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118 CHAPTER 8 Why You Can’t Teach the History of U.S. Slavery without American Indians PAUL T. CONRAD “Aren’t you guys sick of slavery?” I recall the president of the history club at my university asking club members at a meeting a few years ago. As their new faculty advisor and as a historian interested in slavery, my ears perked up for elaboration. “What white people did to black people was horrible and all,” she noted, as murmurs of assent echoed around the room, “but then the slaves got their freedom, so what’s there to keep talking about?” Other club members seconded her sentiment: the history of slavery was officially stale. Student comments are often as uninformed or provocative as they are instructive. This candid moment at a history club meeting, for example, raised questions for me about what students are actually learning about slavery in U.S. history classrooms. Like a movie they had seen one too many times, the narrative of slavery that bored these students—a black and white tragedy with a happy ending—struck me as both oversimplified and incomplete. Given my own interests, I wondered particularly about the absence of Native peoples from the story and how including them might change student understandings of slavery in U.S. history. After all, Native groups played a central role in shaping and contesting forms of servitude and slavery that emerged across North America from the precolonial era to the present, as captors and captives, slaveholders and slaves, and sovereign nations.1 Including American Indians as part of the story of slavery serves not simply to reflect a Native point of view or to be more historically accurate —though this is certainly the case—but also to fuel student interest in slavery and history more generally. American Indian history provides stories that break from what students think they already know about slavery while also sparking fruitful discussions of what slavery was (and is) in the first place. Exposing students to the range of experiences of captivity , servitude, and slavery evident historically in North America serves to better contextualize U.S. history within a global framework and clarifies U.S. Slavery and American Indians 119 the distinctiveness of chattel slavery as it developed in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century U.S. South. I advance this argument in two parts. I begin by briefly surveying the current state of instruction regarding the history of slavery and the role of American Indians in it. I then consider in greater depth why instructors should include indigenous peoples in their courses and lectures on slavery and provide specific examples of how they might do so.2 To begin, it is useful to survey current trends in the teaching of slavery in U.S. history classrooms. Anecdotes of students “sick of slavery” or reflecting on slavery through the binary of “white” versus “black” are suggestive, and conversations with colleagues lead me to believe that such sentiment among students is not isolated. At the same time, however, a more systematic survey of U.S. history syllabi available online provides broader perspective on how slavery is currently being taught in college classrooms.3 Among more than a hundred U.S. history syllabi I reviewed from major institutions across the country, only a few focused attention on American Indians in the context of slavery. A number of instructors introduce slavery to their students in units titled “Slavery Comes to America” or “The Beginnings of Slavery in America,” where they link discussion of these themes to readings on African enslavement. This approach suggests that these instructors may not be discussing with students the fact that the first slaves in many European colonial societies in the Americas were American Indians, and that Native peoples continued to labor as slaves within the boundaries of the United States through at least the late nineteenth century. Subsequent coverage of slave trades, plantation slavery, and the expansion of slavery in the antebellum South also appear to focus little on American Indians. A lack of attention to the fact that Euro-American farms, workshops, and plantations encroached into the homelands of Native nations may unwittingly reinforce pernicious stereotypes still common among students, including the idea that American Indians disappeared from history relatively soon after encountering Europeans.4 There are of course exceptions. Some instructors assign textbooks that at least mention Indians in the context of slavery, such as Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty. A few instructors assign captivity narratives...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469623368
Related ISBN
9781469621210
MARC Record
OCLC
907238489
Pages
352
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-23
Language
English
Open Access
No
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