Friday, September 07, 2007

Historical Argument

So yesterday, in my US history class we discussed the "terrible transformation," using the example of Virginia. We began with the arrival of Africans in 1619, talked about the status (and supply) of white indentured servants and Native Americans, discussed Europeans' familiarity with slavery (and a bit about capitalism), Africans' familiarity with intensive agriculture, Anthony Johnson (Antonio, a Negro), Bacon's rebellion, and the changes in Virginia's laws regarding slavery, culminating with the 1705 proclamation that black and Native American slaves were real estate.*

Though I've read some interesting critiques of Anthony S. Parent's Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740, I tend to agree that slavery wasn't something Virginian planters just stumbled upon or were forced into by circumstances. Now, while it may not have been as planned or methodical as Parent suggests, let us never underestimate Americans' desire for earning the almighty dollar via exploitation (one depressing fact that helped render me silent on Labor Day, sigh).

Anyway, after a nice discussion (in my afternoon class--my morning class has me ready to pluck out the hairs of my head individually**), one student asked me was all this occuring around the same time as the Willie Lynch letter. I looked at her crazily and for a moment only said, "Wha-"

And then there was a chorus of, "You know, the Willie Lynch letter that explained how to keep blacks down."

"Oh!" says me, "That letter has been discredited," and I waved my hand dismissively and moved to talk about something else...

Only to be met with outrage and condescension. "It's not fake!" "It is authentic." "It's in a collection with other letters." "I can't believe you think it's not real!"

And because I had not the means to disprove the damn letter in class, I simply gave them the steely eye, reiterated that historians knew the letter was not valid, and moved on.

But my God, were they disgusted with me!

So, do I go in Tuesday morning armed with the words of historian William Jelani Cobb and attorney Steve Sheppard (who's at the U of Arkansas now--I have a soft spot for that school!) or do I let it drop? Seriously, I want the opinions of some classroom experts. Would this be allowing myself to be drawn into a silly argument or is it something I need to do?
*Yes, I outlined that detail by detail, so someone who's more versed in colonial history than I can say, "elle, I can't believe you left out this significant fact!"

**Though I did have three students in there who engaged with me yesterday on the topic of the origins of slavery in the "New World" one of whom argued that he didn't see a transformation in the status of Africans, that he believed, whether or not it was coded into law, Africans in the pre-U.S. were always treated/regarded a certain way and had little hope for anything better.


k8 said...

I would bring in the evidence, but probably couch it in terms of here's the truth, here's the misconception, and this is how the misconception started and spread. That way, you can address the ways histories are constructed and false histories still linger. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I agree with k8. I'd be interested in what makes the letter seem authentic to the students. You might present Cobb's and Sheppard's claims and invite discussion about analyzing the source in relation to other letters. And what's at stake in the debate. Also, how do we assess information found on the web.

Another History Blog said...

I agree. It's not a "See, I was right" thing (not that you would do that), but you could easily make it into a worthwhile teaching moment.

Zan said...

Absolutely bring it in. You do not want them going on believing false evidence, not when you can clearly explain to them the truth. Plus, they need to know how to evaluate source material anyway.

Courtney said...

I like Kiita's point about ways to unpack a source (especially an internet source) and use it as a teaching moment. It gets across the "all things in print are true" concept and you can even get into a discussion of why people want to believe the document!

Quiche said...

Go into class with the evidence! But I agree, use it as a moment to show the difficulties historians go through "finding" sources and what it means to "read" sources carefully.

elle said...

ok. appreciate the insights. i worry that they'll be hostile (or resistant) to other interpretations/invalidation of something they take as historical fact. but we've been talking about how to read sources and question them (for example, europeans who wrote that native americans were grateful for the civilization europeans brought, etc.) so maybe this will be another facet of that

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