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What Florida Is (and Isn't) Teaching Students about Slavery
A guest essay by Robert Cherry
The controversy over the Florida Board of Education’s new guidelines for the teaching of African American history circulates around a single clause: “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” If that was all the guidelines consisted of, we would indeed have cause for concern. But they don’t. As John McWhorter points out, while the phrase itself is inelegant at best and inaccurate at worst, it doesn’t reflect the rest of the Board’s guidelines. They require that instructors teach, among other things, the Underground Railroad, slave rebellions, the horrific details of chattel slavery, anti-black race riots, and other material that underscores just how harsh life was for African Americans for much of this country’s history.
My friend Robert Cherry thinks that an issue much more significant than a single phrase is at work in this controversy. In the essay below, he argues that those outraged over the “skills” issue are themselves denying the humanity of the enslaved people they think they are defending. Yes, enslaved blacks in America were victims of a brutal system. But that is not all they were. Many, many of them fought to preserve their humanity and agency in spite of their victimization. That sometimes included working on their own behalf and for their own benefit and that of their families, no matter how severely constrained their lives were.
Leaving agency out of the story of slavery, treating any slave not involved in righteous rebellion as a mere victim, plays into larger narratives about the supposed victimization of present-day African Americans. Our students—and especially our black students—need to know there is much more to their humanity than that.
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Victimization and Agency: A Necessary Balance
by Robert Cherry
The controversy over the Florida African American history curriculum is really over the relative merits of agency versus victimization. The critics essentially claim that presenting examples of the agency enslaved blacks used for their own benefit would whitewash US slavery. To these critics, only a persistent and unending presentation of its horrors is appropriate, regardless of what realities those presentations elide.
In an article published in a number of newspapers nationally, Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik argues that the Florida curriculum should have this singular focus:
[T]o show that subjecting human beings to rape, torture, family disruption, starvation unto death, and other brutality is only one aspect of a practice that also has, hey, its good points?
Echoing this sentiment, Senator Tim Scott stated:
There is no silver lining in slavery. Slavery was really about separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating.
However, the evidence presents a more nuanced assessment. Studies done by the Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel found that the diet of slaves and their housing was more than adequate: “the slave diet … actually exceeded modern (1964) recommended daily levels of the chief nutrients.” And the “typical slave cabin of the late antebellum era probably contained more sleeping space per person than was available to most of New York City’s workers half a century later.” Herbert Gutman found that children raised by two parents was the norm.
Were these committed leftists trying to whitewash slavery? No! During the first half of the twentieth century the slavery literature was awash with presentations that minimized the system’s brutality, and in response Stanley Elkins and Kenneth Stampp overcorrected. As a result of the extreme terror enslaved men and women endured, Elkins believed that they adopted a childlike quality of complete submission, identifying their masters as father figures. This underpinned Elkins’ explanation for the “Little Black Sambo” image that once was widely accepted among researchers of the slave experience.
Kenneth Stampp believed as a result of terror and brutalization, enslaved blacks adopted the pose of “a fawning dependent,” producing a “process of infantilization.” According to Stampp, family values were so destroyed that most fathers and even some mothers regarded their children with indifference.
Although Elkins and Stampp saw themselves as exposing the deep inhumanities of slavery, they unfortunately reinforced negative images of enslaved men and women: that they lacked a strong work ethic, lacked a strong commitment to the nuclear family, and lacked sexual discipline. For W.E.B. Dubois, later E. Franklin Frazier, and ultimately, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, their work explained the high rate of black out-of-wedlock births.
To counter the Elkins-Stampp narratives, Fogel, Gutman, and Eugene Genovese emphasized how agency enabled enslaved blacks to seek to better their situation by taking advantage as much as possible on the limited opportunities afforded them. While we rightly praise those like Harriet Tubman who used their limited agency to openly rebel, we should also praise efforts of those who bettered their existence within the slave system, who sustained families and developed skills. Gutman found that on larger plantations, more than three-quarters of all enslaved children were raised in stable, two-parent families. This was true for half of children raised on smaller plantations. Fewer than one in five unions ended as a result of the separation of families through slave sales.
Enslaved women were victims of sexual abuse. However, according to Genovese, many black women avoided this fate “because the whites knew they had black men who would rather die than stand idly by.” So strong was the resistance that it curbed at least some “white sexual aggression” against married women.
For these researchers, the plantation owner’s absolute control was tempered by a primary focus on profitability. Since prime-age enslaved males were costly to purchase, planters took care not to risk their safety. Slaves may be whipped and sexually abused but not employed in high-risk activities. Instead, the plantation owners hired Irish immigrants to do these dangerous jobs.
The hiring of white overseers was expensive so only a minority of plantations employed them. On three-quarters of plantations with no white overseers, there was only one white male of working age. This required extensive employment of enslaved blacks in supervisory and craft positions.
Planters also found it profitable to provide positive inducements to instill loyalty and improve work efforts. During winters, enslaved workers were hired out, and often they were able to keep some of the payments made. On many plantations, enslaved workers who performed well were awarded private plots of land on which they could farm and sell their surplus. Fogel documented that top field hands and top craftsmen were often rewarded for their efforts with material and cash payments.
Not only was the Elkins-Stampp view wrong about the place of the nuclear family in slave lives, it was wrong about the black work ethic. In the agricultural sector, Fogel estimated 20% of enslaved blacks were employed in management, skilled artisan, and semi-skilled positions. As a result, the early-twentieth-century researcher Charles Wesley claimed that, at emancipation, black workers made up over 80% of the artisan class in the South. Indeed, in The Negro Artisan, DuBois commented on the potpourri of occupations available to black workers in the South compared to the North, where craft unions almost universally embraced racially exclusionary practices.
Presenting positive images of individuals effectively responding to inhumane circumstances is uplifting and no way undercuts recognition of those adversities. Unfortunately, this stance is rejected by many anti-racists today. Soon after George Floyd’s murder, the highly successful 250 KIPP charter schools dropped their signature slogan, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” In the words of its equity programming director,
The slogan passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.
According to this viewpoint, the slogan’s focus on individual agency undercuts the message of deep victimization as a result of white supremacy.
Clinging to the view that we should only present victimization narratives make little sense today, unless you believe that racial impediments continue to play a decisive role in determining black outcomes. While we should not ignore the remaining roadblocks, black successes are also dependent on harnessing personal agency in order to fight through those impediments, which, I believe, are not nearly as prominent as they were a generation ago. Slavery in the United States was a dehumanizing practice. It is remarkable that so many enslaved people managed nevertheless to preserve their humanity and to work for their own betterment and that of their families. Writing these efforts out of our history would do a profound disservice both to them and to our students.