Returning Southern History to the Victims It Consumed

Not only is the history of slavery a controversial topic, but there’s also a generational debate over if it’s a subject of current conversations. Millennials insist they discuss slavery over happy hour Cosmopolitans intermingled between banter about climate change and dating apps. Baby Boomers fold their arms, put on their neutral pouty faces, and reroute the subject to tales of their nose-picking grandchildren or over-sharing recounts of their recent hip replacement. However, the worst denier is public education. Overtly racially segregated schools are gone, yet Southern history classes avoid the sinister core of the topic by falsifying narratives to whitewash the facts surrounding their ancestor’s prosperity while dwelling on the Civil War’s destruction of the Confederacy.

In her article, “History Class and the Fictions About Race in America,” Alia Wong notes that McGraw Hill attempted to soften the reality of the Atlantic Slave Trade. One of the company’s ninth-grade world-geography textbooks claimed that it “brought millions of workers from Africa to the Southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” As if they were migrant laborers instead of innocent victims subjugated to systematic kidnapping, inhumane conveyance and torturous existences at the cruel hands of their chivalrous captors. Wong also notes that the results of a national poll show that 41% of Americans do not “identify slavery” as the cause of the Civil War. This combination of active erasure and denial are to blame for the Southerners tendency to rationalize slavery altogether. Fluttering dismissals of “states’ rights” and “agrarian economies” remove the speaker from the truths in need of realistic representation.

However, nonfiction serves Southern culture with a subpoena to slavery’s realities. In “Who Writes the Fiction of Slavery?,” Steve McCondichie asserts that “the fiction of slavery is best written by those innately vested in traditional African customs, stories, and sayings.” Not only can one apply this sentiment to fiction but—and more importantly—to nonfiction, too. Whenever conversations of slavery do occur, the idea of reparation becomes an issue. How does a culture that benefited from the oppression of others begin the process of restoring dignity and relations? One vital method is giving history back to the descendants of the oppressed, hearing it uninterrupted, and accepting its impact upon the Southern culture in full.

Two memoirs do just that. Authored by slaves, these works broaden the rendering of a slave’s life. A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, written by slave Paul Jennings, documents events through the eyes of President Madison’s lifelong servant. 12 Years a Slave, written by Solomon Northup and the basis for the 2014 Oscar winning film, delves into Northup’s journey from freedom to twelve years of enslavement to becoming a freedman again. While each memoir offers their readers a rare account of the lives of slaves, they provide two distinct perspectives.

Though a memoir, Jennings narrates A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison primarily with a third-person omniscient point-of-view. While he occasionally asserts his existence within the surrounding events, his focus lies on his master. Within the memoir, Jennings, a slave from birth who served Madison until the president’s death, serves more as an obedient recorder than as a human being The reader seldom experiences Jennings’s thoughts or emotions, offering only occasional reminders of himself. He documents Madison’s habits, mannerisms, and routines. The reader knows of the raging Revolutionary War, Madison’s close relationship with Thomas Jefferson, and the political climate surrounding the White House during Madison’s presidency. But, the reader has few glimpses into Jennings rigorous domestication and the compliance of his enslaved mind.

12 Years a Slave paints a more vivid picture of the suffering endured by slaves. Having had the privilege of enjoying freedom in New York for thirty years, the reader receives an intimate description of the cruelty experienced by Northup as he’s yanked from freedom, enslaved, and broken by his captors. His descriptions regarding captivity send an ominous message to the writers of history today. The “oppressive silence” created by hiding the realities of slavery keep the oppressed and their descendants “shut out from the sweet light of liberty for many a weary year.” Though Northup never becomes the one-dimensional, bland fixture portrayed by Jennings’s writing, he still shows awareness of the “thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear.”

Though dissimilar, each places the pen back in the hands of the victim, but not the defeated. They allow readers to dissect the author’s words for themselves. Unlike faulty textbooks, Northup and Jennings take the power of history into their own hands, providing a genuine portrayal. Public schools teach The Diary of Anne Frank year after year, allowing her death, and all the victims of the Holocaust, proper remembrance. The South should take responsibility in doing the same for African Americans.