Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On Teaching American Slavery, American Freedom (sort of) in Hungary

As promised last week, I want to say a little bit about teaching Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom while in Hungary this past semester.  Professor Morgan passed away recently, and this got me to thinking about that book of his in particular.
     Have you heard of this book, dear reader?  Professor Morgan usually wrote about New England Puritans in colonial North America, and ASAF is, therefore, an aberration.  It is about colonial Virginia, and aims at figuring out this paradox: how did harsh, race slavery and greater democracy develop in the same place at the same time?  One such place was Virginia in the 1600s and early 1700s.  How could both the shame and the pride of American history develop together?  
     Morgan answers the question by telling a long but engaging story.  The simple version is that before 1660, poor English and poor African servants were in many ways more alike than different.  Rich English planters perceived them as similar, and these poor English and Africans worked, forged relationships, and ran away together.  By 1705, however, that had changed.  By then, a clear and harsh racial hierarchy was more evident, in which even poor Englishmen had rights - to guns, to participation in government - that Africans did not.  What changed?  An obvious answer is Bacon's Rebellion, in 1676, in which a rebel army of poor English and African men was first victorious and then crushed by the army of the English hierarchy in Virginia.  After that, Morgan suggests, one can see the ideology of race growing alongside the political participation of formerly rebellious poor Englishmen.  The paradox becomes an explanation.  The raising of poor Englishmen's fortunes was accomplished in part by stripping rights from Africans.  Do you see the elegance of this explanation?
     Of course I have not done this 387-page book justice, but I hope you see part of the book's appeal here.  I found it utterly persuasive when I first read this book in my first year of graduate school.  This despite one mentor of mine calling ASAF the least good of all of Morgan's works, and another mentor of mine finding the book compelling, oh-so-well-written, but not quite believable.  I believed it then, and I still believe it, more or less.  I've read a number of things that have helped me add to or qualify Morgan's interpretation.  But I still find it really persuasive. 
     Did my Hungarian students find it so?
     First off, let me say that I found Hungarian students to be VERY interested in the history of race in America, and also in African-American history and Native American history.  These topics were quite popular.  Thus, my seminar on class and race in America had far more students than my seminar on political parties in the U.S.A.  Where I sometimes get the feeling in Oshkosh that students feel they've talked about race enough already, students in Pécs wanted more, more, more.  I think Pécs English majors actually talk about race and ethnicity quite a bit in their literature classes, but they did not feel they had exhausted the subject.  
     Curiously, I found Hungarian students quite reluctant to try to compare racial ideologies in Hungary and in the U.S.A.  While I did not suggest this to students, I quietly thought that popular ideas about the Roma and Jewish minorities in Hungary both in the past and the present could fairly be called racial ideologies, Hungarian students did not really make this connection themselves.  On the rare occasions this comparison did come up, my students generally saw these situations as quite unrelated, and saw the situation of Hungarian Roma, especially, as sui generis.  
     That said, my students tended to follow me in my enthusiasm for Morgan's explanation of racism in America.  This was especially so after stars appeared in my eyes and I explained that part of the idea's early appeal to me was this: if racism could be made in the seventeenth century, why then couldn't it be unmade in the twentieth and twenty-first?  Stars appeared in the eyes of my young, enthusiastic students as well.  After a few verses of Kumbaya, we went home.  I kid about the Kumbaya, but not the starry eyes. 
     I must confess that students did not read the original ASAF, but read a good historiographical account of the debate over early American race and slavery aimed at undergraduates and then listened to me wax eloquent about Morgan’s version of this story.  Still, this digested version proved very popular. 
     At the end of the race and class course, students had many questions, mostly about race in the U.S.A. today.  As I write this, the issue of race in the U.S.A. is particularly momentous, as attention has turned again to the case of Trayvon  Martin and George Zimmerman.  For our part, my Pécs students and I spent our last class talking informally about race in present-day America.  While I am an opinionated guy, I become quite tentative talking about the present while still wearing my history professor hat.  I am not tentative at all, though, about race in seventeenth century.  Although a serious student must read a number of sources for a more complete picture, I think Professor Morgan still has one of the best all-around explanations out there. 

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