On the Program Relevance of Slavery

What is the relevance of teaching antebellum slavery to visitors today? While I have done so myself for six years now, I find myself in a new situation trying to teach staff to interpret African American slavery on an 1820s Piedmont Carolina cotton plantation. I am having to focus on the goals of our interpretation and how do we get them across.

While listening to staff do tours, I found that they were fine in addressing the existence of slavery, but did not answer that question of why it was important.

My main answer is that African culture was a particularly major component in the development of southern U.S. culture as well as American culture as a whole. In interpreting American and largely southern history, it is so easy to slip into saying how certain great and wealthy men built this and grew that, when in reality much of what is spoken of was not only done by the labor of enslaved African Americans, but were also accomplished through the skill and knowledge of these people. These skills were passed from generation to generation and have often carried forward to today.

Africans introduced foodways, architecture, art and numerous other aspects to American culture. This is all on top of the fact that few of them could actually bring much with them in possessions but had to retain these ideas and start from scratch. Africans were suddenly ripped from their existing lives and brought to America, largely alone socially, whereas many others could come in groups or follow others they knew of that came before them from their same regions.

I think one of the most powerful messages I have heard came from a guide with the touring exhibit of the Henrietta Marie, a ship that had once carried Africans to America. Speaking to a class of African Americans, she, being of African descent herself, addressed the all too often feeling of many African American youth, of being ashamed of their past. She said, and I paraphrase, “You should be proud of who you are, for you are here because your ancestors survived tremendous odds and obstacles before you. Captivity and transportation to America was under unspeakable circumstances. Survival for generations as slaves in plantations, factories, trades, and everything else imaginable. Your ancestors helped build this country and its wealth. You are survivors of the strong.”

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This article first appeared as: Duane Smith, “On the Program Relevance of Slavery” in the ALHFAM Bulletin, Winter 2003, Vol. XXXI, no. 4, p. 10.

Featured image: Enslaved Man with Saw, 1850s-60s, Library of Congress

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