and an official apology from the U.S. government. This comes after the U.S. paid reparations and apologized to Japanese Americans who were interned in war relocation camps during World War II. Opinion is mixed both among African Americans and others as to what should be done. A memorial to African Americans who were enslaved has also been proposed.
Personally speaking - three of my great-grandparents were slaves. The last one - Adeline Thornton - died in 1941. In researching my family history I know many of the details of their enslavement - including the names of their slave owners, etc. In one case my great-grandmother Mary Moore bore her owner several children, including my grandfather, while she lived in the household as a cook. In another case we have information which traces one of my ancestors back to their journey from Africa (the port was called "Ghenoa" at that time) to their landing at Savannah, Georgia here in the U.S. We further learned that one of them died during that journey. I have a personal stake in seeing that slavery and its legacy is never forgotten. Whether this means adequate coverage in the school curriculum, reparations or an apology. I so admire the Jews because they have educated their children about the Holocaust and are vigilant--ever vigilant -in seeing that the world never forgets that atrocity. We as African Americans must do no less.
Alva Moore Stevenson
UCLA Oral History Program
Room A253 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575
(310) 825-4932 - phone
(310) 206-2796 - fax
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds."
H-NET List for African History and Culture [H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
(This was not part of the above thread.)
Date: Sun, 07 Nov 1999
From: John Thornton, Millersville University
Many people have asked or wondered why "Wonders of the African
World" seems to ask and answer the same questions about the
African past that we thought were already answered. Did Africa
have a history? Did Africans participate in the slave trade?
Did pre-colonial Africans write and keep books? Why if we know
the answers to these questions, do we need Gates' travelogue to
I think the answer is that have not answered these questions
for the general public well enough. I ask my students in the
intro. to Africa class every year I meet them simple questions
about African history and get the same resounding reply every
single year. We don't know anything about Africa. Those who
think they know something usually have it the way Gates did,
through the barbershop or maybe consciousness raising rap music,
or like Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" video. And the
reason for this is pretty clear.
Africa is not yet being taught systematically at the primary and
secondary school level. Whatever we might know as scholars, and
whatever we have learned in the past twenty or thirty years
might enrich the experience of our college students, but it has
no impact on the general public. As scholars, we or someone we
can work with, need to get the scholarship out to the public,
specifically through the school system. Otherwise, we will need
another redundant TV series, like the Davidson one, or the
Mazrui one, every few years to raise consciousness and perhaps
to give some teachers some new but rather dated information on
Actually we face at the present moment an opportunity to do
this. All over the country public schools are moving to
comprehensive testing and "accountability" in schools. Virginia
is just one of several states that have implemented a program
and conducted tests. The tests show poor performances, the
quality of schools is a big issue on voters' minds, and right
now accountability is a popular fad in education and politics.
This means we can expect more states to go to testing and
accountability, and from that will develop an inevitable
standardizing of the curriculum, at least as far as the big
picture goes. If we want Africa to be in this picture, it is up
to us as scholars to make sure that it gets in there, and that
what gets in reflects what we know to be true. At present the
most active segment in doing this is community activists for
whom school reform is just one issue to confront. Many
community activists are well meaning people like those in Gates'
barbershop, and their own knowledge is shaped by the struggle of
the sixties and nationalism. But they can see where the
pressure needs to be applied, and it is in the schools above
all. That is why it is they, who have created a lot of quality
materials (from an education standpoint) to use in schools.
But a lot of these materials are harmed by nature of their
information, which often comes from the more extreme end of the
Afro-centric movement. The activist Afrocentrics are not
likely to win more than limited victories in these battles.
Their agenda is not popular in most of America, and their
accuracy is suspect in many circles. Thus, even when they
present ideas that most of mainstream scholars would accept,
they are rejected as being wrong in content or divisive in tone.
Those of us who would prefer to see a more "mainstream" (for
Africanists) agenda need to present it ourselves.
Perhaps we should be thinking about how to do this and give
Gates' his due for producing this year's wake up call for