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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Activities: Author Activities

Lydia Maria Child - Teaching Tips

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  • Child composed her "Reply" within the context of her defense of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry. Since some students might be unfamiliar with this incident, you should provide them with the historical background. Brown was a white man who was committed to eradicating slavery by whatever means necessary--including violent resistance and aggression. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a group of about twenty followers (including five black men) crossed from Maryland to Virginia in an attempt to take over the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Their goal was to set up a base from which to organize, arm, and support slave insurrections throughout the South.

    While Brown and his group managed to take the arsenal by surprise and seize several hostages, the Virginia militia quickly responded to defend the arsenal. By the morning of October 18, Brown's men had killed four people and wounded nine, while the Virginia militia had killed ten of Brown's group (including two of his sons) and captured seven (including Brown). Convicted of treason against the state and conspiracy to incite insurrection, Brown was hanged on December 2 at Charlestown, Virginia.

    Although he failed to achieve his immediate purpose at Harpers Ferry, Brown succeeded in becoming a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Throughout the North, people responded with sympathy and admiration for Brown's action; Ralph Waldo Emerson even called him a "new saint." Southern commentators, on the other hand, declared him a "hoary-headed murderer." John Brown's raid, occurring as it did on the eve of the Civil War, became a touchstone for the conflicts that divided North and South.

    After giving your students this background, you might ask them to stage a debate or mock trial of Brown (perhaps drawing some of their arguments from "Mrs. Child's Reply"). Ask some of the class to work as prosecutors, some as defenders, and some as the jury.

  • In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, African American writer Alice Walker argues that sometimes women's traditions are best represented by nonverbal artistry, such as quilts. For slave women who never wrote their narratives, quilts became a way to record their histories. These quilts were made from discarded scraps of material and clothing. Some quilts communicated messages in a straightforward way: for example, members of the Underground Railroad hung quilts with the color black on clotheslines to indicate a safe house. Other quilts were subtler. Like authors of slave narratives, African American quilters also used biblical references in their quilts. Ask students to examine the quilts featured in the archive. What stories are being told in them? How do the quilts draw on and transform biblical stories? How do these quilts compare to the written narratives of slavery included in this unit?

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