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

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

In my last post, I discussed how I use a chapter from Walter Johnson’s book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market in my United States history survey course. I also assign an interview with historian Kerri Leigh Merritt recorded for the “This is Hell!” segment of Sound Cloud. During this interview, Merritt discusses her book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. By juxtaposing Merritt’s work with that of Johnson’s, my students can dive into the ways that slavery influenced southern identity before the Civil War. As I will demonstrate, my decision to pair these two resources together offers my students the opportunity to conceptualize the complexity of history and how slavery permeated nineteenth-century social hierarchies.

My students love this activity. This is the age of podcasts, and I find more students embrace this assignment than they do others. I encourage them to take notes as they listen, which I find is very successful. Not only do the notes help them pass a short quiz about the interview, but they but also are prepared to discuss their reactions to the ideas and details shared during the interview. I shape our discussion by breaking the discussion into three parts:

First, we discuss why most people are unaware of the plight of landless white men in the South.  I introduce them to the concept of “history and memory” and the politics of the archive. Then we consider why southern white male historians dominated the narrative and how the media and entertainment industries and literature enabled the perpetuation of the idea of the “Lost Cause.”

Yes, many of you might think that survey-level students are unprepared to absorb this type of theory. My response is that our students are prepared to tackle any concept we present to them. My challenge as an instructor is to tailor any information in a way that speaks to the personality and learning types of the student body of each of my classes.

Second, we consider how economics and politics influenced the South.  Here we draw Soul by Soul into the discussion.  Since slave ownership was essential to power in the South, landless white men had little representation, which created contention and sometimes collaboration with slaves.  My students find Merritt’s discussion of positive slave/white relationships the most interesting. This semester several expressed their frustration that they did not learn about these associations before my class. Recently a student asked, “Why was this not discussed in my high school history class?” I took this opportunity to loop back to our initial discussion about history and memory and encouraged him to answer the question himself.  He did!  Then several other students piped in and shared their frustrations with the more positivist narrative that they received while attending public school.

Third, we tackle Merritt’s discussion of the South as a “police state” and the long-term ramifications of this type of social structure. The policing of all bodies in the South allowed for the slave-holding class to remain in power and control. I emphasize slavery, and the police state also created a cultural expectation where individuals did not understand freedom unless they knew their place in a highly-monitored society. Once slavery ended, southerners worked (here I clarify that I am not making excuses for southern attitudes toward freed slaves or poor whites) to ensure that wealthy white landowners remained at the top of the social ladder. I ask my students to think about what the South did after the Civil War; did the South forge a new type of identity or did they reinstitute a police state under new terms and conditions? I allow the students at least a minute to think about this question, and without fail, several raise their hand and reference Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, and lynchings. I find this leg of the conversation extremely important because it encourages the students to connect past to future and realize that although laws may change, attitude and identity does not always follow.

Next, we discuss poor whites and the Civil War.  My students find this entire conversation intriguing especially Merritt’s coverage of the concept of “anti-Confederacy” versus “anti-slavery.” The idea that poor whites were “anti-Confederate” and therefore did not support secession because they viewed slavery as a threat to their economic well-being sparks enthusiastic discussions. Especially when my students consider Merritt’s explanation that today many southerners who proudly display the Confederate flag and claim it is part of their “heritage” descended from anti-Confederate poor whites. I loop the conversation back to the importance of using history as a tool to combat “fake news” and inflated narratives that most Americans believe are rooted in fact.

Finally, we explore Merritt’s challenge to humanize those modern-day racist/sexist/homophobic poor whites. I say very little about her request by simply asking the students what they think.  During the Spring semester, one student said he felt uncomfortable when he heard Merritt say this.  He said it is easier to judge than to empathize.  Another student said that this challenge encouraged her to reevaluate her relationship with family members who think dramatically different than she does about current issues.  After I let the students speak, I conclude by encouraging them to recognize the complexity of the past and the present. I explain that while mocking, condemnation and anger are easier reactions to people whom we do not agree, these types of responses are rarely effective if our objective is to encourage others to listen to our perspective.  I always remind my students that this does not mean that we should subject ourselves to continued abuse or exposure to toxic environments.

Pairing Merrit’s interview with a chapter from Johnson’s book allows students to view the Antebellum South from a variety of perspectives. This activity not only challenges my students to think about silenced voices and to consider uncomfortable topics but also to apply past situations and relationships to the current-day. During the Spring 2019 semester, a student told me that she enjoyed the interview, but after analyzing Soul by Soul and Merritt’s discussion, she found herself depressed because she no longer liked some of her favorite movies. I asked her what she meant.  She said that her love for Steel Magnolias and The Help is now tainted because she knows that they ignore certain voices and depict stereotypes about class and race that are incorrect and reinforce racist ideas.

My work here is done. Go forth and educate, my friends. The students are alright.

Link to Keri Leigh Merritt Interview: https://soundcloud.com/this-is-hell/983kerileighmerritt

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