Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Teaching Emancipation

Aaron Astor

With the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ongoing popularity of the Lincoln movie, which focuses on passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, it seems as relevant as ever to talk about how we teach emancipation to undergraduates today.  When I broach the subject in my 19th Century US History course I begin by asking the class a simple question:

Who freed the slaves?

The answers are predictable. First is usually “Lincoln.” And then “the Union Army,” followed by “Congress” and/or “the 13th Amendment.”  A particularly astute student will say, “the slaves freed themselves.” 

The answer, I quickly tell them, is that all of these things are true. But as quickly becomes apparent, I tend to emphasize the latter interpretation—self-emancipation—over the others.   After all, scholarship on emancipation in the last 30 years has focused more and more on the myriad ways in which slaves undermined the bonds of mastery, broke for Union lines at places like Fortress Monroe, attained contraband status in Union army camps, served in the Federal army as soldiers, and made a revolutionary bid for freedom and citizenship in a unique moment when the white power structure was rent by civil war.   I have contributed to that scholarly trend myself with my work on the border states of Kentucky and Missouri, where the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply, and slave agency—by male and female alike—proved especially critical in the emancipation process.

What I find most interesting is the reaction of my students to this now-broadly accepted narrative of self-emancipation. They view it as a story of Southern heroism.  Consider who most of my students are and the irony becomes noteworthy. I teach at a small liberal arts college in East Tennessee where nearly all of my students are white and Southern-born. Though they come primarily from East Tennessee, with its own peculiar Appalachian Civil War heritage—this county was over 80% pro-Union—my students typically see themselves as “Southern” like others across the states of the Old Confederacy.  And yet . . . there are few topics of discussion that energize and excite them more than the notion that the four million slaves of the Old South were the primary drivers of their own emancipation.

First the irony.  In decades past, the emancipation narrative that white Southerners told themselves went something along these lines: Slaves were well-treated and had no intention of running away to the Yankees. But a bunch of self-righteous white Yankee interlopers came down South, cajoled the slaves into believing that freedom under Yankee rule would be better than the kindly treatment of their own masters, and gave the slaves more political authority than they could handle . . . leading inexorably to the “Tragic Era” of Radical Reconstruction.  This narrative gained extra weight during the Civil Rights movement when many white Southerners convinced themselves that “outside agitators” from the North had, once again, come down South to “stir up trouble” among the black population that once “knew its place.” 

In fact, the “self-emancipation” narrative had little appeal in the white North as well.  Many small Northern villages proudly boasted of “stations on the Underground Railroad” in their towns—staffed, allegedly, by respected white pillars of the community. And, of course, the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, figured first and foremost in the freeing of slaves.  The Federal Army, marching off with Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in its collective eardrums, gallantly fulfilled its longtime national destiny to liberate the Southern slaves once and for all.  Occasional black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass peered in from the sidelines, lending their stern approval, as the black masses knelt and thanked God and the Yankee army for their Providential deliverance from bondage.

The black power movement of the late 1960s and the resulting shift in scholarship on slavery and emancipation challenged this narrative of passive liberation. Scholarship from the likes of Armstead Robinson, the Freedmen and SouthernSociety Project, John Blassingame, Steven Hahn, and others located black agency at the core of emancipation. If slaves did not press against the weakening walls of the slave regime—if they had not shown up at Fortress Monroe and demanded to be taken in—neither the Union army nor the Federal government would have seen the military benefit inherent in emancipation.   And so the slaves themselves set in motion the chain of events leading to total emancipation. Movies like Glory helped popularize the story of self-emancipation for a much wider audience.  The image of the docile slave was, by the late 1990s, so passé that even neo-Confederates started to recast the black population in martial terms. The armed black Confederate soldier, an almost complete fiction that would have disgusted white Southern sensibilities in earlier generations, had become the only narrative “response” to self-liberation in the Union Army.

Fortress Monroe
Few of my students believe the black Confederate myth. But even fewer of them embrace the old, passive emancipation trope. In fact, I’ve found that my Southern students tend to embrace the self-emancipation interpretation even more vigorously than did my Northern students who I taught years ago in Michigan; in that case, the benevolent, idealistic Yankee army continued to hold greater sway.

There may, in fact, be another reason why the story of self-emancipation resonates so strongly among white Southerners, however. What grates on Southerners more than anything else is a sense of Yankee self-righteousness. The belief that racism is a purely Southern phenomenon is one that angers many Southerners—especially younger ones who have no memory of actual Jim Crow laws and who find explicit expression of racism as repugnant as anybody else. With more social inter-mixing across the color line in the South today than ever before, it strikes most younger white Southerners as deeply unfair to implicate them alone for the crimes of the nation’s past. 

And so, for many of them, the oft-told Yankee tale of Lincolnian liberation sounds like just another chapter in the unfolding drama of Northern righteousness and Southern moral turpitude. Younger folks in the South today know the unique history of their region, but they insist—rightly, I might add—that the agents of protest, resistance and liberation came from within.  

The lesson may be a broader one that has implications for how Southerners view themselves and for how exceptional the South truly is in America today.  Whether it’s the tireless protests of Kentucky coal miners, New Orleans longshoremen, or Carolina textile workers fighting for fair wages and treatment, or African Americans confronting their bondage, disfranchisement and segregation, the stories of heroic struggle abound within Southern history. The inspiring, if often tragic, efforts to achieve justice, freedom and equality in the South rightly resonate with younger Southern students today.  And so it seems only right that on the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation we celebrate in common the efforts of untold millions who loosened the chains of their own bondage and made the Proclamation into a new and revolutionary social reality.

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