I somehow failed to transfer this six-year-old post to my blog’s current WordPress iteration. A friend wrote me today about Texas’s new slavery-neutral history textbook, and it reminded me of my post’s subject – my class’s seventh-grade history textbook. I’ve lightly edited the post. As best I can tell, the lesson plans my post refer to have been removed from the Internet.
The Internet is a sweet place for finding lesson plans. While looking for ideas to sharpen my students’ critical reading skills recently, I came across a set of plans entitled, “Using Excerpts about Slavery.” The plans employ excerpts from four different works: a history textbook serving Virginia students in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a slave narrative, an Englishman’s travelogue, and a Frederick Douglass speech given in 1850. According to the brief “Notes for the Teacher” that preface the material, the teacher should require students to consider and discuss the excerpts in small groups on successive class days, focusing on the excerpt’s credibility and engaging with a set of “Questions to Consider” that follow each excerpt. It looked promising.
The notes begin with the lesson’s goal: “Students need to be cognizant that any historical account is one person’s truth. An author’s point of view is colored by his or her own experiences and belief system. Lack of direct experience can result in an author making assumptions that are not borne out. As an example, who but a slave could effectively understand the perspective of a slave or what the life of a slave was like?”
In order to judge the lesson’s utility for my own classroom, I read the first excerpt and the questions related to it, and I answered its questions. Here’s the excerpt (ellipses original):
Excerpt from Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964
“How Negroes Lived under Slavery,” pp. 368-376
A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.
1Textbook used in Virginia schools as late as 1972.
The “Questions to Consider” and my answers:
1. How long after the Civil War was this written?
Not quite a century.
2. Who do you think the authors were? Could they have been former slaves? Why or why not?
I think all three of the textbook’s authors were Virginians. I don’t have any direct knowledge about two of them, but the third was my aunt.
My aunt was not a former slave. I presume that all of the authors, and not just my aunt, were white, and that the authors wrote the textbook somewhat contemporaneously. So, no, they could not have been former slaves.
3. How do you think they came up with their account of slavery?
My aunt would entertain us from a black-leather wing chair pierced with brass tacks in a small library lined on all four sides from floor to ceiling with books, mostly leather bound, standing muffled on shelves caged by glass panes. The house was always clean and slightly musty, like my college’s rare books room I would discover years later, and it had no air conditioning, serviced as it was continually from before the War with a fairly dependable breeze from the tidal Rappahannock River, which was framed by the library’s only window.
Years after college, my eldest niece, who was then about the age I had been when I first visited my cousins on the Rappahannock, held forth on visits to my parents’ house as the first and (at that time) only grandchild. She dished out nicknames at a holiday dinner, and my somewhat loquacious father became “Grandfather Sit-in-Chair.” Similarly, I can’t remember my aunt anywhere else but sitting erect at her chair’s edge – the back of her chair serving more as a reflection and an extension of herself than as a support – with her legs crossed and her index and middle fingers slowly incising a long cigarette that accentuated her small, slim build. She’d waive the cigarette back in conversation, and sometimes throw her head back in laughter, but her posture always held firm and her elbow always seemed to hold the chair’s arm under subjection. Her smoke smelled like elegance and hazed the fading and cracked binding on the red and tan and black books behind her.
My father was a raconteur, but my aunt was more of a conversationalist. She would turn her head from my parents to my siblings and me and ask us questions with a frankness that serves adults better than the sugary tone many of them employ with children. Our answers would elicit a comment from her that would get the adults laughing, but we never felt ashamed or excluded. We were happy to sit on the antique, Oriental carpet and play with the wooden toys she and my uncle favored for our cousins. If my generation had been raised on my aunt instead of on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, it would have had a better inkling of what an interviewer and conversationalist could be.
The old house sits on a large tract of land down several country roads from my uncle’s law practice at the county seat. After paying our respects to the adults for a suitable length of time, my two siblings and I would reacquaint ourselves with the antique-filled first floor, and then, with our cousins, we’d head outside. At some point we’d always see Floe and Sammy. Floe worked in the house and Sammy worked outside in the fields, helping with the garden and keeping things in repair. I don’t remember ever seeing Floe and Sammy together, but my siblings and I liked both of them immensely.
One day, when my brother and I were both teenagers, we became conscious that our conversations with Floe always started and ended with the same subject: our growth. My mother would take us through the narrow kitchen blocked entirely by Floe, who was either ironing or, more often, baking. “Ummm-mmm! My how you grown, child! My how you grown!” Floe would say to us, wagging her face at us with a hand on her hip but sometimes just glancing at us out of the corner of her eye as she prodded the family’s dinner around on a skillet.
Sammy was also genial – a slim, middle-aged man whose gait pointed up his feet and knees and elbows – but our conversations with him were equally limited. I remember only his responses to my aunt’s directives and pointed questions, responsess like, “Yessum, I’ll have that done by supper,” or “Yessum, over against the shed.” My youngest cousin, a bit younger than my brother and I, would always address Sammy as “Sammy-boy,” picking the habit up, I guess, from my uncle, and it didn’t seem to bother Sammy, or my uncle, one bit. I grew up addressing all adults by their titles and surnames, but I never learned Sammy’s or Floe’s last names. I don’t think I addressed them at all.
Besides his responses to my aunt, I remember only Sammy’s laughter. He’d laugh at most anything anyone said, laughing even when most people would have responded with words. His good-natured laughter seemed as deep as an empty well.
When my brother and I were in our late teens, we speculated that the pay must have been pretty good for Floe and Sammy to act the way they did, and we suspected that they shed their roles with my cousins’ family when they were off duty. But we didn’t know for sure. We never really talked to them. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything that animated us: news or politics or sports, for instance. Looking back on it, I would have been surprised, I think, to have stumbled on Floe with her feet up, reading the newspaper at my aunt’s place, even though she lived there for a while, or to have seen Sammy in front of my relatives’ black-and-white TV. In fact, I would have been shocked to have caught him in the house at all, now that I think about it.
To answer the question, I’m not exactly sure how my aunt came up with her account of slavery, but I know that she was a real historian and that she was certain of her facts.
4. Do you believe the account is an accurate portrayal of slavery? Why or why not?
I first read this account in history class as a seventh-grader in the Newport News public school system. It’s funny reading it now, word for word, because none of the wording surprises me but only bolsters my recollection of what I was taught. I remember the general points from my textbook: the slaves were happy, happy to work hard, appreciative of their masters for taking the risk and the responsibility out of life – appreciative in a way children never are – and disdainful of the far-away, brooding political storm that centered on them in the abstract.
I don’t think I believed it or disbelieved it. I remember wondering about it. I remember trying to put myself in the slaves’ shoes for a little while in our all-white classroom at Riverside Elementary, not a half mile from the James River near its mouth. My aunt’s words seem to paint a picture in my head of how the slaves could have enjoyed a simple life of labor under the beneficent hands of their masters. But (I remember thinking) who would want to always do what someone else said?
Maybe they were dumb, I remember reasoning. Too dumb to survive on their own or too dumb not to know it was not much of a life. We had two blacks among our four classrooms of seventh graders when I was there, a girl and a boy. I wasn’t friends with either of them, but both were popular and seemed smart enough. They seemed to act like white children, mostly, except for certain phrases they would use as well as a manner of speech that ran counter, in some critical respects, to what we were learning in English. I remember thinking how long it had been since the Civil War and wondering how much the slaves might have been like these two.
I remember my mind working on Martin Luther King, who was assassinated a year before my seventh grade, on the Watts riots I saw on the news, and on the vandalism King’s assassination had occasioned in my town’s downtown, which seemed as far from home as Watts. I thought two ways, and I had two pictures in my head – one of happy slaves and one of angry slaves. I don’t remember either picture winning out.
I do recall reading my aunt’s textbook and concluding that slavery would not be a life that I would choose for myself. But if the Negroes really liked it, I thought, more power to them.
5. The excerpt is from a book that was once used to teach children in Virginia about slavery. Why would a textbook want students of Virginia to believe slavery was a positive experience for slaves?
You may or may not learn your roots in history class, but you learn your place.