A Different Perspective on Slavery: Writing the History of African American Slave Women

by Roberta McCutcheon

Introduction

The accounts of African American slavery in textbooks routinely conflate the story of male and female slaves into one history. Textbooks rarely enable students to grapple with the lives and challenges of women constrained by the institution of slavery. The collections of letters and autobiographies of slave women in the nineteenth century now available on the Internet open a window onto the lives of these women and allow teachers and students to explore this history. Using the classroom as a historical laboratory, students can use these primary sources to research, read, evaluate, and interpret the words of African American slave women. The students can be historians; they can discover the history of African American slave women and write their history.

Objectives

  1. Students will be able to create a model to be used to evaluate the validity of historical evidence.
  2. Students will examine primary documents and use factual references in the documents to construct a history of African American slave women.
  3. Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of factual evidence.
  4. Students will be able to compare and contrast the accounts of slave women with the portrayal of women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Lesson Activities

Note: This lesson will require more than one classroom period.  Readings may be assigned for students to examine as homework proceeding the instructional period.

Student Exercise One

1. Direct the class to the Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson letters on the Duke University website. Make certain before students read the letters, they first look at the section, About Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson.

2. Analysis of the documents:

  • Have the class read the letters. Then, as a class, begin a discussion about a strategy for identifying information in the documents. The strategy should focus on the formulation of questions the students might ask in order to identify relevant information. Questions regarding the author’s birth date, birth place, family, work, and religion will help the students begin to understand some of the experiences that these women had in common, as well as the circumstances that accounted for differences in their lives.
  • Critiquing the documents will help to identify bias. Questions about the author’s purpose, status, and regional location will help to clarify the contextual conditions that influence perceptions.

3. Have the students write a model for analysis that will help them read the documents with a critical eye. Students should understand that they will be using their research to write a history of African American slave women.

Student Exercise Two

1. Divide the class into small groups. Assign each group a document or a portion of one of the longer documents listed below.

2. Ask the students to use their model to read the document and evaluate information found. Each group should compile the information gleaned from the assigned document.

3. Using the “jigsaw” approach to group work, shift the members of the groups so that each new group has a representative from each of the original groups. The task for these groups is to share information from the documents.

4. As a class, consider all the information that has been discussed in the individual groups. Identify the elements of experience that define the lives of slave women.

Record the History

Have the class, either individually or in groups, write a history of African American slave women. This might be a chapter for a history textbook or a children’s history. The history can be as traditional or as creative as the class desires.

Compare the Reality and the Perception

Read a different account of slave women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Chapters 5 and 20 include Stowe’s perception of slave women, their lives, and the challenges they faced. The illustrations in the novel also help us to understand how Stowe, a free, white northerner, perceived slavery and life in the South. The text and illustrations from the novel can be found here:


Class Discussion:

  • Analysis of the document: Who was the author, what was her purpose/motivation for writing, and what was the historical context for her book? Discuss any other information you think is important or relevant to identifying bias and understanding in Stowe’s novel.
  • How did Stowe portray slave women’s lives? Identify any inconsistencies or similarities between her portrayal and the information in the narratives you read.

Assessment

Compare and contrast Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of African American slave women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin with what you learned about those women through their own words.

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