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July 8, 2002

History course covers new, old ideas of slavery

By Eric Rangus

When Leslie Harris came up with the idea for a class investigating modern views of slavery, she wasn’t watching a film set on some antebellum plantation. She was watching a costume drama about ancient Egypt.

“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 the pyramids.

“What’s the connection with films about Southern slaves?” she said. “I don’t know; I still haven’t figured it out. But the images are there, though we’re not always conscious of them.”

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 year’s 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 themselves.

“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 doesn’t mean that it’s 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 under development.

“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 aren’t necessarily accepted without question, either, Harris said.

“The typical—almost to the point of cliché—issue 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?” she continued.

“Then following that, you’ll have a slave say, ‘That master down the road, he did X, Y and Z. He wasn’t so nice.’”
“It’s interesting to learn about this subject, because it’s something that isn’t 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 aren’t hurting for things to read, either. Including the two novels, 10 works are on the class reading list and students are responsible for between 100–150 pages of material each week. Final grades are determined through a combination of class participation and two take-home exams.

This is the fourth time—and first during the summer—that 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 interpretation—through words and images—of what a slave’s life might have been like. The exhibit cuts to the core of Harris’ goal to introduce students to modern takes on slavery.