Genovese In The Classroom

Today my AP students read and discussed a short excerpt from Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaveholders Made. This is the second year that I’ve used this text in the classroom and it is a real challenge for high school students.  Since Eric Foner discusses paternalism in his textbook the selection from Genovese gives students a much richer insight into interpretations that take seriously the process by which both slaveholders and slaves responded to one another and in turn created their communities.  I give the students three questions to consider while they read: (1) How did slaves respond to the paternalism of their owners? (2) In what ways did slaves and slave-owners create a distinct community; what is Genovese’s evidence? (3) What preconceptions about slavery is Genovese challenging? 

I am still surprised by how the students respond to this text.  A few have no idea what he is getting at, but those students who spend the necessary time walk away with a radically different understanding of how slavery functioned in the antebellum South. 

Here ares some passages that the class is asked to focus on:

Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.

A paternalism accepted by both masters and slaves–but with radically different interpretations–afforded a fragile bridge across the intolerable contradictions inherent in a society based on racism, slavery, and class exploitation that had to depend on the willing reproduction and productivity of its victims. For the slaveholders paternalism represented an attempt to overcome the fundamental contradiction in slavery: the impossibility of the slaves’ ever becoming the things they were supposed to be.  Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of the slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters’ need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves.  Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations–duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights–implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.

The humanity of the slave implied his action, and his action implied his will.  Hegel was therefore right in arguing that slavery constituted an outrage, for, in effect, it has always rested on the falsehood that one man could become an extension of another’s will. If one man could so transform himself, he could do it only by an act of that very will supposedly being surrendered, and he would remain so only while he himself chose to.  The clumsy attempt of the slaveholders to invoke a religious sanction did not extricate them from this contradiction. The Christian tradition, from the early debates over the implications of original sin through the attempts of Hobbes and others to secularize the problem, could not rationally defend the idea of permanent and total submission rooted in a temporarily precise surrender of will.  The idea of man’s surrender to God cannot be equated with the idea of man’s surrender to man, but even if it could, the problem would remain.

Overall the class went well.  We talked about the attempt to portray the slaves as agents in the way they acknowledged the paternalism of their owners and acted to use it to their advantage.  This is an important space that Genovese develops and I tried to get my students to see it by commenting on the broader historiographical depiction of slaves.  Some of them commented that they really enjoyed reading it and I suspect that this has much to do with his emphasis on a new question.  My students are "trained" to think of slavery as involving a power relation that is one-sided.  Slave-holders acted on their slaves.  Within this interpretation slaves are rendered invisible or were acted upon. 

I understand and agree with some of the criticisms of the book.  Yes, he does jump from the Lower South to the Upper South and the 18th to the 19th century all in one paragraph.  Yet, there is something aesthetic about Roll, Jordan, Roll.  Every time I go back to it I pull something new out of his interpretation.  The dynamic between the slave-holder and slave is such an interesting historical turn that continues to drive much of what is published.  I guess this is what goes into a real classic.

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Evangelical Self-Righteousness On The Defensive

I have to admit that there is something satisfying in the recent scandals involving conservative politicians and evangelical preachers.  We’ve all heard of Marc Foley’s problems.  I should point out that the problem is not that he is gay, but that he harassed children and marketed himself as someone who promoted conservative "family values" – whatever that means.  A few weeks ago we learned that the Bush administration doesn’t really take their conservative Christian base seriously and now we have the revelation that Ted Haggard was in a relationship with a male prostitute.  These stories point to the dangers of mixing politics and religion.  Given that most of these people believe that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation perhaps they should go back to the debate surrounding the establishment clause.  Turns out that many of the people who pushed for the separation of church and state were people from within the church and they did so with the belief that it was religion that needed to be protected from the dirt of politics.  And isn’t this exactly what we are now seeing?

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Book Reviews And The Blogger’s Responsibility: A Follow Up

Mark Grimsley referenced my post on the recent distribution of three Simon and Schuster books to the Civil War blogging community.  Mark didn’t offer any commentary which is disappointing because I am interested in his thoughts.  The blogosphere may be the the most attractive place for publishers to publicize their new titles.  Academic journals tend to take time to publish reviews and their readership is typically very small.  The blogosphere is fast and attracts the widest readership; best of all, the simplest of references will suffice to bring the title to the attention of thousands.  As I was perusing the latest issue of North and South magazine I noticed a large advertisement for Fred Ray’s new book on Confederate sharpshooters.  There were six endorsements of the book, including one by fellow CW blogger Drew Wagenhoffer.  This raised the question of whether publishers must first get permission to use a passage from a post for their advertisements.  I remember Drew’s review of the book and know from reading his blog that he was in contact with the author, and Ray’s book was privately published.  Why does this matter?  Well, if a publisher does not need permission then I am inclined to be much more defensive in my assessment of the book.  I’ve had my own published book reviews manipulated to the point where I don’t even recognize the statement as my own.  Imagine what could be done with a hastily written post? 

Now that I think about it, perhaps all that needs to be done is to copyright my blog.  Duh.


Two Articles on American Civil War Musuem

The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star includes two articles by Gwen Woolf on the American Civil War musuem.  The first is a review of the museum and the second is about Sara Poore who works as the Educational Director for the museum. The musueum review includes a few quotes from me at the very end:

"Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretion of the
Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting," writes Kevin M.
Levin, an instructor of American history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in
Charlottesville who has written extensively on the Civil War. Levin reviewed the
new museum Oct. 15 in his blog "Civil War Memory" (

"This is an intellectually demanding museum," says Levin, adding that Civil
War enthusiasts looking for battlefield interpretation may not have patience
with the museum’s emphasis on the complexities of home front, politics and,
especially, race.

The museum forces people to "step back and question their assumptions," Levin
says. "It forces people to think about issues they tend to steer clear of."

As I’ve written a number of times on this blog, the museum is well worth your time so head on down to Richmond and support this worthy endeavor.


Interpreting Slave Narratives: An Assessment

My AP classes really did a good job with the two WPA slave narratives mentioned the other day.  While a few of them pieced together that they were reading two accounts by the same person, they held back from spoiling it for everyone else.  We analyzed the two sources and the students were asked to weigh the accounts based on their reading of the chapter in their textbook on slavery.  As I mentioned earlier, the book we are using is Give Me Liberty! by Eric Foner and the chapter on slavery is one of the most sophisticated treatments of the subject to be found in a textbook.  Once they understood that both interviewees were the same person we talked about how the interviewer could have influenced the narrative.  In the case of Jessie Butler students wanted to know her age, where she lived, her racial views, etc.  In the case of Susan Hamilton we discussed her interests in telling a story that sounded very much like the paternalistic accounts that slaveholders told themselves during the antebellum period.  Did she hope to receive additional funds from the government or perhaps she worried that a negative portrayal of slavery would have placed her or her family in danger. All in all the lesson went very well.

You can find these interviews online at the Library of Congress. I would also recommend After The Fact: The Art of Historical Detection by James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle for interpretation.  This is an incredibly useful book for the classroom as it takes you through various historiographical and interpretive challenges.  Chapters include the uses of psychohistory, selection of evidence, the role of mass and photography in shaping popular perception, and the use of models in history.  The only drawback is the price, which stands at a whopping $60 if you buy it new.  Amazon lists some used copies and you should be able to find an old edition at a decent used book store.