Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Teaching about Slavery: A Novel Approach

Teaching about Slavery: A Novel Approach

(That’s a terrible pun. I apologize.)

I don’t know if you’ve ever read Gone with the Wind or seen the movie. When I was teaching, I can tell you more than a few young ladies chose to read the novel as part of a requirement to read four books in my history class.

I told those interested in this book, yes, Margaret Mitchell’s work is a classic. It’s well-written and exposure to great writing might help them learn to express themselves with style. It’s a tragic love story, which they might like. But I also warned them to be alert to the subtle racism that permeates the story.

The overt racism, I thought, would be fairly obvious. This would include the use of the “n-word.” That might prove an issue with parents.

So I had to caution them about that.

For my own purposes, I liked to use one paragraph in the book to make what I think is a key point. Margaret Mitchell did her best to paint Scarlett’s O’Hara’s father Gerald as a sympathetic character. He was all “loud bark and no bite.” Master O’Hara, I think the author truly believed, was representative of a good slave owner.

And I’m afraid Mitchell believed most owners were good. Call it Southern mythology.

At the end of the novel, Scarlett is reduced to picking her own cotton.
Her hands are torn and bleeding.
I could never work up any sympathy for her plight.

Only once in a thousand pages—and decades as master of Tara, his famed plantation—did Mr. O’Hara ever whip a slave. In fact, the slaves knew they had little to fear from their owner. Here’s the paragraph:

     With unerring African instinct, the negroes [the lower-case “n” is another example of the unconscious racism that infected American life when Mitchell wrote] had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him. The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there never had been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting.

I would read this paragraph and to my students and ask, “What do you think this shows about slavery?”

I taught seventh grade most years, sometimes eighth. Most of my students would respond, “Well, I guess slavery wasn’t that bad.” That was the first reaction. (We had very few minority students in my district. It might be different where you teach.)

I’d begin probing: “What does it really show?”

Eventually, someone would realize, “Wait. It means the master cared more about his horse than his slave!”

I would elaborate. “That’s right. You might have a kind owner. But you were still owned. You did not control your life. Master O’Hara might not sell you south, or ‘down the river.’ He could. He could sell you. He could sell your husband. He could sell you son. He could sell his horse. Even a good master might value a horse over a human being. And a bad master could get away with anything he wanted.”


This next idea, I never tried myself. I’ve been retired for a decade; but I think this would work. Provide the following to students, go over the material which follows (below) and ask them to read and respond to these questions in a paragraph or two.

How might a slave describe Master O’Hara?

How would a slave describe life at Tara? What might have been good? What might have been bad?”

I think a teacher could summarize all of this: Mitchell provides Gerald O’Hara’s back story at the start of the book. When the novel opens, he is 60 years old, having arrived in this country thirty-nine years before. He speaks with an Irish accent, a brogue, from days growing up in County Meath, Ireland. He loves fast horses and walks with a limp. Not long before, he had tried to jump a rail fence on one of his favorite mounts. He took a nasty spill and shattered a knee.

He’s “a small man, little more than five feet tall,” with “crisp curly hair…silver-white.” His eyes are blue, his look “shrewd.” His face is unlined even at 60. Master O’Hara has the look of, “unworried youthfulness of one who has never taxed his brain with problems more abstract than how many cards to draw in a poker game.”

One day Scarlett spies her father returning from a horseback ride. He takes a jump again, over the same rail fence where he previously fell. She knows her mother would not approve. But she and her father keep each other’s secrets. When he realizes his 16-year-old daughter has seen him jump, he dismounts and comes to give her a kiss.

(If you’ve ever seen the movie, you know Scarlett seems much older than 16. But 16 was an age when young women of that era thought seriously about marriage. Modern students rarely know this.)

The master of Tara has a stern manner and a fierce look. Beneath it all, however, Mitchell writes,

Gerald O’Hara had the tenderest of hearts. He could not bear to see a slave pouting under a reprimand, no matter how well deserved, or hear a kitten mewing or a child crying; but he had a horror of having his weakness discovered. That everyone who met him did discover his kindly heart within five minutes was unknown to him.

He liked to believe that when he “bawled orders at the top of his voice” everyone on the plantation trembled. He had no idea that the real voice of authority at Tara was Ellen, his wife.

Gerald did not marry till age 43. He and his wife had three sons. All died young. Only three daughters remained. Carreen was “delicate and dreamy.” Suellen “prided herself on her elegance and ladylike deportment.” Scarlett was her father’s favorite. She kept his secrets. He kept hers. If he “caught her climbing a fence instead of walking half a mile to a gate, or sitting too late on the front steps with a beau” he would express his displeasure. He would never tell Scarlett’s mother or Mammy, the slave who helped raise all the O’Hara children. Scarlett knew when her father lost money at poker and how much.

She never told.

When O’Hara finishes his ride his daughter asks if he has bought the slave woman Dilcey? Dilcey is wife of a slave at Tara. Yes, her father says. He paid $3,000 for Dilcey and her daughter Prissy.

“In the name of Heaven, Pa, three thousand! And you didn’t need to buy Prissy!” Scarlett says. She calls the little girl “a sly, stupid creature.” “And the only reason you bought her was because Dilcey asked you to.”

“Well, what if I did?” her father replies. “Was there any use buying Dilcey if she was going to mope about the child? Well, never again will I let a darky on this place marry off it. It’s too expensive.”

(Master O’Hara had given one of his male slaves permission to marry Dilcey, a woman owned by another family.)

Mitchell continues to flesh out the picture of Mr. O’Hara. Like two older brothers before him, he left Ireland to avoid troubles with English authorities. He was not the first of his family “to take his foot in his hand and quit Ireland between dawn and morning,” she explains.

Settling first in Savannah, he helped his brothers James and Andrew run their store. By the time we meet him he in Mitchell’s story he has come to think of himself as a true Southerner. He has adopted the ideas and customs of the land,

poker, and horse racing, red-hot politics and the code duello, State’s Rights and damnation to all Yankees, slavery and King Cotton, contempt for white trash and exaggerated courtesy to women. He even learned to chew tobacco. There was no need for him to acquire a good head for whiskey, he had been born with one.

Always skilled with the cards, Gerald won his first slave in a poker game. He was, “Pork by name, shining black, dignified and trained in all the arts of sartorial elegance.” O’Hara would call Pork the “best damn valet on the Coast.” In another card game he won a deed to an undeveloped tract of land. A stranger he met and played against had what seemed a sure winning poker hand, “ace full.”

Gerald had “four deuces.” Those four two’s won the Irishman the land that became Tara.

Scarlett’s father remained unmarried for years. He had his plantation—but clearly needed a wife.

Mitchell describes life at Tara, before Gerald met Ellen:

The fat cook, a yard negro elevated by necessity to the kitchen, never had the meals on time, and the chambermaid, formerly a field hand, let dust accumulate on the furniture and never seemed to have clean linen on hand, so that the arrival of guests was always the occasion of much stirring and to-do. Pork, the only trained house negro on the place, had a general supervision over the other servants, but even he had grown slack and careless after several years of exposure to Gerald’s happy-go-lucky mode of living. As a valet, he kept Gerald’s bedroom in order, and, as butler, he served the meals with dignity and style, but otherwise he pretty well let matters follow their own course.
     With unerring African instinct, the negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him. The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there never had been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting.
     Gerald’s sharp blue eyes noticed how efficiently his neighbor’s houses were run and with what ease the smooth-haired wives in rustling skirts managed their servants. He had no knowledge of the dawn-till-midnight activities of these women, chained to supervision of cooking, nursing, sewing and laundering. He only saw the outward results, and those results impressed him.
     The urgent need of a wife became clear to him one morning when he was dressing to ride to town for Court Day. Pork brought forth his favorite ruffled shirt, so inexpertly mended by the chambermaid as to be unwearable by anyone except his valet.
     “Mist’ Gerald,” said Pork, gratefully rolling up the shirt as Gerald fumed, ‘whut you needs is a wife, and a wife whut has got plen’y of house niggers.”
     Gerald upbraided Pork for his impertinence, but he knew that he was right. He wanted a wife and he wanted children and, if he did not acquire them soon, it would be too late.


If I had it to do with a class of my own, I’d give students the background on Master O’Hara. I’d ask them to read the section above, describing life at Tara in the years before Gerald married.

Finally, I’d ask everyone to answer the questions mentioned above.


If you ever run out of horrible examples to use consult American Slavery as It Is, compiled from Southern newspapers, letters and eyewitness accounts, first published in 1838. It is readily available on-line. The authors were the abolitionists Theodore Weld and the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina. Theodore and Angelina married in 1838. The trio also fought for equal rights for women.

I also sell materials about slavery at TpT, including a compilation of scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

My students enjoyed that reading.


I always emphasized in my classes that history was first and foremost the study of human beings, with all the complexities of ordinary human life.

I always tried to show students that slave owners and slaves came in all the same varieties of human beings as any other groups. In 1860 there were 400,000 slave owners in the United States. You could be owned by a kind-hearted person, by someone inept in carrying out discipline, by a hot-tempered owner quick to strike, by a sex abuser or even a sadist. In any case, you could not control your life.

Millions of slaves responded to the circumstances in which they found themselves in a wide variety of fashions.

I’ll leave it at that, since I’m retired.

I need to take a nap. 


  1. rockinray45@gmail.comMay 24, 2018 at 9:32 PM

    I read the book in college ~ 1968, pretty much the same time I read Atlas Shrugged - what a contrast! I am amazed you actually had the patience to wait for junior high students to grasp the value of the horse. I don't think I would have grasped it so young. When MLK Jr was assassinated I had trouble understanding all the fuss over just one more murder. Fortunately, I had friends who were not offended by my ignorance and insensitivity, who took the time to explain to me how black people lived in much of this country. You are still an amazing teacher - but now your students are much older. You're probably reaching more people now than you were in the classroom. For a guy who usually lurks in silence, I really opened up on this issue. Thanks. -- Ray Bailey, former army brat

    1. Thanks, Ray, having you come out and speak to my classes about fighting in Vietnam was always one of my favorite days.