Teach American History Blog

Handling Race and Reconstruction in Our Classrooms

During the past school year, I asked my students at the University of Tennessee to read two different accounts of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The first was from Captain Willem Bosman, a Dutch slave trader who wrote "On the Slave Trade in Guinea" around 1700. As one might expect, Bosman praises the way he and other Dutch slave traders run safe, happy ships. In the process, he creates a justification for the slave trade as well as racial reasons for its existence. The second reading is an autobiography from a freed slave first published in 1789 entitled "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano." Equiano describes being captured as a young child in Africa and being transported eventually to the coast. He was then sold, and placed on a ship run by white and red-bearded devils; devils that Equiano was convinced were going to eat him. A modern reader of Equiano's "Narrative" is confronted with the full horror and despair of the Middle Passage. These two readings operate well together because of the obvious clash in perspective, and I always enjoy challenging students to wrestle with the implications involved in writing history based on these sources.

I was reminded of this exercise recently as I was re-reading an essay by James McPherson from his Drawn with the Sword. In the essay entitled "What's the Matter with History?", in the midst of berating modern professional historians for having abandoned popular history and the shaping of a national historical conciousness in favor of a specialized focus on university work, McPherson quotes from a letter he received after the publication of his masterful Battle Cry of Freedom. This letter, from a lawyer in Florida, contained the following critique: "You are obviously a 'liberal' on civil rights, particularly for black people" (247). What really struck me was the fact that this letter was written in 1989. While I am not so naive as to believe that racism is dead, I am still amazed at those who seem to argue against the political and social inclusion of minorities into the fabric of the United States.

And then I came back to thinking about the Reconstruction Era and how we handle it in our classrooms. In our more diversified modern classrooms, I would hope that we have moved beyond the portrayal of the Redeemer governments as a pure and perfect movement to eliminate evil and corrupt regimes. I would hope that we have moved beyond the idea that the Southern Republican governments were always mismanaged chaotic SNAFUs dominated by ignorant and useless freedmen and carpet-baggers. Was there bribery? And violence? And corruption? Yes, but there have almost always been those kinds of problems, and no modern historians seem to want to obscure the existence of these problems today. (If you want a full and mind-numbing account that one would think was comprehensive and complete, see Eric Foner's massive Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.)

But no matter one's perspective on Reconstruction, there is one conclusion that seems to be accepted by everyone. Eric Foner says in A Short History of Reconstruction: "What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed" (256). Did it fail because it went too far or because it did not go far enough? And how can we challenge our students to confront these differing perspectives and gain, at the same time, an empathy and understanding for those different from themselves? Can it be done through the use of historical novels? At the mini-institute on Reconstruction we looked at a short passage from Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet. Fellow teacher Robert Clark recommended through the wiki the novel Traveller, which tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction years through the eyes of Robert E. Lee's famous horse (which I would think elementary students would love). Are there other novels that you have used, or other types of material to help with this process?

Posted by Jason Mead - Monday, 06/06/2011, 01:47 PM - Comments -