Thinking about Slavery

During the first half of the fall semester, 2014, student contributors to this project had two major tasks.

First, they analyzed work related to the interpretation of slavery that had been produced by public history scholars and practitioners. Together, we used this body of scholarship to identify the shortcomings in public interpretations of slavery. Students reflected on their findings, and they identified several interpretive problems that stand in the way of effective and engaging interpretation of slavery at historic sites, in museums, and online. At the most basic level, the problem can be summarized this way:  slavery has been marginalized in the public sector. At some sites, it has been obliterated –slave quarters destroyed by neglect or active removal. At others, it has been set aside from a core interpretive narrative —the word “slave” replaced by “servant,” interpretive programs about slavery offered outside a plantation house, off site, and only to those who request them. Core narratives focus on wealthy and influential white people, and slavery is –at best– interpreted as an unfortunate symbol of their wealth. At the same time, where the history of slavery is interpreted, it is typically represented as the purview of African American History. In some ways this is benign. However, it has also  tended to reinforce the marginalization of slavery, segregating it as a story that belongs to some Americans but not to others.

Students also mined the work of public history scholars and practitioners to identify some strategies that had potential to shape a new and more successful publicly-oriented interpretation of slavery. Cheryl LaRoche challenged students to rethink geography and topography. She reminded us that geographical and communal boundaries are constructions. By viewing these boundaries through a multi-disciplinary lens –history, archaeology, anthropology–  we can re-draw maps,  making the experience of slavery and freedom visible and central to the way we understand the nation spatially as well as culturally. James Horton and others called on us to imagine new methods of storytelling that might craft an inclusive past, one not segregated by “white” history and “black” history, but rather one that foregrounds relationships and connections. Doing so requires us to break out of the limiting view of “good” and “bad” people and pasts in order to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the way average people shaped American identity, memory, and history over time. To that end, Antoinette Jackson challenged us to recognize memory and oral traditions as central to the construction of a meaningful past. While historians may be loathe to include sources they see as ahistorical in any work of scholarship, reaching out to descendant communities can shed light on the contemporary relevance and lingering meaning of slavery and its interpretation.

Next, students explored formal scholarship on the history of slavery and freedom in the border states, particularly focusing on the relationship between Maryland and Pennsylvania. It’s fair to say that –unconsciously– they approached this work differently than the work of public historians. Trained in historiography, they were ready to identify the ways in which ideas and arguments about slavery have evolved over time inside the discipline, and they were adept at identifying themes and trends that could serve as the backdrop of our public project. Their critical summaries are linked through the bibliography here.

Interestingly, however, they did not always immediately recognize that scholarship on slavery also presents problems and strategies for the production of new public interpretations. For example, a significant theme in the historiography relates to its economic impact. In many of the early works, then, enslaved people appear mostly as foils against which to measure economic change over time –a problem that precisely relates to the ways in which slavery has been marginalized at many historic sites. Only more recently, have scholars begun to turn the mirror around, examining the ways in which economic relationships among enslaved and free workers sheds light on the construction of class, race, and gender over time. Similarly, the rise of African American history opened up important new scholarship on African American resistance to slavery as abolitionists and freedom seekers. This work humanized enslaved people, but sometimes merely replaced a focus on whites with a focus on blacks, missing the opportunity to foreground relationships.

On the other hand, traditional scholars have had more freedom than public historians to document, describe, and interpret violence as a process by which identities and experience are shaped. Interpreting violence at public history sites is difficult. It is too easy to sensationalize it as evidence of past savagery. Yet, the persistence of racial violence in our culture as a method of social control and geographical boundary enforcement indicates it is something we cannot and should not avoid in the field of public history.

If there is one thing all the student contributors agree on, it is this:  exploring the history of slavery and freedom can open up important and meaningful questions about contemporary American culture, and the best way to do that is to foreground the actions and experiences of people living, working, negotiating, and resisting the social, cultural, political, and economic forces that limited their actions.



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