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Abolitionists Unfrozen

By David Gellman
2 Sep 2014
“My Bondage and My Freedom” by Boston Public Library – CC 2.0

This article, by DePauw History professor David Gellman, originally appeared in Historians Against Slavery on August 15, 2014.

If all the great abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were cryogenically frozen, who would you reanimate to help liberate the world from the scourge of slave labor and human trafficking today? Frederick Douglass? William Lloyd Garrison? Harriet Tubman? Are there any antislavery activists you would just as soon leave in cold storage?

The culminating paper assignment in my “The American Experience: Abolishing Slavery” course asks students to contemplate such questions in order to thread history together with contemporary society. When we think of the millions of present-day victims of bondage, neither triumphalist narratives nor facile condemnations of the past remain satisfying. But, if I have done my job right over the course of the semester, the students have figured that out already and just need a final prompt to confirm the urgency of history as a tool for reimagining and reconstructing the world.

The actual written text of the topic is less glib than my opening paragraph suggests. Slavery is a somber subject. Still, one walks a fine line engaging 19 year-olds. I want them to take the subject and themselves seriously. Common sense and humility, however, tell me that writing a college paper is not saving the world—that almost all traditional writing assignments are exercises, indeed games, through which students play at being the intellectuals, leaders, activists, and citizens that they are in the process of becoming. The assignment reads more like this:

Apply what we have learned from attempts to abolish slavery in colonial America and the nineteenth century U.S. to the problem of contemporary slavery. Which types of people, organizations, and ideas from the past does the world most need now? Which ideas, people, organizations, and ideas would you transport from the past to the present if you could?

But when explaining the assignment verbally or when pushed to answer the inevitable student questions What do you want? and What are you looking for?, the cryogenic conceit of the assignment becomes more explicit. The disciplined imagination that scholar James Axtell identified as the stuff of good history is also, the topic proposes, the stuff of social and political engagement. Or put another way, this final paper topic gives me one last chance to drive home to students that there is no readily searchable right answer to really important questions, just the answers that they wrestle out of themselves from within.

So then the practical questions become: What sorts of readings do I deploy during the semester to prepare the students for this capstone encounter with today’s global slavery? What, as the course ends, do the students have inside that they can start to pull out and craft for the printed page?

I organize the course around biography. I feature the lives of women and men who played significant roles in the struggle against slavery in North America from colonial times through the Civil War. The cast of characters rotates from one version of the course to the next, a combination of quality texts, thematic coverage, and representativeness guiding my selections: Douglass, Garrison, Sarah Grimké, and Angelina Grimké have been staples. Tubman, John Brown, and David Walker have stimulated lively discussion and debate. Quaker pioneers Anthony Benezet and John Woolman have made valuable appearances, and Samuel Sewall’s 1700 essay “The Selling of Joseph” provides a useful prologue. In the 2014 version of the course, Solomon Northup became an irresistible addition, particularly since we were able to bring the film 12 Years a Slave to campus that same semester. Marcus Rediker’s retelling of the Amistad rebellion extended the biographical reach of the course across the Atlantic. Thanks to Richard S. Newman, students found Bishop Richard Allen’s life as a “Black Founding Father” compelling. Weighing Abraham Lincoln’s role in emancipation consistently provides a provocative climax.

I should pause here to point out that no matter where the students come from, except for Lincoln, Tubman, and perhaps Douglass, these men and women are almost entirely new to them, a headshot and a sentence in a high school history textbook not counting for much. Thus, while there are many other ways to organize a course on abolishing slavery in the U.S.—economics, political structure, ideological development—using personal narratives to get at larger structures has distinct advantages. Not only does biography make abolitionism accessible, this genre also emphasizes how people go about making choices to resist, denounce, and organize against injustice. The final essay about the present then becomes a logical but not over-determined outgrowth of the history we have just finished studying.

Still, to enliven this distant world of texts—and make the connection to our own–human resources can help. Each time I have taught the course, we have taken a voluntary field trip to Conner Prairie, Indiana’s marvelous living history park, for the “Follow the North Star” program. For an intense hour, participants inhabit the roles of fugitives treading the knife’s edge between the underground railroad and re-enslavement.

The best classroom debate could never replicate this poignantly designed experience. One year, I began the course with the DeWolf family, not only screening the documentary Traces of the Trade about a white family coming to grips with the legacy of their slave-trading forebears, but also inviting into the classroom Thomas DeWolf, one of the participants in the film and author of his own memoir. The most recent time I taught the course, local folk music legend and retired math teacher Mike Van Rensselaer held my class spellbound playing classics from the abolitionist songbook on the banjo and guitar. And in 2012, Historians Against Slavery founder James Brewer Stewart graciously discussed his biography of William Lloyd Garrison with the class. Embodying the historic struggle against slavery through guests and field trips enhances the prospect of bridging then and now.

Finally, in the closing week of the semester, we jump from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century by reading arresting accounts of human trafficking around the world. I have featured a different book each time: Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy; Kevin Bales and Zoe Trodd’s edited volume, To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves; and David Batstone, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade–And How We Can Fight It. These books have different strengths as teaching tools. Bales surveys the world with a combination of scholarly and journalistic acumen; Batstone functions as a latter-day abolitionist tract, as he portrays the heroic work of contemporary antislavery activists. But I found the Bales and Trodd collection of autobiographical accounts to be the best fit, dovetailing particularly well with the biographical theme of the course. Like the slave narratives of an earlier era, these accounts beckon to the reader’s moral imagination.

Still, the distance is unsettling. To go from the Civil War Amendments to children prostituted in Thailand and brick kiln laborers in the thralls of debt bondage in India, or to migrant laborers in Florida and housekeepers in Washington, D.C., does feel jarring. But I would argue that for students, history is always thus—an intimidating leap from then to now. No matter where one ends the nineteenth-century abolitionists’ story, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the unraveling of Reconstruction into Jim Crow, the light switch of the present must get flipped. My hope is that rather than feel frozen in their tracks by the horrors of the contemporary world, students will find the abolitionist footsteps they wish to follow.

David Gellman is a Professor of History at DePauw University.
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