Edward Baptist’s article, "Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners," in last week’s The New York Times Magazine got me thinking about how and why I discuss slavery in my own classes. In the piece, Baptist talks a bit about his experience teaching on the topic over the past 20 years at different institutions and the difficulties that he has faced. Not surprisingly, he has encountered many students who are uncomfortable learning about the history of slavery in America, and he concludes the article explaining that this discomfort is in large part because “whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-day pains and others’ contemporary privilege.” I absolutely agree that this contributes to students’ discomfort and that this makes teaching about slavery all the more important. (Points that were driven home a few days later when I read an opinion piece is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled "Remnants of slavery: White guilt is not helping black America.")
Even though it’s hard, Baptist is right that it is one of the most worthwhile topics to discuss in the classroom. This is true not only because the institution shaped American history and has had long-lasting effects on our culture, but also because it forces students to confront aspects of American and Christian history that make them uneasy. This unease is exactly what is so important, and by discussing slavery through the lens of not just American history, but Christian history, I have found that it helps students understand two of the main points that I want them to get out of our time together. It allows students to see in a very concrete way that there is diversity within religious traditions and that people’s religious beliefs and traditions change over time.
Spending some time covering religion and slavery in American history helps to illustrate larger points. First, it demonstrates that religions are interpreted and that different people can and have interpreted the same texts and traditions in dramatically different ways. In order to make this point, my students and I read examples of texts written by both pro-slavery and abolitionist Christians and then discuss the various arguments presented in those texts. We consider the religious and scriptural justifications presented by each side. Inevitably, students are struck by just how easy it seemed to be for supporters of slavery to justify the institution by appealing to scripture and tradition. Similarly, they realize that abolitionists were forced to rely on a much broader interpretation of the Bible and work against long-standing tradition in order to argue against slavery. Critics of the institution were unable to find passages that explicitly condemned slavery, but were familiar with many that seemed to discuss it in matter of fact terms. Both groups were relying on the same texts, and both groups claimed the same tradition, and yet they were in many ways in direct conflict with each other. Coming to this realization is important not only because it gives students a more accurate view of American history, in which Christians were not just abolitionists but also staunch supporters of slavery, but it is also important because it drives home the reality that scriptures and
traditions are interpreted by religious practitioners.
Whereas many of my students come to this topic believing that devout Christians must have been abolitionists and supporters of slavery must not have been religious, this exercise shows them that there were committed Christians on both sides of this debate and that both believed that they were the true defenders of their faith. The only way this could be possible is if they were interpreting their scriptures and traditions in different ways, and if Christians could come to such different conclusions from reading the same texts, then we should certainly expect diversity and differences in interpretation in other contexts as well. Another larger point that the history of American slavery illustrates is that religious communities history of religions. I have found that once we have established that different groups have understood their religious traditions in different ways, students are more open to hearing about how these understandings and traditions have changed. They also seem more willing to discuss the reality of religious change when we discuss it in terms of American slavery because in this case they see the change as positive. Rather than a dangerous move away from some form of “true” or “original” Christianity, students see the modern rejection of slavery as a move in the right direction. This isn’t to say that they suddenly view all religious change as positive, and it is certainly not my goal to get them to view change in this way, but it does allow them to accept the fact that changes do occur and makes it difficult for them to simply ignore evidence of change by assuming that they are corruptions of some sort of pure religious past. Discussing what they see as a positive change allows many students to get past viewing religions as static institutions or dogmas and instead recognize that they have changed, and they will continue to change. Once they recognize that texts and traditions are interpreted, students then expect beliefs and practices to change as people’s interpretations change. This allows students to better appreciate the
I want students to leave my classes with the realization that traditions are diverse and that they change over time, and I have found that discussing religious debates about slavery in America beautifully illustrate these two points. The topic may make students uneasy, especially when it’s being discussed in religious terms, but that is part of why it is important. It is important that we confront difficult topics and cover controversial religious groups with our students because the history of religions is often difficult and controversial. That’s part of what makes our field so interesting.
(If you are interested in participating in a larger conversation about how best to incorporate discussion of controversial religious groups into our classes, consider submitting a paper proposal to or joining us for a joint session being organized at this year’s SECSOR conference. Together the American Religions section and the Teaching and Learning section are planning a session on this topic, which is sure to be interesting.)