Teaching Slavery: Overcoming Artificial Barriers to Past, Present

By Woodfork, Joshua C. | Black Issues in Higher Education, May 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

Teaching Slavery: Overcoming Artificial Barriers to Past, Present


Woodfork, Joshua C., Black Issues in Higher Education


Recent discussions of reparations to African Americans for slavery prompted me to reflect on the ways I have been taught about slavery in graduate school. My educational experiences with the study of slavery have varied according to the professor s chosen topics for discussion and their selection of readings. My instructors have been both Black and White, and my classmates have ranged from entirely Black to mostly White. Delving into the massive topic of slavery has left me with a variety of thoughts and feelings. At times I have left the classroom with a sense of pride and empowerment, while other experiences have been, to quote a classmate, "soul deadening." Although I do not think slavery classes should devolve into therapy sessions, they certainly should not act to shame Black people once again.

Overall, my education on slavery can be divided into two camps. On the one hand, I learned the traditional classic texts of slavery. We focused on this generic prototype of a slave but tried to differentiate the slave experience by region and time. We heard a lot about patriarchy and paternalism.

On the other hand, I learned new approaches to studying slavery, including the works of many scholars of color and women. Here, more emphasis was put on where people stood in relation to the institution of slavery -- their subject positions -- based on age, gender, skin color, relation to their owner and status as slave or flee.

When I first imagined slaves, I thought of Black male figures. But, after classes with historians Dr. Darlene Clark Hine and Dr. Wilma King, I now understand that gender and age are important components in assessing the slave experience. In other words, women and children had particular experiences under slavery.

Before these classes, I also thought, that slave resistance came only in the form of rebellion or revolt; however, my professors taught me to see resistance in more covert, subtle ways. …

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