History of Slavery: What I learned from a year studying slavery.

I Spent a Year Reading and Talking About American Slavery. Here’s What I Learned.

I Spent a Year Reading and Talking About American Slavery. Here’s What I Learned.

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Oct. 14 2015 4:16 PM

Less Guilt, More Action

What I learned from making Slate’s History of American Slavery series.

history of slavery.
The history of slavery is a history of human relationships: between enslavers and enslaved, among enslaved people, between abolitionists and enslavers, and on and on.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Last November, I went to the library and took out a shelf of books, getting ready to plan our first Slate Academy podcast series, on the history of American slavery. We—myself, my co-host Jamelle Bouie, and the editors at Slate Plus—conceived of the academy as a way to present a historical topic in a finite podcast series. The end product would be a “class” that listeners could pick up and listen to whenever they felt like it. When pitching topics for possible coverage, I thought about the courses I wished I’d taken in undergrad or grad school, when I had the chance. A comprehensive history of American slavery was at the top of the list.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments

A month later I posted a photo of my research materials to Instagram, in a panic: “Haven’t felt this paralyzed in the research phase since dissertation year 1.” I was simultaneously passionately interested in what I was reading and totally overwhelmed. I thought I could read histories of American slavery for years without feeling like I was “done.” Spending a few months with books that put slavery at the center of what countless textbooks have called “the American Experience” made it painfully clear how incomplete the study of American history is when it doesn’t emphasize this part of our past. Interested in the American Revolution? Think about how the conflict looked from the perspective of the enslaved. Interested in the frontier? Think about what it was like to be an enslaved “pioneer,” clearing fields in Mississippi. When slavery is integrated into the familiar chronology, everything starts to look different.   

Some of the work that most changed my perspective came from scholars like Stephanie Camp, Heather Williams, Walter Johnson, Ed Baptist, and Thavolia Glymph, who share in common an interest in the emotional and interpersonal dimensions of enslavement. Reading them, I saw that (of course!) the history of slavery is a history of human relationships: between enslavers and enslaved, among enslaved people, between abolitionists and enslavers, and on and on. These historians looked at interactions between plantation mistresses and their enslaved domestic workers, or among slaveholders who associated the ability to buy human property with manliness or high status, or between a heartbroken enslaved child brought to a new plantation and the older enslaved man who took him under his wing. I wanted to try to bring podcast listeners, who I imagined might not have thought about the history this way before, around that bend with me—to make people realize that slavery was about economy and politics but that its injustice also played out on a daily, ongoing basis, in the smallest of human interactions.

That’s part of the reason why I suggested that we center each episode on the life of one enslaved person. That decision, as we’ve discussed a few times on the podcast, had its pluses and minuses. Most people whose biographical information is readily available were notable in some way: They escaped and wrote a slave narrative; they rebelled; they sued for freedom and won. We ended up with six men and three women, and only one of these subjects (Anarcha, the biography that anchored Episode 7) died in slavery. The gender imbalance bothered me, and if we were to do it again, I would fight harder for an episode centered on Doll Shoeboots, the enslaved woman who was the matriarch of an Afro-Cherokee family and a major subject of Tiya Miles’ great book Ties That Bind.

Like professors trying to cram everything into a one-semester syllabus, we looked for life stories that would let us address everything we wanted to address: the legal history of enslavement in colonial Virginia; the discourse around slavery during the Revolutionary War; what it was like to pick cotton; what medical care was like on a plantation; the workings of slave markets; and on and on. While we planned and began to record, I would wake up tossing and turning, worrying that we were leaving something out. I still regret that we didn’t talk enough about religion, or Native Americans (both as slaves and as enslavers), or the relationship between slavery in South America and the Caribbean and the slave economy in North America.

But by far the hardest part of recording the podcast, for me, was checking the impulse to lecture. We were trying to get some of the informality of a Gabfest into the mix, rather than presenting scripted audio. At the same time, we interviewed historians, seeking expertise we could use to inform our conversations. There aren’t many models for that format—the closest might be BackStory, though our interview segments are longer than theirs. Jamelle was great at the casual part, but I had trouble: Like a teacher who’s prepared a way-too-long lesson plan, I wanted to say everything.

I came into this project with a few identities: sheepish Ph.D. in American studies trying to remedy a gap in my education, novice podcaster, worried historian fact-checking everything to a fault. But I also was (am!) white, and at the end of six months of podcast production and a year of work on this project, I’ve thought a lot about white Americans’ relationship to historical guilt. Plenty of reactions to our project have implied that anyone interested in reading more about this history is inevitably out to inflict blame, if black, or to self-flagellate, if white. “Make white people feel bad about slavery” was never the goal of this project, but the word slavery puts people on edge.

I’ve come to think that talking about the history of slavery in terms of “guilt” isn’t effective, because so many white people seem to think “My great-grandparents came to the country in 1910” exempts them from the conversation. On the other hand, say you have ancestors who enslaved people (ahem, Ben Affleck): Does “feeling bad” about that mean that you lose the ability to explore the history at all?

Both responses imply that the only way white people can respond to the history of slavery is to assess their own family’s particular complicity, then calculate exactly how bad they should feel. That’s one embodiment of the idea that history is individual—that your own family’s money and past achievements are the only things you rest on when you make your way in life. The history of slavery reminds us that people’s lives are always tied to larger political and economic changes. My maternal grandparents came to the United States from Germany in the 1880s. They didn’t participate in slavery in any way. But they benefited from the economy that slavery built—and they came here because of that economy. White people who don’t want to talk about slavery beg us to “look forward instead of back.” Studying American slavery and its effects makes it clear that imagining yourself existing outside of history is another kind of white privilege.

I think we might think less in terms of guilt and sadness, and more in terms of accountability and empathy. If a big, terrible thing happened here, and its consequences are still baked into our national institutions and our economy, I think it’s our duty to know about its dimensions. And once you know even a little bit about the way it worked, I think it’s impossible to avoid feeling empathy. (Maybe. Read a document like Henry Tibbs’ newspaper advertisement seeking the mother he hadn’t seen for two decades and try not to feel for him.) The panelists at our symposium in September talked about actions that people might take after reading and talking about the history of slavery: work to end police brutality, or to reform prisons, or to alleviate economic inequality. That kind of action seems to me a more valuable response to the awful history of American slavery than any amount of guilt.