Stories of Slavery and Freedom

History and Literature 90l:
   Stories of Slavery and Freedom in the Modern World


“Only when lions have historians will hunters stop being heroes”
West African proverb

Stories of Slavery and Freedom is an undergraduate hours seminar taught by Timothy Patrick McCarthy that draws on recent scholarship to explore the long history of slavery and freedom from the Age of Revolution to the 21st century.

In the last generation, scholars have revolutionized our understanding of slavery and freedom in the modern Atlantic world.  Challenging the long-held view that slavery was a kind and benevolent institution, wherein enlightened masters would care for their slaves as if they were their own children (indeed, some were), scholars have begun to see slavery for what it was:  a brutal, exploitative, and violent system of human bondage, based on and designed to perpetuate rigid hierarchies of class, sex, and color.  Justified by sacred and secular reasoning—and yet clearly the perverse invention of man—chattel slavery shaped every aspect of societies that tolerated or embraced it, connecting Old World antiquity to New World modernity, and playing a major role in the emergence and development of what many refer to as “Western culture.”

The most obtrusive distinction between slavery in antiquity and modernity was its racial component.  As historians David Brion Davis, Barbara Jeanne Fields, and others have argued, “race” (the idea that skin color difference is a viable indicator and determinant of biological, intellectual, and social status) emerged as the basic ideological justification for chattel slavery in the second half of the eighteenth century, the so-called “Age of Revolution.”  In other words, the relationship between slavery and “race” is an eminently modern, historical one; it shaped the histories of the British, French, and other European empires, and it achieved its most distinctive and sophisticated form in the United States between 1776 and 1865.  In fact, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, the struggle over slavery’s preservation, extension, and abolition dominated American life and culture.  This epic struggle has had an enduring impact:  just as the modern world was built on the backs of Africa’s fathers and mothers, modernity itself—the matrix of political ideologies, economic systems, social norms, and cultural symbols we share as modern people—was shaped, indelibly, by the presence and influence of Africa’s sons and daughters in the New World.  To paraphrase the great American writer Ralph Waldo Ellison:  What would “the West” look like without blacks?

The sea-change that has taken place in scholarly understandings of slavery and freedom in the modern world has been the result of a major methodological shift:  to view history through the eyes of slaves rather than the eyes of masters.  With precious few exceptions, until the black freedom struggle of the 1960s, scholars of slavery wrote their histories from the perspectives of “white” people—that is, from the perspectives of those who owned and traded slaves and/or profited from slavery.  All of that has now changed.  We now have a far richer understanding of where and how slaves worked, prayed, ate, sang, loved, resisted, read, traveled and fought, as well as when and why they didn’t.  We also know much more about the difficult physical and psychic migration from slavery to freedom.  And we have uncovered the many efforts of free black people to create their own communities and to liberate the rest of their brethren in bonds.

Using the best revisionist scholarship from the last generation or so, as well as a highly interdisciplinary approach, this seminar examines various stories of slavery and freedom in the modern world.  Weekly discussions are grounded in texts that were either written or recorded by people of African descent living in and about what cultural theorist Paul Gilroy has called “the black Atlantic.”  We begin by sampling some of the most important scholarship on race, slavery, and abolition in the last generation. Then, we travel throughout the British and French Empires to understand the complex dynamics of slavery and freedom, religion and law, race and identity, reform and revolution in the eighteenth century world.  Finally, we settle on North American shores, where we read stories of the dramatic tensions over slavery and freedom that gave shape to the modern United States.  At the end of the term, our investigation turns to two modern forms of slave narrative:  federal interviews of former American slaves recorded during the 1930s; and oral histories of contemporary slaves who have escaped bondage throughout the globe.  Using autobiography, fiction, poetry, film, oral histories, court cases, and political writings, as well as scholarship from the fields of history, literature, law, African-American Studies, and cultural studies, this seminar provides a broader and deeper understanding of the titanic struggle between bondage and liberation—the great moral conflict that occasioned the birth of the modern world.

Please note:  This course will be offered in the Fall 2009, and will meet on Wednesdays 3-5pm in the Spindell Room at Quincy House, 58 Plympton Street.

Required texts for the course include:  William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter; Edward Countryman, ed. How Did American Slavery Begin?; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley:  America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers; Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution; Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains:  Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves; C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins:  Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution; Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, eds. Prophets of Protest:  Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism; Richard Newman, Patrick Rael, and Phillip Lapsansky, eds. Pamphlets of Protest:  An Anthology of Early African American Protest Writings, 1790-1860; Yuval Taylor, ed. I Was Born a Slave:  An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, Volume One, 1772-1849; Zoe Trodd and Kevin Bales, eds. To Plead Our Own Cause:  Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves; David Walker, An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World; Harriet Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.

Course Syllabus

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