Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners

tags: slavery, education, history crisis

Edward E. Baptist is a professor of history at Cornell University. His most recent book is ‘‘The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.’’

One thing is certain as I prepare to teach another course on U.S. history. Invariably, at least one student evaluation will complain that ‘‘Professor Baptist only talks about slavery.’’ It’s an annual reminder that while I’ve been trying to teach the history of slavery for two decades in American classrooms, America has tried to evade thinking about that history for far longer. Twenty-­four decades have passed since the Continental Congress deleted Thomas Jefferson’s criticisms of slavery from his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, and college students today arrive knowing little about the way America’s history of slavery has shaped their lives. Avoidance of the topic is deeply ingrained.

When I was at the University of Pennsylvania in the ’90s, the campus environment felt as if a bubbling bowl of white resentment were spilling over mostly black West Philadelphia. This was the era in which public intellectuals seriously discussed ‘‘The Bell Curve,’’ which argued that I.Q. tests proved African-­Americans were intellectually inferior. This kind of questioning — directly inherited from the history of white defenses of slavery — found its way into the Civil War history discussion I was leading. Two young white students complained that criticizing enslavers was modern-­day moralizing. Slaves, they said, might have actually been happy. They kept glancing at T., the class’s lone black student. I naïvely thought that if I invited T. to speak up, he would find a way to shut the white students down. ‘‘T., do you want to respond?’’ I asked. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized my mistake. T.’s face stiffened. ‘‘It’s not right to always look at one group of people to explain slavery,’’ he said firmly. T. didn’t speak again for the rest of the semester. Powerful forces were giving certain students the message that to protect their inherited privileges, they needed to dig in and resist confronting the facts of American history that had led to, for instance, a class in which there was only one black student. ...

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