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

7. Slavery and

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Who's Interviewed:
Nina Baym, general editor, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Frederick Douglass IV, great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass; John Carlos Rowe, professor of English and comparative literature (University of California, Irvine); Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and African American studies (University of California, Los Angeles); Rafia Zafar, director of African and African American studies (Washington University)

Points Covered:
• The video explains the development of a slave-based plantation economy in the American South and northern abolitionist opposition to slavery.

• Students will be introduced to the tradition of slave autobiographies and abolitionist fiction, literature which powerfully engaged readers' emotions in order to create social change. Abolitionist literature was instrumental in propelling the nation into the Civil War.

• Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) generated a great deal of attention and sympathy for the abolitionist cause. Thematizing the importance of literacy and active resistance, his narrative recasts the American myth of the "self-made man" to include African Americans.

• With Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs wrote the first female-authored slave narrative published in the United States. Focusing on the specific plight of enslaved African American women, her autobiography uses the discourse of sentimentality to appeal to a white female readership.

• Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin took the nation by storm in 1852. Unabashedly sentimental, the novel reflects Stowe's goal of making northerners actually feel the pain of enslaved African Americans. Although Stowe's use of racist stereotypes makes her story problematic for modern readers, Uncle Tom's Cabin was enormously important in generating support for the abolitionist cause in the nineteenth century.

• The writings of antebellum African Americans transformed the genre of autobiography in the United States and created the foundation for a rich tradition of African American literature.

• Preview the video: In the early and mid-nineteenth century, America found itself increasingly divided over the volatile issue of slavery. The economy and cultural traditions of the southern states continued to depend on the institution of slave labor, while northern opposition to the destructive nature of the "peculiar institution" reached new heights. Determined to free the country from the blight of slavery, white and African American abolitionists wrote to generate public support for liberty and equality. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs published powerful autobiographical accounts of their experiences as slaves and their decisions to escape, helping to develop the genre of the slave narrative in the process. Harriet Beecher Stowe mobilized the literary tradition of sentimentality to further the abolitionist cause in her blockbuster novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. A highly emotional - and sometimes racist-story of the tragedy of slavery and the power of Christian sacrifice, Uncle Tom's Cabin brought the issue of African American slavery to the forefront of American consciousness. All three of these writers profoundly influenced subsequent developments in American literature and offer important insight into how literature can both reflect and produce social change.

• What to think about while watching: What abuses of slavery do these writers bring to their readers' attention? What rhetorical strategies do they adopt to encourage their audience to support the abolitionist cause? How do race and gender influence their writing? How do the writers and texts explored in the video both transform traditional American myths and ideals as well as shape new ones? How have their efforts influenced American culture and literature?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 7 expands on the issues outlined in the video to explore further the evolution of American attitudes toward race and slavery in the nineteenth century. The curriculum materials offer background on abolitionist, African American, and Native American writers and texts not featured in the video. The unit offers contextual background to expand on the video's introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped the literature of social protest and racial consciousness in the nineteenth century.

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