Slavery & American Memory

In 1839, John “Jack” Saunders, a slave belonging to Jacob Waltz of Washington County, Maryland fled from slavery, and may have made it into Pennsylvania; however, Jack was caught later in the year and forced to face the Maryland Justice System.  Jack was to be forced to an out-of-state sale; however, Waltz petitioned the Governor and Jack was granted a pardon.  This seemed to have turned some gears in Jack’s mind where he was emboldened by the feasibility of escaping the “peculiar institution.”  Jack again escaped in 1840.  He was caught in Frederick County.  The facts of his life are not known beyond this point, except that his capture in-state saved him from being sold South.

These are simply facts; there is no interpretation, no narrative.

Why is slavery so contested in American history and memory?  Is it because it was morally wrong?  Is it because it is so complex and affected the lives of not only blacks but whites as well?  Is it because it deals with Americans identities?  Does the American public even know enough about slavery to hold an intellectual dialogue on slavery?  These questions loom before us as many historical sites – local, state, and federal – attempt to interpret the “peculiar institution.”  As Ira Berlin states in his article “Coming to Terms with Slavery” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, what Americans need “are not only new debates about slavery and race but also a new education . . .The simple truth,” he states “is that most Americans know little about the three-hundred-year history of slavery in mainland North America with respect to peoples of African descent and almost nothing of its effect on the majority of white Americans.”(4)  This is but one major issue public historians face when attempting to present and convey slavery to the public.

Slavery, at its core, complicates the identity of Americans – how can a nation espouse its founding of freedom and liberty while at the same time admit to enslaving another people?  Slavery is, of course, not a uniquely American institution; it has been practiced all over the world.  As James Horton wrote, in the same aforementioned book, “history matters.  It provides our national and our personal identity.  It structures our relationships, and it defines the terms of our debates.”(36)  Horton goes on to emphasize the role of the public historian in all this hullabaloo – “History must be taught not only in the academy but in the variety of nonacademic settings where Americans go to learn.  Here is where the role of the public historian, in charge of telling the complex and contradictory national story in public places, becomes crucial.” (36)

Reconciling the American narrative  would require that we, as Americans, rewrite the major narrative of American history and memory so as to develop an inclusive story of all the human experiences of slavery.  One of the reasons Americans have such a difficult time talking about slavery is because slavery itself needs to be acknowledged as part of the American identity.

Another issue public historians face concerning the presentation of slavery in a public place is that slavery is difficult to generalize, and in fact it should not be generalized.  “The lives of slaves, like those of all men and women, changed over time and differed from place to place.  Thus slavery was not one thing but many.” (Berlin 7)

So then how do we present and interpret slavery to the public?  Then additionally, how do we engage the public?  I do not have the answer; rather, I can only make suggestions.  I think we need to give Americans a visual of how widespread slavery actually was on the continent – it was not a Southern phenomenon.  This of course requires maps – maps that show slave escape routes, maps that show where slaves lived.  It would also be beneficial to present all the narratives that relate to slavery; most Americans think slavery and they think “African American history;” well, I have news, it’s also white history.  It will be a long road to accomplish incorporating slavery into the American narrative.

Adapted from Slavery & American Memory by Heidi Carbaugh

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