Is This Text Appropriate for the Classroom?

I consider myself lucky to work in a History Department that reflects seriously on pedagogy and has command of their respective subject areas. Today I decided to share the opening of chapter 7 in Edward Baptists new book, which as you know I’ve been reading and commenting on over the past few weeks. We talked quite a bit about it and at one point the question of whether it is appropriate for our classrooms arose.

The question raised a number of potential red flags related to parental concerns and how the text might be introduced in a high school history classroom. One of the other issues was the maturity level of some of our students. Would they be able to take it seriously and would it be too much of a distraction?

One suggestion was that the text could be used as part of a broader discussion of how historians, filmmakers and other writers have worked to capture the horrors of slavery. I don’t know if my juniors are ready for such an approach to the subject, but my senior elective course is filled with some incredibly bright and mature students and I have no doubt that they would approach the Baptist text in a productive way. The idea of situating the Baptist text alongside a couple of scenes from 12 Years A Slave and a passage from say a Toni Morrison novel might make for a fruitful little unit. Such a move might give students a better sense of what Baptist is trying to do with his preferred refrain.

What do you think about this idea? What sources would you include to highlight how historians, writers, filmmakers and artists have approached the violence of slavery?

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14 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Sep 25, 2014 @ 16:44

    Is it the best source to convey the points you want to make? If you have other choices to convey the theme of exploitation what is it about this particular selection which makes it essential?

  • Matt McKeon Sep 24, 2014 @ 1:44

    Many years ago it was teaching in a residential treatment program for high school girls. My colleague was using Harriet Jacob’s and the kids really couldn’t stand it, and the class got so hot emotionally, she stopped using that text.

    I assuming your students don’t have the baggage these kids had, but maybe some of them do, for think about the impact on them and how to deal beforehand.

  • Matt McKeon Sep 24, 2014 @ 1:40

    Its not the students I would worry about, its the parents.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2014 @ 2:43

      I would certainly make them aware of what I was doing in such a case.

      • Sarah Oct 4, 2014 @ 10:08

        I would worry about your students, particularly female students of color. The sexual aspect of slavery is an important topic to discuss, but I think that this is also an incredibly sensitive topic. Choosing actual accounts from those who were there would be a much better choice, historically and politically. When you have such easy access to the voices of black women who experienced this world first hand, why would you resort to using a sensationalized and fictionalized account written by a twenty-first century white man?

  • Dan Weinfeld Sep 23, 2014 @ 11:56

    If your goal is to convey to students the horrors of slavery, I can think of nothing more powerful and haunting than the words of slavery’s survivors and witnesses found in Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long. WIth such powerful sources, I don’t understand the need to resort to fiction or allegory – unless you are teaching slavery memory.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2014 @ 12:46

      Hi Dan,

      Good point, but I can definitely see some benefit of looking at various disciplines approach the challenge of representing emotional and complex subjects such as slavery. Even Litwack is making choices by pulling certain accounts over others to create a representation.

  • stampdxer Sep 23, 2014 @ 10:08

    Well.. Here is an approach that depicts real people in antebellum conditions..

  • Andrew Raker Sep 23, 2014 @ 6:03

    I wonder how well your students would do at discussing it. Based on an experience I had in a graduate seminar (about sexuality, of all things), I remember those of us in the class were vary wary of using the f-word. I’m sure those feelings would have been even stronger for 17 year old me, way back in the day – I wouldn’t want to curse in front of Mr. Levin. It’s a tough call.

    I do like the idea of setting it alongside other descriptions of violence. As for the issues of authenticity, maybe you could also have your students consider this alongside Vincent Carrera’s work questing Olaudah Equiano’s “Interesting Narrative”. I haven’t read it since I was in college, so I can’t remember how much violence it shows, and if it would even fit in with those other sources, but it does raise questions of what truth is. I found truth in the passage from Baptist, but, as others have noted, not the kind of truth that has footnotes. Equiano’s narrative captured what the transatlantic slave trade was like better than anyone else, even if he might have been born in North America and told the stories of others as his own.

  • Christopher Shelley Sep 22, 2014 @ 18:31

    I would–but then, I teach college. I have enough latitude to use this Daily Show piece when discussing the Sectional Crisis.

    But my biggest issue with that Baptist passage is, as was brought up before, the lack of attribution. If it’s fiction (and, as it stands, it effectively is), it seems somehow gratuitous. I just don’t know how much fiction one can use to illustrate the brutality of slavery.

  • Ben Allen Sep 22, 2014 @ 17:08

    I like your idea and the sources you mentioned, especially Steve McQueen’s poignant masterpiece.

    “Would they be able to take it seriously and would it be too much of a distraction?” Good question. I don’t know. I would have to be at your school to make an assessment. The students in private schools, coming from families with means, generally seem to be less mature than the best behaved students in public schools, since they are not exposed to extreme impudence. Of course, your students of Israel might be an exception. Perhaps you and your colleagues should conduct an informal, or formal, study on Junior maturity… or you could try to get their feet wet, and if the initial attempt meets success, take them deeper and deeper into the pool until they either act immaturely or reach Chapter 7.

    As for its potential to distract, I think it will have an opposite effect. It will really get their attention. You know how to make history fun with high schoolers (and even college students)? Tell them how it was. Quote profanity, talk about sex, drugs, and violence, even the most pornographic kind. Of course, you forfeit decency, and maybe even your job, by doing so. Thus, you might be unable to implement the ideal teaching method. Anyway, Baptist’s prose won’t distract your pupils where reading is concerned, as there are plenty of F bombs throughout the whole passage, and they would probably want to read them all. Indeed, you hardly have to worry about when Baptist stops using profanity, for even without the scurrilous vocabulary, history books that visit the darker side of mankind is the stuff adolescents devour. 🙂

  • cagraham Sep 22, 2014 @ 16:44

    I am currently using Harriet Jacobs in two different classes. (We don’t start discussion until Wednesday so I can’t report yet on how this goes.) She talked about sexual abuse and rape of enslaved women (herself and others) in Victorian language of euphemism and evasion, while simultaneously being very clear about what she means. Might be a good way to compare how *they* talked about it and how *we* talk about it.

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