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Why I write about slavery

by dan on February 25, 2011

A few days ago, I recieved an interesting email through this website.  Debra wrote, “First, honestly and exactly what is your true motivation for having chosen to study slavery in American? Second, what is your religion and the background of your American and European ancestors? Third, should you be unwilling to honestly answer my two aforementioned  questions, I’ll have my answers anyway.  Peace!” 

Debra is not the first to ask this question.  A few weeks ago, Kwaku in New Orleans sent me an email saying, “your efforts are simply the expropriation of the long and hard efforts to usurp and idea and make it palatable to the dominate White Power Structure of Louisiana…. I understand…  just why you were able to get such media coverage, especially from long entities of White Supremacy & Racism like The Times Picayune.”  And in a comment on this blog, Karl writes, “I’m curious about the seeming disconnect about your own privileged station, your elite education, your easy path to success, and the theme of revolt you’re promoting.”

So why am I writing about slavery as a 24-year-old white male born in Washington, DC?  Is there some contradiction or hypocrisy – or as Debra and Kwaku suggest – some hidden agenda in my writing about the heroes of the 1811 revolt?

I don’t think so.  I am a historian interested in American history – in the past of this nation in which I grew up and love.  And I have chosen to write about that history through the lens of slavery, a lens through which the true color and drama and good and evil in this country’s past are brought into sharpest relief.  I believe history shouldn’t be segregated and that, white or black, we are all Americans and should know the truths about our past. 

My favorite movie growing up was Braveheart, and I fell in love with stories of men and women fighting for freedom and justice in the face of great oppression. And when I happened upon the story of the 1811 rebels, I knew I had found the perfect topic to write about – a story of real American heroes whose actions stood as a testament to the best ideals of this country and yet were tortured and executed for their beliefs in those ideals.  I see Charles Deslondes and Kook and Quamana as important figures in American history (not just black history or slave history) who students should learn about just as they learn about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  All of these men are part of the story of America, and we cannot understand who we are today without facing those contradictions. Black or white, rich or poor, young or old, I believe these stories matter and that you cannot truly understand our past without reckoning with the politics of the enslaved and with the story of the 1811 revolt. 

I think my generation thinks about these issues differently than our parents generation or their parents generation.  When I think about America, I don’t only think about white politicians, but about the full spectrum of the men and women that made up this country.  And the reality is that much of this country’s wealth was built on slave labor – cotton accounted for the majority of US exports from 1800 through 1935.  Jean-Noel Destrehan noted that without chattel slavery, “cultivation must cease, the improvements of a century be destroyed, and the great river resume its empire over our ruined fields and demolished habitations.”  New Orleans – and the country at large – would not be what it is today without the political, social, and economic contributions of enslaved men and women.

And so I think we need to move past segregated histories, to acknowlege and celebrate the accomplishments of Americans of all hues.  Learning the stories of the martyrs of 1811 and acknowledging their contribution to America is just one small step in that direction.

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