Sunday, March 9, 2014

Teaching About Slavery

I’ve been trying to write a book about teaching and decided there wasn’t room for this chapter about slavery. Perhaps it will give other educators a worthwhile idea or two. I used to write my own materials, since textbooks tend to be so dull.

Excerpts follow:

Chapter Sixteen: Slavery: How Bad?

“…the absence of control. Here one lived knowing that at any time, anybody might do anything.”
Toni Morrison

...I began by creating two readings that looked the same and all examples came from the same sources. I simply divided them. Anything that made slavery sound good (or at least mild in nature) I put in one reading. Everything bad ended up in the other...

Each tale had the same title: HOW BAD WAS SLAVERY????? And the opening statement was the same:
The answer to the question, “How bad was slavery?” may surprise you. For now leave it at that. Remember that slavery began at Jamestown in 1619 and did not end till 1865. You should also know that in 1860 there were 4,000,000 slaves owned by 400,000 masters and mistresses.
The question, then, has a complex answer. The slave owners were ordinary people. So were the slaves.

After that the text was completely different and equally “true” or equally “untrue.” Or was truth complicated?

On one side I placed examples like these:
It may surprise you to know that not all owners were white. The Cherokee Indians practiced slavery. Marie Metoyer, a black woman, owned fifty-eight slaves. Cyprian Ricard, another free Negro, had ninety-one. Dilsey Pope owned her husband. After a terrible argument she sold him in anger. Later she cooled down and tried to buy him back.
His new owner refused.

I liked that one because I could imagine Dilsey pitching a fit, like any normal wife, and could imagine her regretting it.

The next section (about slave diet) ended with this:
…At Christmas one owner gave his slaves cheese, coffee and candy. The house servants of a Tuscaloosa, Alabama master gave a party for their friends at which cake and ice cream were served. Another slave reported that her owner gave her anything she asked for. Often she got up early, went “down in the kitchen and got my coffee and cream before the white folks got theirs.” “Yes,” she added, “my white folks was good to me.”

And then there was this:
Derry Coburn met Daniel Boone in the winter of 1800-01. For the rest of Dan’s life Coburn, a slave, was his “regular companion in the woods and probably his closest friend.” Once Boone got his hand mashed and stuck in a heavy trap and had to drag it back to camp. Coburn never thought about trying to escape. Instead, he removed the trap, bandaged his “master” up and went back to his cooking.

Another perfect setup was a quote by Solomon Northrup. Solomon was a free man living in Maryland until two con-artists promised a job with the circus, got him drunk, and carried him to Virginia where he was sold into servitude. (His story recently became the movie Twelve Years a Slave.) Even Northrup, however, had this to say about one master:
He described Miss Mary McCoy, owner of a hundred slaves, this way: “A lovely girl, some twenty years of age...she is beloved by all her slaves, and good reason indeed have they to be thankful that they have fallen into such gentle hands.”

She was “an angel of kindness.”

The pro-slavery reading ended with this:
Finally, we have the case of William Wells Brown. It is true—that he ran away from his owner. Then he was caught and thrown in jail. At the time he heard his master was ill.

You may wonder what slavery was like. But take note of what Brown had to say: “I prayed fervently [with intense feeling] for him.”

I assigned the “good” handout for homework and started class the following day by asking simply: “Were any of you surprised by what you read?” It soon turned out, that by writing carefully I had duped even the best students. (I taught seventh and eighth grades; I would hope older kids would not be so easilyt fooled.) And keep this in mind—there were good masters because there are good people in this world.[1]

“Who has something to say?” I wondered.

“I didn’t know there were black slave owners,” replied one of my students.

“One slave owner gave his slaves ice cream and cake,” offered another.

I took comments and added a few supportive ideas, stringing the fraud out as far as I could. Sometimes a student would object. “I read a book about slavery once, and it didn’t sound anything like this.”

“Was it a novel?” I asked. “You know, if you want to sell books, they have to be exciting. So it’s more interesting to have a daring escape than to write about shoeing horses or chopping cotton.”

Finally, when I felt I had played the string out as far as I could I asked someone to find the example of Solomon Northrup. What did he say about Miss Mary McCoy and what did it prove?”

I had a volunteer read the quote (mentioned above) then asked, “So what does this example prove?”

The student who had just read now agreed that slavery wasn’t as bad as she thought. One of the boys said there were a lot of good owners.

Read the paragraph again, I said. What does it really show?

Finally, someone would say: “Mr. Viall, it says they had reason to be thankful to have fallen into such gentle hands…Doesn’t that mean there were owners who were worse?”


I was surprised every year how few students saw through my subterfuge. Take the example of the owner who gave his slaves cake and ice cream. I waited in vain for someone to protest, “Mr. Viall, this was only one owner!”

I also liked to cite Jefferson Davis—who let slave set up courts, with slave judge and juries. Only once did he overturn a punishment—and that was to lower it. So who was in control, I asked every year? Again and again, students said—well—the slaves.

No, no.

“What word in the sentence shows Davis was in control?”

The answer dawned slowly. The key word, students would finally realize, was “let.” He let slaves have limited freedom.

Davis was still in charge.

At this point it was time to pass out the bad side of the story. I explained that everything in the first handout was true, as much as any limited view of reality is true. But was it the full story? If good people owned slaves, psychos did also. There were 400,000 slave owners. Some had to be evil.

“Finally, what happens when words are taken out of context?” I asked. “What did William Wells Brown say when he found out his owner was sick?” Not everyone was willing to take time to look for the quote. I added, “I’ll give you half my Twix bar if you find the answer first.” (I often ate candy during class and skipped lunch to help students later. And I knew almost all middle school students would perform for food—and kept a ready stash of candy bars in a bottom desk drawer.) Wendy raised her hand and claimed the treasure.

She read: “I prayed fervently [with intense feeling] for him.”

“All I did was saw the quotation in half. That is what he said, but not all of it. Wendy, you get the whole candy bar if you can guess the rest.”

“He prayed for him…to die?” she ventured.

“Correct! You are the Candy Bar Queen!”

I turned the kids lose and let them read on their own the remainder of the period. Now they heard Theophilus Conneau, captain of a slave ship, admit:
…Most vessels carried tools to pry slave’s mouths open if they refused to eat. There were nets to keep individuals from jumping overboard, a common form of suicide. On one voyage Conneau set sail with a “cargo of 108 boys and girls. The oldest was not 15 years of age.” Another time he packed his slaves between decks only 22 inches high.
If different owners shipped slaves on the same vessel it was necessary to brand their “property” to keep them from getting mixed up. An adult was marked on the upper arm. A child was branded on the buttocks. Conneau admitted this was a “disgusting duty.” Still, the idea of branding human beings seemed not to bother him that much. “This ... [is] done as lightly as possible,” he claimed, “and just enough for the mark to remain only six months.”

Or they read this—from American Slavery As It Is, an abolitionist account drawn from southern sources and published in 1837:
Under a system where one person might own another anything was possible. In 1834 Madame LaLurie of New Orleans was found to have kept seven slaves chained in her attic. Newspaper accounts indicate one boy was imprisoned five months. Fed only a handful of corn meal each day, he was subjected to “the most cruel treatment” every morning. According to witnesses an older black man had been beaten till his head was broken:
The worms were actually to be seen making a feast of his brain! Another woman had her back literally cooked (if the expression can be used) with the lash [whip]. The very bones might be seen projecting through the skin.

When an owner was “creative” punishment could take many forms. House servants could be demoted and sent to the fields. Saturday night dances could be canceled. Slaves might be required to work on Sunday—normally a day of rest. If a maid showed an attitude she might be denied a pass to visit her husband on another plantation. One owner made slave men dress in ladies’ clothes and do “women’s work.”
Another used a pair of scissors to punish a disobedient female slave. She had, said one witness, “real long hair and they cut one side of her hair off and left the other side long.”

Linda Brent was witness to similar abuse when a cook fed her master’s dog too much cornmeal mush. The dog vomited in its bowl and died shortly after. This brought the owner storming into the kitchen. “He said the mush had not been well cooked, and that was the reason the animal would not eat it. He sent for the cook,” Brent remembered sadly, “and compelled [forced] her to eat it.”

Later we also read the story of Frederick Douglass in his own words. One evocative detail, I thought: Frederick’s mother lived on a different plantation and visited him when she could, when her owner allowed. One day she brought him a sweet cake shaped like a heart, a detail I thought perfectly captured the humanity of all those millions of unfortunate human chattels. 

We heard from Booker T. Washington, in the same way, who described his boyhood as a slave up until the age of nine.

In days to follow I asked students to write a 500-word essay about “their” lives as slaves. Then we did a skit (in the form of a panel discussion, involving five masters and slaves), meant to last a full period. My students were great in these kinds of skits, what were essentially set up to be like “plays without dialogue.”

These are ideas I brought to class—not standardized knowledge—and the great work my students did in those skits, and on that story—none of that was standardized either.

Reading done by one run-of-the-mill history teacher in order to put together his own unit on slavery:

American Slavery As It Is by Theodore Weld (published in 1837); yep, I actually read that.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; the book is written beautifully but filled with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racism—as when Mitchell talks about what a good master Scarlett’s father was. (He only whipped one slave, for not taking care of his race horse!)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe; there are some great scenes, including one where an overseer causes a fainting slave in the cotton fields to revive by sinking a pin into her thigh. 

A Slaver’s Log Book by Theophilus Conneau; the captain’s ability to make excuses for almost any action, including many that would have to be classified as horrible crimes, is quite amazing. 

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901); Washington has some great comments about the import of education for the freed slaves later.

The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass (three versions)

Puttin’ On Ole Master, which included the story of Solomon Northrup, which became the Academy Award winning Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.

Great Slave Narratives, also including stories by former slaves.

WPA interviews with old slaves, conducted in the 1930s; on file at the Public Library of Hamilton County.

And, of course, numerous other sources…

I used to tell students the history of slavery was written on this man's back.

[1] I know some might disagree with that kind of statement. I’ll add this example, if it might help. Suppose you are convicted of a murder you did not commit and sentenced to life in prison. Your jailor turns out to be a good person and treats you with human decency. That doesn’t make the fact you’re innocent and serving out a life sentence palatable.