In the first half of this course you will learn how historians have revised the prevailing ideas about slavery and slave society, and how those very revisions have in turn been criticized and new areas of inquiry opened up. We will devote particular attention to master-slave relations, adjustment and resistance on the part of enslaved people, and African American culture.
The second half of the course traces the appearance of a sizable population of free African Americans in the South during the era of slavery, beginning late in the 18th century. We will examine the lives those people lived and the relations that developed among free blacks, enslaved blacks, and whites of various social classes.
Historical writing about enslaved African Americans that appeared during the first generation after World War II often concentrated on what masters did to slaves. The literature since the early 1970s, by contrast, has devoted particular attention to what enslaved people themselves did, asserting that they resisted their oppressors and developed a vigorous folk culture and religious worldview. Similarly, some modern historians who have written about free blacks in the Old South have emphasized what whites did to free African Americans, painting a picture of relentless oppression directed against a nearly helpless population. We, however, will pay particular attention to what free blacks did—what they accomplished—and to any significant freedoms that the system may have afforded them. We will even try to gain some glimpses into what free blacks thought.
In short, we will wrestle constantly with a recurring issue in the interpretation of slavery, which has emerged yet again in the new historical writing about free blacks in the South: How do we understand a system that victimized people without looking at those people mainly as victims?
To acquire a working knowledge of the ways historians have interpreted the history of African Americans in the South and their relations with whites up to the Civil War.
To enhance the ability to read secondary works critically and to interpret primary sources that illuminate this history.
See timetable History
Mode of instruction
Weekly reading summaries of 150 words each
In-class midterm exam
Research essay (2000 words maximum)
Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Vintage)
Short excerpts on Blackboard