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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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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
When the founding fathers affirmed their commitment to the inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in 1776, they opted not to struggle with the troubling question of how slavery fit into this ideal. But the contradiction inherent in the legally sanctioned enslavement of four million people in a country ostensibly founded on principles of freedom eventually became too discomfiting to ignore. By the mid-nineteenth century, the conflict over slavery had reached a crisis point, creating irresolvable tensions among the North, the South, and the West. In Abraham Lincoln's words, the nation had become as a "house divided against itself," embroiled in a domestic struggle that threatened to destroy the union. Many Americans concluded that the only solution lay in transforming American culture, and writers, both black and white, responded by creating a revolutionary literature committed to the overthrow of slavery. Autobiographies by former slaves, polemical speeches and editorials, and sentimental novels confronted their audiences with powerful narratives of the cruelty and destructiveness of slavery. These anti-slavery texts had overt designs upon their readers, using emotional rhetoric and didacticism to call the American populace to action in the interests of social reform. Anti-slavery literature also had the important effect of exposing the arbitrary nature of racial distinctions, thus challenging prejudices that had long been used to justify discrimination and inequality. Unit 7, "Slavery and Freedom," explores representations of race and identity in a wide variety of American texts, including the Sorrow Songs, which were developed communally within slave culture, and works composed by Briton Hammon, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, William Craft, Lorenzo Asisara, and Helen Hunt Jackson. The institution of slavery is often understood as a phenomenon limited to the antebellum period in the South. In fact, slavery existed in many other historical periods and geographical locations in America, including the northern colonies (mostly, though not exclusively, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and in California, where Anglos and Hispanic Californios enslaved Native Americans. Unit 7 includes materials about Native American enslavement in order to add another dimension to students' understanding of slavery. This unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers both challenged traditional myths about America and helped to create new national ideals.

The video for Unit 7 focuses on three influential abolitionist texts. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs's autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin all participate in the effort to convince readers slavery was unjust, but adopt very different rhetorical strategies to appeal to their audiences. Drawing on a variety of literary conventions, these texts expose the way race, gender, and social position inflect their writers' distinct approaches to the abolitionist cause.

Frederick Douglass's autobiography chronicles his early experiences of oppression, his rebellion, and his eventual heroic achievement of a fully liberated sense of self and identity. Emphasizing the importance of literacy and active resistance, he recasts the American myth of the "self-made man" to include African Americans. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs modifies the conventions of the masculine slave narrative to chart her own life. Focusing on the specific plight of women held in slavery--and particularly on the sexual exploitation they often endured--her autobiography both appropriates and challenges the discourse of sentimentality. Situated squarely within the sentimental tradition, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin unabashedly appeals to readers' emotions with affective scenes of pathos and tragedy. The novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies, bringing the abolitionist cause to the forefront of American consciousness.

In its coverage of these influential writers and texts, the video introduces students to the complexities of antebellum debates about slavery and race and foregrounds the relationship between literature and social reform. How do these texts critique an entrenched, racist ideology of white superiority? How do they recast American ideals of liberty and self-determination to include African Americans? What rhetorical strategies do they employ to effect social reform? How do they work within the constraints of literary and social conventions and yet still assert unique perspectives? Unit 7 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their nineteenth-century cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video's introduction to slavery and identity by exploring writers who articulated other, diverse experiences, such as Lorenzo Asisara (a Native American enslaved on a Franciscan Mission in California), Briton Hammon (an African American who endured both slavery in America and captivity among the Spanish), William Craft (a fugitive slave who escaped by disguising his wife as a white man), and many others.

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts and stylistic conventions that shaped their texts: (1) the ideals of femininity and domesticity that shaped nineteenth-century women's lives; (2) the dynamic creole culture that African American slaves created out of the adversity of their situation; (3) slave strategies of rebellion and resistance; (4) the issue of "miscegenation"; and (5) the mythology of the plantation.

The archive and the curriculum materials suggest how these authors and texts relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How do antebellum African American autobiographies adapt and modify earlier literary traditions, such as the captivity narrative and the spiritual autobiography? How does the slave narrative provide a foundation for a rich tradition of African American writing, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Toni Morrison? How does abolitionist discourse revise enlightenment rhetoric from the revolutionary period? How does enslavement of Native Americans in nineteenth-century California resonate with sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century discrimination against Indians? How and why has race remained a constant and controversial issue in American culture and literature?

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