When Leslie Harris came up with the idea for a class investigating
modern views of slavery, she wasnt watching a film set on
some antebellum plantation. She was watching a costume drama about
I thought that this film was made around the same time of
other films about [American] slaves were made, said Harris,
associate professor of history. Slaves, after all, helped build
Whats the connection with films about Southern slaves?
she said. I dont know; I still havent figured
it out. But the images are there, though were not always conscious
Harris explores these questions through her history course, Slavery
in United States History and Culture, which is offered during
the second summer session to students brave enough to stick around
campus during the calendar years most sweltering season.
Harris splits the class into two parts. The first outlines the
history of slavery, from Africans arrival in North America
on slave ships to the end of the Civil War. Part two, which runs
the final two weeks of class, covers 20th century representations
of slavery. The centerpieces of this portion of class are discussions
of the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Confessions
of Nat Turner by William Styron.
Harris further breaks up the historical portion of the class into
smaller parts. It contains sections on the founding fathers and
slavery, plantation life and several aspects of life as a slave
(division of labor, the family and religion) often told by the slaves
On the one hand I want students to get the big picture through
the historians accounts, Harris said. But I also
want them to understand that what one historian says is true doesnt
mean that its not up for discussion.
Her point is quite clear. Students should read historical accounts
of slavery with a healthy dose of skepticism. The spottiness of
the historical record is something that is covered well in class.
Students are quick to pick up on it without prompting.
In one session, several students pointed out a statistic stating
that slaves on a certain plantation were whipped 0.7 times per hand
per year. The meaninglessness of such a number did not escape mention.
Since the class is for upper-level undergraduates, Harris said most
of her students critical thinking skills are already well
The subject matter is a combination of learning things they
may not have heard of combined with thinking critically about how
knowledge is constructed, she said.
Personal accounts of slaves arent necessarily accepted without
question, either, Harris said.
The typicalalmost to the point of clichéissue
when dealing with slave narratives is, My master was a good
master. He never treated us wrong. He was always good to us.
Harris said. Oh, so people were happy under slavery?
Then following that, youll have a slave say, That
master down the road, he did X, Y and Z. He wasnt so nice.
Its interesting to learn about this subject, because
its something that isnt always talked about, said
senior Allison Harvey, a religion major who was drawn to the class
after taking a black church studies course last year.
You have to put aside certain beliefs you get growing up white
and middle class in the South, she said.
Harris alternates lectures and discussion with each session. Discussions
are led by the class, with one or two students responsible for each
section. Each discussion focuses on the reading material.
The students arent hurting for things to read, either. Including
the two novels, 10 works are on the class reading list and students
are responsible for between 100150 pages of material each
week. Final grades are determined through a combination of class
participation and two take-home exams.
This is the fourth timeand first during the summerthat
Harris has taught the course, which she created in 1997. When she
teaches in spring or fall, Harris incorporates films into the part
covering modern views of slavery. With the accelerated timeline
of the summer class, she removed that aspect.
As a replacement, for the first time, Harris took her students
on a field trip. They visited the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center
last week, which is hosting a complex exhibit that encompasses an
artistic interpretationthrough words and imagesof what
a slaves life might have been like. The exhibit cuts to the
core of Harris goal to introduce students to modern takes