Teaching Slavery and Identity in the American History Survey Course: Part One

Every semester I assign the chapter titled, “Turning People into Products” from Walter Johnson’s book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Marketto my survey-level American History students. As historians are painfully aware, slavery is one of the most misunderstood, overgeneralized, and downplayed topics in American history. My objective is to expose my students to the dehumanization of slaves in Antebellum America complete with details and how the Peculiar Institution shaped American identity.

The beauty of this reading is Johnson’s use of imagery.  His use of primary sources reveals a world where plantation owners and slave traders turned people into products. His wording draws the reader into viewing the slave auction from a perspective that they have not considered before.  This often presents a moral dilemma for my students.  They are enthusiastic that they learn more about slavery and can summarize different parts of the chapter but find it difficult to speak of slaves as products.  They are uncomfortable about their interest in the South’s process of turning people into salable items. I address these conflicted feelings head-on. I explain to students that often, a historian must consider tragic and inhuman events and ideologies to draw silenced voices from the shadows.[1]

What I enjoy the most about this activity is that most of my students begin to think of the work, not as “assigned reading,” but more of an interactive and engaging portal to the past. They are drawn into the narrative and in the process that slave owners, slave buyers, and slave traders underwent to action slaves in nineteenth-century New Orleans.  By the end of this activity, my can see that slavery was not just something “bad” that happened in America’s past, but a brutal and inhumane practice that shaped the southern and American way of life before and after the Civil War.

The other benefit of using Johnson’s book is his emphasis on the creation and maintenance of southern identity. In this chapter, the students realize that slave ownership was central to the southern social hierarchy.  Therefore, no decision made by southerners could not be heavily influenced by their dependency on the Peculiar Institution. Thus, by discussing this reading with my students, I help them connect slavery to southern secession and the Civil War.

To explain how southerners connected slavery to Anglo-American identity, I begin with the following vignette that Johnson uses at the beginning of the chapter.

After I read this section with the class, I challenge them to identify all of the people that are involved in this scenario. As you can see, J.B. Alexander had recently purchased a slave at the auction. Unbeknownst to Alexander, the slave he had bought was “dead,” and it took the keen eye of a veteran slave trader (thirty years in the business in fact) to point this out to him. In addition to Alexander, the slave, and the slave trader, I also identify the less obvious players using the following steps:

First, I define “plantation owner,” “yeoman farmer” and “poor white” on the whiteboard.  Then I challenge the students to think about what we know about the individuals discussed in this story. These include

-The Purchased Slave

-The Trader Who Sold the Slave

-The Veteran Trader

-J. B. Alexander

-The Slave Owner who initially sold the slave

The students are quick to identify Alexander and the slave, but most often it takes prodding to consider the trader who sold the sick slave and the previous plantation owner.  We then discuss the economic class of Alexander. We conclude that it was because of his inexperience that led him to purchase a “dead” slave, and therefore, Alexander was most likely a Yeoman farmer. The students assume that the slave’s previous owner probably sold the slave because of his illness, and thus dishonest, and that the slave trader assigned an alternate identity for the slave to persuade the Alexander to purchase the slave.  This activity takes at least fifteen minutes. After we conclude our discussion, I encourage each student to think about how much work goes into historical research and writing.

I always conclude this lesson by reading the section where Johnson discusses what he identifies as “a little mastery.”  After providing a detailed description of the stories slave traders concocted to “play their way back and forth between the stories told about every slave and the pitches they made for any slave, the traders sometimes had to refit their shopworn pitches to specific circumstances.”[2] I tell the students that this means that traders were quick to provide a reasonable excuse for illness, amputations, or any number of bodily or behavioral “abnormalities.” To conclude this section, Johnson explains how traders provided buyers “with the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in the choice of their slaves: a little treatment, a little discipline—in short, a little mastery—and these slaves would be as good as new.”[3]  After reading this, I explain to the students that this means that even the poorest potential slave owner believed that if he could purchase a slave and transform him or her into a productive “product,” he could elevate his status in the southern social hierarchy. In essence, by transforming a seemingly ineffective slave into a productive laborer, each slave owner could prove himself better than the assumed wealthy plantation owner who sold this assumed “defective” slave.

This is one of the most enjoyable activities I execute in my survey-level American history course. My students respond to the information with curiosity and a willingness to explore how the institution of slavery  shaped and continues to shape American society.

Stay tuned next month for the next installment in “Teaching Slavery and Identity in the American History Survey Course” where I will explain how I use an interview by historian Kerri Leigh Merritt who discusses her book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South to continue this conversation about southern social hierarchy in Antebellum America.

[1]Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995).

[2]Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market(Harvard University Press, 1999), 126-127.

[3]Ibid., 127.

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