Misinformed: How a 1918 Narrative Shapes Our Discussion of Slavery and Race Today

Historical knowledge does not exist independently of the historian’s interpretation. The fallacious obsession with the study of history as a series of empirical facts is entrenched in the primary and secondary education system of the United States. Students are taught a distorted history built on triumphalism and the biases of archaic historians. Slavery, in particular, is a victim of such narrow pedagogy, as Antebellum America’s central event is taught fragmented, sanitized, and without context (Shuster 15). To avoid the hard history of America slavery is to ignore the very institution that defined and limited the country’s principles; to remain ignorant of the foundation of American prosperity.

Diagram of a slave ship from the Transatlantic slave trade. 1790/1791. Part of an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791. For additional information, visit https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slave_ship_diagram.png

Confronting the United States’ legacy of racial injustice is paramount as the consequences of slavery continue to stunt the lives of Americans; and, with the surge of white nationalism, has become key in bridging the racial divide. And yet, the legacy of slavery has been distorted since its conception. At its root stands Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a turn of the century historian who became the predominant figure of slave historiography (Smith). His magnum opus, American Negro Slavery, defined the literature of slavery and established a long-lasting narrative that “still haunts us all” (Smith 138). The histories of Phillips, as the first works to analyze American slavery, defined the institution as a benevolent system between kind masters and grateful slaves – a framework void of white supremacy, brutality, and agency that appeals to American’s nostalgic accounts of historical progressiveness. Author Colson Whitehead approaches the nostalgic, and wholly inaccurate, histories rooted in the schemas of the American citizenry in his speculative fiction novel The Underground Railroad. The novel’s Museum of Natural Wonders serves as a testament to such ignorance which is perpetuated by the interpretations of historians. The protagonist Cora finds work in the museum as a living exhibit; as a living validation of the sanitized, guilt-free portrayal of African-American history. To the white visitors, the exhibit is a source of truth, however false, for it reaffirmed their place as the arm who raised the Africans from savagery. Whitehead’ inclusion of such a scene further suggests the lasting influence of Phillips’ works in the public sphere, despite having been rejected by modern scholars (Perkins 2). Nevertheless, the works of historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips — the grandfather of slave history – have manifested themselves in the lay world and throughout primary and secondary school education in the United States.

Written on a foundation of primary sources, American Negro Slavery was praised for its academic rigor. Such praise, however, is a testament to the biases of the day, as one of its biggest errors was the failure to identify and connect white supremacy to slavery. Instead, Phillips codified a moral, humanitarian motive, writing that “the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented” (Phillips). The system was not one of oppression nor brutality, but one of interdependence and cooperation between two unequals. The Southern Poverty Law Center reviewed twelve textbooks belonging to the largest publishing companies and only one of which mentioned white supremacy but determined its relationship with slavery to be undecided (Shuster 36). Poor textbooks, and state standards, have had damaging effects on students as only 39% of the 1200 surveyed were able to identify white supremacy as a product slavery – and to detrimental effects (Shuster 19). For in the United States, the issue of race is a legacy of African and Native enslavement; a direct result of a failure to analyze archaic race theories.

The notion of racial superiority is used to undermine the agency of the slave population, suggesting a sense of compliancy with the harsh conditions. Once more, the roots of such a thought can be found in the works of Phillips, who described slavery as a paternalistic institution, one that created an environment in which masters and slaves lived in peace and harmony (Smith 139). Moreover, Phillips presented that African-Americans were “…what a white man made [of them],” suggesting slaves were culturally empty and were forced to use their “imitative genius” (Phillips, Perkins 13). A few slaves, such as Nat Turner, are accredited in history textbooks as willing to revolt against the institution, but otherwise, textbooks leave the idea that slaves were unable, or did not want, to rebel (Dodge 79).  The modern indignation towards slavery bolsters such an idea because the normative assumption of the enslaved persons is that of an inanimate object, commodified by slavery, instead of deliberate actors in a dynamic system, which keeps students ignorant of the adaptive nature of the slave experience and the ways in which slaves were able to develop a culture admits a brutal world (Perkins 22). Moreover, modern conceptions of freedom may skew the perceived success of slave rebellion and resistance. To believe emancipation as the only purpose of resistance buttresses the harmful perception of slaves as solely objects, for it ignores a nuanced culture and enshrines the passivity spouted by Phillips. The education system disregards this historical paradigm in which all social action or cultural expression of the enslaved is already a form of resistance – a paradigm that grants humanistic qualities to persons more easily thought of as slaves (Shuster). Rather, histories should present the slave not as a static, objectified entity but “as a social figure that moves through various phases of expulsion, marginality, and reincorporation” (Rinehart 38). Such an approach would still acknowledge the commodified nature of a slave while asserting that the slave was not lifeless but a human capable of expression.

The lack of agency may be a result of American history being largely taught from the white experience. In the political realm, textbooks describe the period before the Civil War in terms of compromises between slavers and abolitionists; economically, the influence of cotton, the cotton gin, and the transatlantic slave trade are examined without reminders of the cost of such wealth; and socially, the differences between the varied experiences of white people – enslaver or abolitionist, North or South – and treat the lives of slaves as invariable (Shuster 18). The enslaved population are voiceless, with few primary sources and artifacts presented in textbooks and classrooms. Instead, there is a reliance on the historiography of white individuals who, despite a shift of focus onto the world of slaves, not the world created by the enslavers, rely on unreliable records of the past that limit the quality of knowledge produced through the biases of original sources (Perkins 11). Phillips, despite his blatant racism and temporary fall from grace, was revived in the 1960s amidst social tension and the rise of black nationalism by historian Eugene D. Genovese (5). Genovese built upon the model Phillips created and refined the idea of paternalism. The rehabilitation of Phillips’ works into the mainstream by Genovese continues to this day, as evident by the textbooks and worksheets given to contemporary students (Sitkoff 780).

Ulrich Bonnell Philips wrote American Negro Slavery in 1918, and yet its words, however racist or outdated, are still found in the textbooks and education system of the modern day. To Phillips, Genovese, and those who perpetuate the harmful narrative, a “useful delusion is better than a useless truth” (Whitehead 290). The misrepresentation of American slavery is a game of oppression and exploitation, as history is not simply the past, but also the present. The Americans of today carry with them the history of their country but fail to understand its legacy. And amidst the heighten division found in the current social climate of the United States, it is now, more than ever, important to confront the legacy of slavery that has long pervaded social discourse.

Works Cited

Costello, Maureen. “Teaching Hard History.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 31 Jan. 2018, www.splcenter.org/20180131/teaching-hard-history

Dodge, M. A. “The Search for Resistance: A Layperson’s Reflections on the Historiography of Slavery in the African Atlantic.” The History Teacher, vol. 47, no. 1, 2013, pp. 77–90. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43264186.

Perkins, William E.  “Afro-American Slavery: Notes on New Trends in Theory & Research,” Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 3 , Article 3, 2008

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. “American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime.” Gutenberg, 6 Oct. 2018, www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11490/pg11490-images.html.

Rinehart, Nicholas T. “The Man That Was a Thing: Reconsidering Human Commodification in Slavery.” Journal of Social History, vol. 50, no. 1, Fall 2016, pp. 28–50. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/jsh/shv129.

Sitkoff, Harvard. “The Journal of American History.” The Journal of American History, vol. 73, no. 3, 1986, pp. 780–780. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1903057.

Smith, John David. “The Construction of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’s Interpretation of Slavery.” American Studies Journal, no. 45, 2000, pp. 4–10., www.asjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/ASJ45.pdf.

Smith, John David. “The Historiographic Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 2, 1981, pp. 138–153. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40580765.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Anchor Books, 2016.