More Than A Regret About Slavery

The decision on the part of the legislature of Virginia to issue a statement expressing regret about slavery is as much about memory as it is history.  From Slantblog:

"In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which
was the official history of Virginia for use in public schools — as decreed by
the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter
29:

‘…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 whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some
Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners
claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. 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 those
arguments.’"

From the comments section:

Georgia history textbooks were just as bad in their discussions of
slavery. A century ago, the most popular was The Student’s History of
Georgia, by Lawton B. Evans. The book contains six sentences on slave
life. Here are four of them: "Being well treated, they were free from
care, and were, therefore, happy, and devoted to their masters. After
the day’s labor they had their simple sports, such as dancing, playing
the banjo, and ‘possum hunting. They were fond of singing, even at
their work. And at night, around the fire in ‘the quarters,’ they would
sing their melodies in rich, musical voices."

3 responses... add one

You’re right about this beng as much memory as history.

The General Assembly in Georgia (where I live) is talking about an apology for slavery. Glenn Richardson, the Speaker of the House, is opposed: “I take the same approach to this that I have to all apologies. I am not certain government ought to be apologizing. Nobody here was in office” when slavery was practiced.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Richardson added tongue-in-cheek: ‘Maybe I just blanketly apologize to everyone for everything I’ve ever done.’” http://www.ajc.com/search/content/metro/stories/2007/03/09/metslavery0309a.html

Georgia history textbooks were just as bad in their discussions of slavery. A century ago, the most popular was The Student’s History of Georgia, by Lawton B. Evans. The book contains six sentences on slave life. Here are four of them: “Being well treated, they were free from care, and were, therefore, happy, and devoted to their masters. After the day’s labor they had their simple sports, such as dancing, playing the banjo, and ‘possum hunting. They were fond of singing, even at their work. And at night, around the fire in ‘the quarters,’ they would sing their melodies in rich, musical voices.”

I encourage anyone interested in this subject to read Joseph Moreau’s “Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present.” The book was published in 2003 by the University of Michigan Press.

It is fascinating (and often surprising) to see what passed for history only 10-20 years ago. And Moreau’s book led me to think hard about what passes as history today.

Join the Conversation