In a previous post, I noted that I liked teaching the U.S. History survey course at Washington University in St. Louis because I did not use a textbook. Students tend to use textbooks as crutches rather than as supplements to their own knowledge, reflexively deferring to the textbook and repeating back its interpretations. I still see this tendency in my classes at NOVA, where every U.S. History class teaches the same textbook. It is ironic, then, that one of my best classroom discussions happened just recently when a nontraditional student offered a provocative and insightful comment—about the textbook.
This student—I’ll call him Carl for the purpose of this story—is a middle-aged African black man. The first day of the semester he staked out a seat at the front row of my class, pulled out a notebook—not an electronic one, mind you; a regular, spiral notebook—and started taking notes. That was his routine every day. In addition to taking copious notes, he also contributed to class discussions. Early on in the semester, however, his contributions usually consisted of recitations of the textbook material, or just reading a passage from a primary source we were discussing. No analysis of his own, no insight into how he made sense of it all. When I asked him a follow-up question, like “that’s an excellent quote: what do you make of it?”, he struggled for an answer. I’ve seen this many times before. Students are used to looking up a quote and reading it out loud, and too often in history courses this passes for analysis. When an instructor asks that they do more than just read a sentence or parrot back what the textbook says—to actually offer their take and defend it with evidence—they’re lost. I was frustrated because I know how earnest a student he is, and I believed he had ideas of his own. But how to help him get them out?
One of the changes I’ve made to my U.S. History I syllabus is a more in-depth discussion of race and slavery throughout the entire class. Given the continued centrality of race to contemporary American culture, and given that race and slavery are often relegated to discrete eras in most surveys—most teachers have a lecture about the origins of slavery in Virginia and South Carolina, another on the transatlantic slave trade, one or two on the problem of slavery in the antebellum era leading up to the Civil War, but in many surveys, beyond that slavery and race are nowhere to be found—I resolved to highlight how race and slavery remained foundational to colonial and early U.S. society throughout much of the seventeenth century, and through the eighteenth and nineteenth as well. One of the things I liked about the textbook the department uses was its attention to slavery and the slave trade. The accompanying reader likewise includes a variety of rich sources illustrating the development of slavery and the difference between enslaved and free peoples. On October 1, I was all set to lead discussion on several of these sources: a collection of eighteenth-century advertisements for runaway slaves published in newspapers in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Before we began, Carl raised his hand.
“Professor Green, before we begin, I have something to say about the textbook. As a black man, I do not like the way it talks about slavery. I think it whitewashes the history of slavery.”
Academics often complain about the things our students do that cause our actual classes to look far different from—and, the implication often is, worse than—the lesson plan we imagined. We don’t give adequate credit to the times when students force us to change our lesson plans for the better. Carl had taken the class in a different direction than I intended to go. But as soon as he said it I knew it was a better direction than I had planned.
I asked him why he thought so. He observed that the textbook’s discussion of slavery and the slave trade focused more on the diversity of African peoples taken and the number of slaves who experienced the middle passage—in other words, statistical measures and elaborations on African cultures—and less on the sheer brutality visited upon them. “Africans were chained,” he observed. They were also branded, raped, and beaten.
In the textbook’s defense, it includes those details as well. But the physical acts of dehumanizing violence perpetrated by white traders on African slaves was not the textbook’s emphasis. By gliding over these details, and not making them the focus, he was saying, the textbook glossed over slavery’s evil essence, and omitted the painful experiences of the people Europeans sought to make their property.
Another student—a white woman, in her early twenties—responded with a well-meaning comment that nonetheless reflected even thoughtful students’ casual racism. “The textbook is focused on facts,” she whitesplained, “not emotions.”
In my head, I cringed. I probably physically cringed, too, though I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is processing all the insidious insinuations her comment contained. Most troubling of them all was her implication that his observations were not “facts” that carried the same truth as the textbook’s information. That focusing on the brutality of slavery was somehow irrational and emotional, rather than objective and “factual.” It’s a way to justify downplaying the brutality of slavery as beside the point, largely because the brutality of it makes us—and by “us” I especially mean white people—really uncomfortable. We’d already discussed in class the intertwined nature of slavery and freedom: that the freedom whites in the eighteenth century enjoyed was predicated upon black enslavement. We’d even touched on how that formula echoed well beyond the colonial era, into our own time. Equating blackness with criminality, with licentiousness, with violence—and associating whiteness with self-control, with rational thought, with “reason” and “civilization”—allowed whites to justify denying them their humanity. It allows whites today to continue to suspect black people of wrong doing with no evidence, to accuse them of crimes, arrest them, beat them, and even kill them in broad daylight. It also allows whites to dismiss black voices and perspectives, to accuse them of “making everything about race,” of being loud, irrational, and, yes, excessively “emotional.” White brutality toward black slaves is the cornerstone of white privilege. By dismissing his perspective as she did, this female student inadvertently repeated one of white supremacy’s oldest tropes.
“What he’s saying are ‘facts,’ too,” I replied, not waiting to see whether other students would respond. “It’s absolutely a fact that slaves were beaten, that they were chained. That’s all true, just as true as the statistics the book contains, and that I use in my lectures.”
After a pause, I asked the class: “What might this tell us about the different kind of ‘facts’ historians use, and the kind of stories we tell?”
Students didn’t quite know how to respond at first, but it offered me a way to introduce a crucial historiographical topic that I had thus far overlooked. We tend to think facts are facts, but different kind of facts—like, for example, statistics detailing raw numbers of slaves who endured the Middle Passage, on the one hand, and the gory details of their treatment at the hands of their white captors, on the other—can both be equally true, but they tell very different stories about the slave trade that reveal and conceal important parts of reality. Statistics like those the textbook included (and other statistics I used in my lectures) provide a broad overview of the trade, and are useful for giving students a sense of the enormity of the slave trade’s global reach. But statistics like these can also ignore the daily experiences of the enslaved. Another white student observed that statistics like these can also reduce the lives of the enslaved down to numbers: inadvertently replicating the dehumanization process undertaken by white crew members, who replaced their captives’ names with numbers to be recorded on the ship manifest.
By the time class was over, we had covered so much about both the history of colonial slavery and the ways historians study it that we would absolutely not have covered had Carl not spoken up.
Later that day, he stopped by my office to apologize. I told him he had nothing to apologize for, in fact he took the class in an amazing direction. I also told him he demonstrated the kind of analytical thinking I want to see. He stuck around my office and told me more about his own personal life. He grew up in a country torn apart by civil war, where educational opportunities were extremely limited. It was a place where the history of that country—including the history of slavery and the return of black descendants of American slaves to the African continent—was highly politically charged. For him, the subject was personal. “These are my people,” he explained, returning to the subject of the textbook’s use of statistics. “Are [they] going to reduce my people to statistics?”
His insight in the classroom and in my office got me thinking about the personal nature of history, and the power it has to sharpen a student’s analytical framework and compel them to voice their perspective rather than simply pantomime another’s. In Carl’s case, the personal nature of slavery led him to question even the supposedly “objective” textbook itself. He taught the class a valuable lesson: that even a textbook that contains accurate facts still exhibits biases. It was an essential lesson that I had not planned to cover that day in class. Looking back on it, I couldn’t have taught that lesson as well as he did.