Many United States history teachers struggle with how to teach and talk about slavery. Slavery was an all-encompassing facet of everyday American life and the political-economy for nearly four centuries; no course in United States history would be comprehensive without a critical dialogue about slavery. However, teaching slavery with nuance and sensitivity can sometimes feel challenging in diverse contemporary classrooms because the majority of slaves in the United States were illiterate and unable to leave historical records in their own voices. The lack of self-produced sources makes slavery feel abstract to many students seeking tangibility in lecture. The basic tenet of history – the idea that things change over time – also feels paradoxically at odds for students who often mistakenly interpret slavery as a static and unchanging institution. In order to stimulate classroom discussion, it is useful to break down the subjects’ overwhelming historiography into manageable ‘perspectives’ that can serve as daily conversation themes.

1) Slavery and Place: The Caribbean Perspective Vs. North America 

By the time students reach AP United States History, they have memorized the details of the 1820 Missouri Compromise and understand the historical significance of the 36/30 parallel. By drawing students’ attention internationally, they often gain a clearer understanding of slavery in the United States in both the North and South. Here are a few topic points and book suggestions to integrate into lectures or redirect classroom conversations.

Christopher Brown on Slavery from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

  • By 1720 the colonial North American slave population began to self-reproduce and increase in number while the slave population in the Caribbean was never self-reproductive. In fact, historians like Vince Brown have argued that the dominant feature that characterized slave life in Jamaica was the pervasiveness of death while historians like Deborah Gray White and Jennifer Morgan have extensively discussed why reproduction became a major necessity in the domestic United States slave system; especially after the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was shut down in 1808. Ask students to think about why death was so prevalent in the Atlantic World colonies. Why did the US have to reproduce their slave population? What about place shaped the lived experiences of slaves’ daily lives?
  • Demographics:  Historian Peter Wood’s Black Majority argued that South Carolina, which was modeled on Barbados (a system of absentee planters and a non-settled British class) allowed for a black majority. Black majorities were uncommon in the United States compared to Jamaica, which was 90% black. Have students think about what the implications were of a black majority. How do black majorities increase the likelihood of resistance?  Retaining cultural elements like language? How would a slaves’ life be different if they lived in a white majority region?
  • Political power: Have students look at a timeline of colonial British independence movements. When did the United States break away from the British? When did colonies in the Caribbean? After 1776, slaves in the United States were under the direct rule of a federal government that was close in proximity, while Caribbean slaves were part of a global empire. The average white man in Jamaica was 57.6 times wealthier than the average white man in New England. What about the political power of slave holders in different regions changes the story of slavery?
  • Staple commodities: Different regions produced different commodities. Students are well aware that “Cotton was King” in the Antebellum South, but the cotton boom did not hit full force until the 1830s. Have students think about what it meant that South Carolina produced rice (a staple crop in West Africa), the Chesapeake produced tobacco, the Middle Colonies produced indigo, and the arduous and deadly cultivation of sugarcane dominated Louisiana and the Caribbean. Haiti was the world’s largest exporter of coffee.  What did different commodities and staple crops mean for slaves daily work routine? Family life? Interaction with masters?

2) Gender
It is very important to think and talk about gender while teaching the history of slavery. Men and women assumed different roles due to the gendered division of labor.
  • Production: Female slaves, like male slaves, engaged in production. In addition to picking the cotton that supplied the textile revolution, female slaves were engaged in the household economy. Women tended to live longer in slavery, while men (especially in sugar cane colonies) were worked to death.
  • Reproduction: Female slaves’ responsibilities (and often times, economic value) centered on the physical reproduction of the slave labor force. Having many babies could provide protection for a woman in terms of allowing her to resist being relocated or sold, but it subjected her to habitual rape and unwanted sexual encounters. Although male slaves were often worked to death in the fields, female slaves died of child birth and gynecological complications.
  • Resistance: Men and women resisted slavery in different ways. Due to slave women’s constant need to reproduce, they spent the majority of their young adult lives pregnant or nursing. This limited their mobility. Men could run away and try to permanently escape slavery more easily than women could. Men could organize and violently up rise. Women tended to resist in different ways: with truancy, by feigning illness, by tampering with their masters’ food, and so forth. For more information on how gender shaped the slave experience, please consult historians Jennifer Morgan, Deborah Gray White, Stephanie Camp, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Kathleen Brown, and Thavolia Glymph.
3) Migration 
Migration is a very important topic in the history of slavery. Thinking about migration also leads to important conversations about the larger African Diaspora in the New World. Be sure to define the differences between forced migrations (the Middle Passage, the Internal Slave Trade) and elective migration (fugitive slaves, migration of emancipated and free slaves).
  • Dislocation: Have students think about the common experience of ‘dislocation’ among slaves due to migration. A great source for this is Equiano’s slave narrative, which chronicles his alienation (the loss of his family, social personhood, and social relations) due to forced removal from Africa and migration across the Atlantic. Historians who are helpful with this topic include Stephanie Smallwood and Marcus Rediker. Historian John Thornton in Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World makes the important point that Early American history focuses on the migration of Europeans, but more Africans migrated than all the European groups combined. In order to get an accurate understanding of the Atlantic world, we need to think about African migration. If you want to talk about domestic migration, historian Walter Johnson is the expert on the domestic slave trade and the 3 million African Americans forcibly removed from the Upper South sold into the Lower South.
  • Professional migration: Thousands of slaves worked as sailors and seamen. Until the Civil War, black sailors were the largest group of freed blacks and were crucial to the economic survival of black institutions like the church and fraternal orders. Due to the nature of their work, they traveled throughout the Atlantic World both as enslaved and freed sailors. For information on this, please consult Bolster’s Black Jacks.
  • Tension between new and old slave populations: One of the dominant themes repeated in the historiography of slavery is the tension between ‘established’ black populations and ‘new comers.’ This argument is carried through from Stephanie Smallwood’s portrayal of “salt water slaves” and “Guinea birds” versus slave populations that naturally reproduced in New World and Ira Berlin’s descriptions of tension between cosmopolitan slaves vs. slaves from the African interior that clashed in the plantations of the New World as some were seen as “new comers” and others “cleolinan Negroes” who were born in the Americas. The newly transported Africans were called “Salt-water” and “guiney birds” by those American-born with roots in the new communities –the new Africans were part of the collective memory and experience of forced migration. It is important to stress that migrants, both forced and elective, always bring with them social and cultural knowledge from where they came from: they bring language skills, agricultural cultivation skills, etc.
  • Disease: Due to the mass movement of Africans between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America, specifically during “seasoning” in the Caribbean, Africans who had been exposed to diseases such as Yellow Fever or Smallpox were immune, had lower mortality rates, and were accutomed to semi-tropical zones. This was advantageous in places like South Carolina, as many slaves had been transported from Barbados during the rice cultivation of the 1690s that transformed the region into a colony with an exportable staple crop.
4) Resistance
Almost every historian who writes about the history of slavery has something to say about resistance. It is important to understand how chronological and geographical contexts shaped the forms of resistance available to slaves. Have students think about the nature, uses, and forms of resistance in slavery.
  • Revolts: Slave revolts and insurrections are always interesting to history students. From the 1739 Stono Rebellion to Tacky’s War in 1760 to Nat Turner’s Rebellion, there is a case study for almost any era you are discussing. The major slave revolt that cannot be ignored, however, is the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) which transformed Frances’ largest slave colony into the first black republic and the second democratic government in the Western hemisphere after the United States.
  • Acts of resistance: Slowing down work, breaking tools, running away, arson, and poisoning are all detailed by Peter Wood.
  • Intellectual Resistance: To complicate students’ understanding of violent resistances to slavery such as in the Civil War or in slave revolts, challenge students to think about the intellectual challenges against slavery. The Haitian Revolution leaders responded in writing to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizenship. They wrote a constitution. Have a conversation about Denmark Vesey. Get the primary sources and have students read them closely.
  • Cultural Resistance: Please consult our article on Cultural Retention to fully explore this topic.
  • Running Away: For an overview of fugitive slaves, please see this lecture given by historian Loren Schweninger.

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