TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACE RELATIONS IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution:  the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy

 

SUBJECTS — U.S.:  all time periods & Diversity/African-American and World: The Enlightenment and all time periods thereafter;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights, Justice; and

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect.

2021; 2 minutes, 10 seconds; Color. The interview is available above or by clicking here, the audio version can be accessed by clicking here.

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The video on which this Learning Guide is based consists of a statement by Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy during an interview by Fahreed Zakaria that aired on the program “Global Public Square”, CNN, December 26, 2021.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Awards:  N/A

Cast: Randall Kennedy.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

Professor Kennedy’s analysis that the United States has both a racist tradition and a countervailing tradition of respect and equal opportunity is insightful and constructive. The discussions and assignments suggested by this Learning Guide explore Professor Kennedy’s analysis and, also, provide an introduction to the concept of tradition.

This Learning Guide also introduces an important irony of history: while the American Revolution of 1776 was based on a declaration that liberty was an “inalienable Right,” and the Constitution of 1783 was intended to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” both were based on a bargain, required by the Founding Fathers from the Southern states and acceded to by the Northerners, that the institution of slavery would be protected in the new United States.  An understanding of this bargain will give students new insight into race relations in the United States. It will also provide them with a more nuanced understanding of the history of the late 1700s and of the contributions of the Founding Fathers, particularly George Washington, to the cause of representative democracy in the U.S. and throughout the world.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

None.

PARENTING POINTS

Read Professor Kennedy’s statement or watch the interview.

Discuss the concept of tradition with your children.  Give examples of the two traditions described by Professor Kennedy that you have witnessed, experienced, or read about.  Ask your children to share any similar experiences or knowledge. Then, perhaps on another day, discuss the meaning of ironyTell your children that in 1772, just four years before the American Revolution, slavery was abolished in Great Britain.   Describe the compromise among the American revolutionaries that allowed slavery to continue in the new U.S.   See A Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: The Sacrifice of Freedom for the Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy, below.

Professor Kennedy’s Statement

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

“I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So, we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexity of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

“So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.”   From Global Public Square, interview by Fareed Zakaria, December 26, 2021.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

Two Traditions

A tradition is an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior such as a social custom or a religious practice. Traditions are reinforced each time someone acts in accordance with its requirements.   Traditions are confirmed by positive social inputs, such as increasing a sense of belonging or unity with family or larger groups.  Traditions are often associated with celebrations.  One tradition in the U.S. occurs every fourth of July when Americans celebrate the independence of the U.S.  Traditions are enforced by social and often legal controls.  People who don’t comply with traditions are often the subject of disapproval by their families, friends and associates, or by the general public. In some cases, traditions are enforced with legal sanctions.  Examples of traditions being enforced by law are: the Jim Crow laws, now repealed, that formerly enforced the racist tradition and, as to the tradition of respect and equal opportunity, the current anti-discrimination laws that impose civil liability for damages on those who discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or sex in employment, housing, and public accommodations. There are also criminal sanctions for injuring someone because of their race.

Racism and prejudice are a strong tradition in American culture.  Their lash has been felt by African Americans and also by Native Americans, Latinex Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Arab Americans, etc. However, the tremendous alternative tradition of respect and equality of opportunity for all is not only exemplified by the important positions held  by African Americans mentioned by Professor Kennedy, it is a tradition that includes: the abolitionists; the Union Army which sustained more than 300,000 deaths of White soldiers in a war fought, in part, to free the slaves; the integration of the armed forces in 1948; the Civil Rights Movement; the millions of African Americans who have gained entrance to the middle class; laws designed to protect Americans from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations; and the hundreds of thousands mixed race marriages each year.1.

No society is perfect and no rational person would deny that there is extensive work to be done to eradicate racism from modern-day America. However, it does appear to be correct that there are two rival American traditions: one of prejudice and racism that is evil, but receding over time (with some periods of backlash), and another of respect and equal opportunity for all, that increases in strength as time goes on (again with some periods of backsliding).  This is a helpful way to describe part of the history and culture of the United States.

Some Continuing Effects of the Racist Tradition

This is a large topic beyond the scope of this Learning Guide.  However, here are a few salient points.

  • “A close examination of wealth in the U.S. finds evidence of staggering racial disparities. At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016. Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens.” 2.
  • There is also a substantial gap in educational opportunity and outcomes between Black and White students.
  • In addition, there are also substantial differences in health outcomes for Blacks and Whites in the United States.3.

A Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: The Sacrifice of Freedom for the Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy

“Irony” is a situation or an event that is the opposite or contrary to what is expected.

We would not expect that the first modern revolution based on a desire for liberty, which claimed that all men are created equal, and which installed a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would have been based on a compromise (sometimes called, “the dirty compromise”) that allowed the institution of slavery to continue.

However, that is what occurred.

In the mid-1700s, the movement to abolish slavery in England was starting to gain traction.  In 1772, just four years before the Declaration of Independence, the English Court of King’s Bench, in Somersett’s Case, ruled that in Britain no person, specifically no Black person, could be held in bondage. Somersett’s  Case abolished slavery in England and by 1774 resulted in the freedom of between 10,000 and 15,000 English slaves.  Unfortunately, the Somersett ruling did not apply to the colonies.  However, plantation owners in the American South learned about Somersett’s Case and saw the handwriting on the wall: eventually slavery would be banned in the British Colonies as well.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted in 1776, says,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .

The draft Declaration submitted by Thomas Jefferson to the Continental Congress included language denouncing King George  of Great Britain for the transatlantic slave-trade.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

Delegates from the Southern colonies insisted that this paragraph be removed. There is no mention of slavery or the many enslaved Africans in the Declaration, direct or indirect, except for the complaint that King George had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.”

The Northern colonies were complicit in slavery.  Sailing ships out of Northern ports participated in the transatlantic slave trade.  Newport, Philadelphia and New York City were major disembarkation points for slaves who survived the Middle Passage.  The North purchased goods produced by the African slaves.  Some Northern states had not insignificant slave populations.

Free Blacks and Slaves: Distribution in the Northern States, 1790

However, in the 1780s some Americans, particularly Northerners, were joining the growing rejection of slavery in Britain.    By the time of the Constitutional

Convention of 1787, six Northern states had passed laws abolishing slavery: two had outlawed slavery outright, Vermont in 1777 and Massachusetts in 1783; and  four states had passed gradual abolition statutes: Pennsylvania (1780), New Hampshire (1783), Connecticut (1784) and Rhode Island (1784).

In response, Southern patriots insisted on building into the new constitution protections for slavery and guarantees for the political power of the Southern states. For example, the infamous “3/5ths rule” provided that 3/5ths of “all other persons,” (meaning slaves) would be counted for the purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives, even though the only persons actually casting votes would be White.  This also gave Southern White voters more power in the Electoral College in which the votes of each state are determined based on the number of their representatives in Congress (House of Representatives and Senate).  Amendment of the Constitution required the votes of 2/3rds of the members of both houses of Congress and approval by three-quarters of the States.  These majorities could not be obtained without Southern participation.  Another example was that the Constitution prohibited Congress from banning the importation of slaves for 20 years.  These provisions were insisted upon by delegates from the Southern colonies to protect slavery.  Some of them also protected the interests of the smaller states against the more populous states but the protection of slavery was a primary goal of these provisions. Finkelman, Chapter One.   Note to teachers:  Discussion Question # 2, below, refers to the history outlined above.

Had the Founding Fathers from the Northern colonies not agreed to protections for slavery in the new United States, the Southern colonists would most certainly not have joined the rebellion.  Without the whole-hearted support from the Southern patriots, the Revolutionary War would have been lost.

Thus, the bargain was struck, implicitly perhaps, but struck nonetheless back in 1776.  The Northern colonists joined with the Southerners in rebellion knowing that there would be slavery in the new country.  As the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 show, the delegates from the Northern states acceded to demands from the Southerners that protections for slavery be built into the country’s governing document. In addition, the Constitution required the approval of nine states before it came into force.  There were five Southern states (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia). Thus, at least one Southern state had to approve adoption of the Constitution in order for the new government to be established. Since the Constitution was not all that popular in some of the Northern states, the importance of the Southern states in the adoption of the Constitution was critical.

The American Revolution was the first rebellion in which the people demanded a representative democratic government. Since 1783, inspired by the success of the United States, countries in many different parts of the world, through revolution or by gradual reform, have adopted representative forms of government.  It is one of the ironies of history that the great achievements of modern representative democracy, both in the United States and throughout the world, have been based on a compromise that continued the enslavement of millions of African Americans.

It can truly be said that freedom for the African-American slaves was sacrificed on the altar of representative democracy.   Thus, all persons living in representative democracies have a unique and special relationship with African Americans.

What was the cost? Slavery continued in the U.S. from the American victory in the Revolutionary War in 1783 until passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, some 80 years. During that time millions of African Americans were forced to endure brutal working conditions, poor living conditions, and abuse by Whites who claimed to own them.  During that time many slaves died;  families were often separated; slaves who resisted were branded, whipped, tortured, maimed, and occasionally executed; the value of the slaves’ work was stolen from them year after year; they were not allowed to live up to their potential; and all of this was added to the horrors of the Middle Passage and the hundreds of years of slavery that had gone before.

American slavery was based on race and it fostered the tradition of racism, including the Jim Crow customs and laws that were in force from the 1870s until the 1960s, another 100 years.  This extended the tradition of prejudice leading to the lack of educational and economic opportunity,  poor health outcomes, etc. from which many African Americans suffer to this day.   Some of these effects appear to be based on poverty and are the same as the effects of poverty on other groups.  However, the relative poverty of African Americans is itself is based upon the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Many African-American families and individuals have, by virtue of their hard work, intelligence, and talent, escaped the effects of the racist tradition and exemplify participation in the tradition of respect and equal opportunity.  These include Vice-President Kamala Harris, Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, as well as the millions of African-Americans who have entered the professions and the middle class.

And there was another cost.  The Founding Fathers’  “dirty compromise,” or in Biblical terms their “bargain with the Devil,” set up the Civil War of 1861-1865 in which more than 600,000 American soldiers lost their lives.

The sacrifice of freedom for the slaves to create a new government designed to secure the “blessings of Liberty,” was truly a “tragic irony.”

Slavery and the Founding Fathers

From time immemorial until the 19th century many societies practiced slavery.   It was only in the mid-1700s that Western Society began its 100-year process of developing a consensus condemning slavery. From the standpoint of the 20th and 21st centuries, it seems elemental that slavery is a crime.  However, that was not clear in the 18th Century when the Founding Fathers  were demanding independence from Great Britain and looking for models of representative government.  The Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the democracy of ancient Athens and the Senate of ancient Rome.  However, both of those societies permitted slavery and their economies, like the economy of the American South, were based on slavery.

George Washington is truly the father of our country.  His wise leadership was essential to the success of the American Revolution, creation of  the U.S. government, and setting that government on a firm footing.  He was foremost among the Founding Fathers.   In addition, George Washington was one of the most admirable and remarkable men in all of history in that he voluntarily relinquished power twice:  first when he resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army after the success of the Revolutionary War and a second time when he declined to run for a third term as President.  This was almost without precedence in history. (The Roman general Cincinnatus is the exception that proves the rule.)  Washington began and modeled traditions in American government that have served the country well, including the supremacy of civilian leaders over the military and the tradition that presidents will only serve two terms. The American Revolution set the stage for the creation of all representative democratic governments that have come since.  The leadership and wisdom of Washington has been of great benefit to all men and women who have lived in countries governed by representative governments since the eighteenth century.

George Washington knew the arguments against slavery.  He read newspapers with great attention.  Three of Washington’s favorite young officers from his wartime headquarters staff, Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, and John Laurens, opposed slavery.   Laurens, the son of the largest slave-owner in South Carolina, had served not only in the Continental Army but also as a special minister to France.  He was unfortunately killed in one of the last skirmishes of the Revolutionary War.   Laurens was an anti-slavery crusader during his short life and would undoubtedly have continued to oppose slavery had he lived. But, the sad truth is that most of the Founding Fathers accepted slavery as an institution and failed to oppose it.  While Washington never criticized slavery publicly, in private letters he expressed his distaste for the institution: “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].” Letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786.4.

Knowing that most Southerners demanded that slavery continue, Washington was unwilling to sacrifice his first love, the American Revolution and the world’s first modern representative government, in order to abolish slavery. In addition, Washington benefitted financially from slavery.  He was unwilling to reduce his style of living and that of Martha Washington by freeing the slaves on his plantations while he was alive.

With an eye on the judgment of posterity, in his will, Washington required that upon the death of his wife, the slaves over which he exercised dominion would be freed.  He also set up a trust fund to assist in their adjustment to life free of bondage.

Thus, Washington, knowing the arguments against slavery, for his entire adult life committed what is today considered to be a monstrous crime.

Note that there were a few, a very few, of the Founders who were not reconciled to the continuation of slavery.  Benjamin Franklin, second only to Washington in stature among the colonists, who secured the intervention of France in the Revolutionary War, and who was instrumental in securing the compromises that allowed the Constitutional Convention to succeed, had owned a slave as a young man.  He also printed advertisements for slave auctions in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.  However, Franklin turned against slavery toward the end of his life.  After the adoption of the Constitution, he petitioned Congress to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency [of slavery] from the Character of the American People,” and to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.”  He also wrote anti-slavery essays and became President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.  And, there was Alexander Hamilton who opposed slavery, but like all the Founding Fathers, went along with “the dirty bargain,” “the bargain with the Devil,” of allowing the Southern states to maintain slavery and placing protections for slavery into the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the immortal credo of the American Revolution which has inspired men and women all over the world, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” owned some 600 slaves during his lifetime. This is a stunning indictment.  However, it should also be noted that legitimated by the success of the American Revolution and the Constitution, the words written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence have been a tremendous force for good in the world.

It is also worthy of note that nine of the eleven succeeding presidents: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor, owned slaves.

So, how do we judge George Washington, Jefferson, and the Founding Fathers in light of their actions in protecting the curse of slavery and in condoning all of the evil that slavery entails?   The answer, as Professor Kennedy says, is complicated.  People are creatures of their times. The same personality can incorporate both good and evil. The Founding Fathers were advanced thinkers when it came to understanding that democratic representative government was the proper way to rule a county; they were not advanced, and, in fact, behind Great Britain, with respect to slavery.  The Founders should be honored for the immense good that they did for America and for all of humanity in promoting the ideals of liberty and equality, in challenging the legitimacy of royal rule, and in establishing the first republican government of the modern era.  However, we should acknowledge their failings, chief among them the acceptance of slavery. So, all of our admiration and thanks to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other Southern Founding Fathers is tempered by the knowledge that they profited from slavery.  And for all of the Founding Fathers, our respect is tempered by the realization that they agreed to protect slavery and sacrifice the freedom of millions of people for the purpose of creating the United States.

America’s system of slavery was race-based and spawned prejudice against African Americans.  This led to 100 years of Jim Crow after the 13th Amendment and, in some parts of society, racial prejudice ever since.  Thus, today, even more than 150 years after Emancipation,  due in large part to the sacrifice imposed on the slaves to ensure Southern participation in the Revolution and Southern support for the Constitution, some of our fellow Americans still suffer from the compromise that kept their ancestors in chains for an additional 80 years.

A List of Famous Slave Revolts

Here is a list of some of the more famous slave revolts: Gabriel’s Rebellion of 1800;  the 1733 St. John Insurrection, Denmark Vesey’s Revolt; Nat Turner’s Rebellion;  the Baptist War (Samuel Sharpe); the Zanj Rebellion; the Haitian Rebellion (Toussaint Louverture); Gaspar Yagna’s Rebellion; the Stono Rebellion; the 1811 German Coast Uprising; the New York Conspiracy of 1741; Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800; the Gloucester County Conspiracy  (also known as the Servants’ Plot or Birkenhead’s Rebellion); and the New York Slave Revolt of 1712.

African Americans Who Have Made Notable Contributions to American Society

These lists are not complete. Nor are they in any order of priority.

African-American Abolitionists:  Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, Harriet Tubman, Richard Allen, John Brown Russwurm, James Forten, Prince Hall, Henry Highland Garnet, and Martin R. Delany.

Civil Rights Movement Leaders:  Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, James Lawson; Megdar Evers, Bryan Stevenson,  Rosa Parks, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins,  Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Church Terrell, Walter F. White, Dorothy Height, Charles Hamilton Houston, and James Weldon Johnson.   (White Leaders with an impact on the African-American CommunityAbraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Schuyler Colfax Jr., and Thaddeus Stevens.)

Other Accomplished African Americans:   Barak Obama (President, community organizer, 1961 – ), Kamala Harris (Vice-President, 1964 – ); Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State, 1954 – ), Lloyd J. Austin III (general and Secretary of Defense, 1953 – ), Colin Powell (general and Secretary of State, 1937 – 2021), Ketanji Brown Jackson (Supreme Court Associate Justice, 1970 – ),  Clarence Thomas (Supreme Court Associate Justice, 1948 – ), Vivien Thomas (surgeon, 1910-1985), The Three Lady Computers at NASA (Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson); Hank Aaron (athlete: 1934-2021),  Ira Aldridge (actor, 1807-1867), Muhammad Ali (boxer, 1942-2016), Marian Anderson (entertainer, 1897-1993), Maya Angelou (poet, 1928-2014), Arthur Ashe (athlete, 1943-1993), James Baldwin (writer, 1924-1987), Benjamin Banneker (mathematician and astronomer, 1731-1806), Amiri Baraka (writer, previously known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, 1934-2014), Romare Bearden (visual artist, 1911-1988), Mary McLeod Bethune (educator, philanthropist, humanitarian, feminist and civil rights activist, 1875-1955), Guion Bluford (aerospace engineer, astronaut,1942 – ), Arna Bontemps (poet, 1902-1973), Edward W. Brooke (politician, 1919-2015), Gwendolyn Brooks (poet, 1917-2000), Blanche K. Bruce (politician, plantation owner, 1841-1898), Ralph Bunche (diplomat, 1903-1971), George Washington Carver (scientist, inventor, educator,  1864-1943) Shirley Chisholm (politician, 1924-2005), Kenneth B. Clark (educator, psychologist, 1914-2005), John Henrik Clarke (historian, educator, 1915-1998), John Coltrane (saxophonist, composer, 1926-1967), Alexander Crummell (minister, academic and African nationalist, 1819-1898), Countee Cullen (poet, novelist, children’s writer, playwright 1903-1946), Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (general, 1912-2002), Charles Drew (surgeon1904-1950), W. E. B. Du Bois (sociologist, historian, 1868-1963), Paul Laurence Dunbar (author, 1872-1906), Katherine Dunham (dancer, choreographer, 1909-2006), Duke Ellington (musician, 1899-1974), John Hope Franklin (historian, educator, 1915-2009), Lorraine Hansberry (playwright, 1930-1965), Matthew Henson (explorer, 1866-1955), Langston Hughes (poet, 1901-1967), Zora Neale Hurston (author, filmmaker, anthropologist, 1891-1960),  Mae Jemison (engineer, physician, astronaut, 1956 -), Jack Johnson (boxer, 1878-1946), John H. Johnson, Percy Julian (scientist, inventor, 1899 – 1975), Ernest Just (biologist, academic and science writer, 1883 – 1941), Maulana Karenga (educator, activist, 1941 – ), Edmonia Lewis (sculptor, 1844 – 1907), Alain Locke (author, philosopher, educator, patron of the arts 1885 –    1954),  Joe Louis (boxer, 1914 – 1981), Benjamin E. Mays (minister, activist,  1894 – 1994), Elijah McCoy  (engineer, inventor 1844-1929), Claude McKay (author, poet, 1890 – 1948) Oscar Micheaux (author, film director, producer, 1884 – 1951), Dorie Miller (war hero, 1919 – 1943), Garrett Morgan (inventor, businessman, community leader, 1877 – 1963), Toni Morrison (author, 1921 – 2019), Jesse Owens (athlete, 1913 – 1980), Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (politician, 1908 – 1972), Hiram Revels (politician, minister, 1827 – 1901), Paul Robeson (actor, singer, 1898 – 1976); Jackie Robinson (baseball player, 1919- 1972),  Arturo Schomburg (historian, writer, collector, activist, 1874 – 1938), Benjamin “Pop” Singleton (businessman, 1809 – 1900), William Monroe Trotter (newspaperman, 1832 – 1934);Henry McNeal Turner (minister, politician, 1834 – 1915); Madame C. J. Walker (entrepreneur activist, philanthropist, 1867 – 1919); Booker T. Washington (educator, author, orator, adviser to several presidents, 1856 – 1915); Ida B. Wells-Barnett (investigative journalist, educator, and early civil rights leader, 1862 – 1931) Phillis Wheatley (author, 1753 – 1784), Daniel Hale Williams (surgeon, 1856 – 1931), August Wilson (playwright, 1945 –  2005), Oprah Winfrey (talk show host, television producer, actress, author, philanthropist, 1954), Tiger Woods (golfer, 1975 – ),  Carter G. Woodson (historian, author, journalist, 1875 – 1960), Richard Wright (author, 1908 – 1960), Malcolm X (minister, human rights activist, 1925 – 1965).

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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Professor Kennedy talks about two American traditions. What is a tradition and how is it enforced?

Suggested Response: 

A strong discussion will include the concepts set out in the first section of the Helpful Background section.   [Note to teachers: To help introduce the concept of tradition, ask students about traditions in their own families.]

2. Do you agree or disagree with Professor Kennedy’s formulation of the two traditions relating to race relations in America? Support your position.

Suggested Response: 

TWM finds Professor Kennedy’s formulation to be insightful and constructive. In the discussion ask students to describe examples of the two traditions that they have noticed, read about, or experienced.

 

3. Which of the two traditions described by Professor Kennedy is growing stronger over time? Support your conclusion and give some specific examples.

Suggested Response: 

Views may differ given current events. However,  over time, the “tremendous alternative tradition” of equality and opportunity for all has grown stronger. There may be periods of backsliding, but as Dr. King said, paraphrasing the abolitionists who came before him, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.

 

4.  Note to Teachers: Before asking this question, review with the class the history set out in the section above entitled A Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: The Sacrifice of Freedom for the Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy“.   How does what we know about slavery and its role in the American Revolution affect your view of race relations in America?

Suggested Response: 

There is no one correct response. Strong discussions will include the following concepts.  It emphasizes our shared history.  While African Americans didn’t voluntarily continue to endure slavery for the sake of inducing Southern colonists to participate in the American Revolution, they certainly paid a  high price for the representative democracy that we all enjoy.

If the conversation veers off into how the tragic iron of the American Revolution affects views of non-Black Americans toward African Americans, make sure that the discussion includes the following points.  First and most importantly, everyone, whatever their race, religion, sex, sexual preference, or national origin, is a unique individual with their own capacities and characteristics. This is more than just an ethical precept.  It is actually how non-racist people view others.

Second, every group that has come to America has contributed something unique to make the country what it is today.  These include unique cultural contributions, people who served the country in war and in peace, and people who have made important contributions to their communities.  By living in society we benefit from their accomplishments. For this, they deserve our respect and our gratitude. The contribution of the African-American community includes all of the above and something else that is unique and was extracted from no other group of Americans:  the sacrifice of some 80 years of additional slavery taken from them for the cause of representative democracy and, in addition, the century of Jim Crow that followed.

 

5.  Irony is when something happens the opposite way from what is expected.  Give another example of irony in history.   It can relate to the tragic irony of the American Revolution relating to slavery or to some other historical event.

Suggested Response: 

Spinoff ironies from the irony of the American Revolution and its relation to slavery include: (1) the fact that the man that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the words, “All men arecreated equal” with inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Thomas Jefferson, owned hundreds of slaves; (2) George Washington, the father of a country based on those ideals, owned slaves;  (3) ten of the first twelve presidents of the country based on the Declaration of Independence owned slaves:  Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor.

Irony can be found throughout history. Here are some other examples:  (1) when Dr. Martin Luther King, an apostle of nonviolence, was assassinated,  poor Black neighborhoods in cities across the U.S. erupted in violent riots; (2) many people thought slavery in the U.S. was dying out because it was not profitable; then, in 1793, Ely Whitney invented the cotton gin;  he thought that it would reduce the need for slave labor and help hasten the end of slavery in the U.S.; however, it had the opposite effect making cotton a more profitable crop, increasing the need for slaves to plant and pick cotton, and strengthening the economic foundations of slavery.  Some classes will come up with additional ideas.  Send them to us at jfrieden@TeachWithMovies.com.

 

6. Some claim that America is exceptional and complain that recognition of the crimes of slavery and Jim Crow tarnish that image and should not be mentioned. What is your reaction to that?

Suggested Response: 

A strong discussion will include the following concepts.  First, the United States is a fabulous country of great achievements.  It is the first country based on a set of ideals, the foremost of which is that “all people are created equal” endowed with “inalienable Rights . . . [of] . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”   The U.S. has made great strides toward implementing those ideals and we still have a way to go.  The U.S. gave a home and opportunity to millions of immigrants who lived in poor conditions in countries that kept them down rather than giving them a chance to lift themselves up.  The United States can become even better if we acknowledge our past shortcomings and overcome them. One way to do this is by strengthening the tradition of respect and equality of opportunity.

Second, the concept of classifying a country as “exceptional” is problematic because every country is exceptional in many ways – and every country has its own share of problematic actions in its past history and in its current conduct. The concept of “American Exceptionalism” often includes the idea that the United States is “better” than other countries.  This sets up a false paradigm.   Sure the U.S. is “better” than some countries in some ways but there are some ways in which other countries are “better” than the U.S.  The question is not which country is best, but how to improve the lives of our citizens and to help other countries improve the lives of theirs.

Third, those who refuse to acknowledge past mistakes and learn from them are doomed to repeat those mistakes.

 

7. Why is it important for non-African Americans to understand the Black experience in America?

Suggested Response:

African Americans are our fellow citizens.  They are part of “us.”  We all live together in this country. In addition, for those of us whose families have been here for centuries, we have a shared history with African Americans. For those whose families emigrated after the Civil War or after the Jim Crow days of segregation, by coming to this country and becoming Americans, we have adopted that history and chosen to live in light of it: the good and the bad.  That history includes the ironic sacrifice of the African-American slaves on the altar of representative democracy.

 

8. Every racial and ethnic group has contributed to the culture and experience of the United States. How have African Americans contributed?

Suggested Response:  

The contributions of  Black Americans to the United States include the following – they are not listed in order of priority and the list is by no means complete:

          • A non-violent civil rights movement — Can you imagine what would have happened if Dr. King and other black leaders had not adopted nonviolent mass action as the method by which they sought equal rights and equal opportunity? There would have been a race war and brutal suppression by the White majority, the ideals of the country would have been further eroded rather than uplifted, many people would have been injured, and many people would have died.
          • Representative Democracy in the U.S. and around the world — One of the great advances of humankind in the last 250 years has been the adoption by many countries of representative forms of government and the rejection of monarchy and autocracy.  This is a constant struggle and wars are still being fought as the peoples of various countries struggle to be free. Resistance to the criminal Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2022 is the most recent example.  Modern representative democracy started with the American Revolution of 1776.  The Southern colonists (who knew that slavery had recently been banned in Great Britain through Somersett’s Case) would not have joined the Revolution if the Northern colonists had not agreed to leave slavery intact.  Without the Southern colonists, the American Revolution would probably not have been successful.  Many of the Founding Fathers were Southern slave holders.  Many people in the U.S. and around the world have paid a price for the world-wide democratic revolution, including the many revolutionaries and soldiers who died fighting for democratic governments.  However, it can truly be said that the group that paid a uniquely high price for the democracy and liberty enjoyed by much of humankind were the African-American slaves due to the bargain between the Northern colonists and the Southerners to leave slavery alone. That bargain cost African Americans an additional 80 years of slavery (1783 to 1865), then another about 100 years of segregation and Jim Crow laws (1865 to about 1965), and after that continuing racism from some parts of American society. For more, see the section of this Guide on A Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: The Sacrifice of Freedom for the Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy, above.
          • Wealth of the United States — Not most, but certainly some, of the wealth of the United States was accumulated due to the slave labor and the work of black men and women who were not compensated for their work or who, after slavery was abolished, were not adequately compensated.
          • Music — Jazz, Blues, Spirituals, Motown are forms of music that would not exist without African Americans. In addition, there are many talented performers for all forms of music from the Black community.

9.  What is your view of the Founding Fathers who allowed slavery to continue in order to secure the support of the Southern colonies for the Revolution?

Suggested Response: 

The best way, as Professor Kennedy said with respect to racism, is to “address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history.”  By modern standards, they were engaged in reprehensible conduct that is now outlawed as criminal conduct.  However, by the standards of their time, slavery was an accepted institution — and they gave us the U.S.A.  A good discussion will include the concepts set out in Slavery and the Founding Fathers, above.

10. Note to Teachers:  The purpose of this question is to provide some perspective on the decision of the American revolutionaries to accept slavery. — Back in the 1780s through to 1850s, Americans in the South practiced and many in the North condoned slavery.  They did not think of it as immoral.  Not so, contended the abolitionists who recognized the crime their society was perpetrating on African Americans and who sought to abolish slavery.   Are there people in modern-day America who see society as perpetrating monstrous ethical violations and even crimes causing untold injury and death on a daily basis and who seek reform?  Who are they and what reform do they seek?

Suggested Response: 

Note to Teachers:  Students may suggest various groups of social activists, such as Black Lives Matter, the “Right to Choose” advocates, who are for the right to abortion, or the “Right to Life” advocates, who see abortion as murder.  As to any legitimate advocacy group, teachers should acknowledge the legitimacy of their position, even if the teacher disagrees.  (This excludes White supremacists and Nazis.)  Comment that each group believes in its ethical position.  Perhaps the best perspective may come from introducing the class to an additional group of Americans who believe that every day most Americans perpetrate a monstrous evil.  The members of this group see themselves as similar to the early abolitionists in recognizing an evil and trying to get society to change.

This group consists of vegans who refuse to eat meat or dairy for ethical reasons.  We will call them “ethics-based vegans.”   As of 2022 there are probably several million ethics-based vegans in the U.S. and they claim that their numbers are growing. They the killing of billions of sentient beings each year for their meat to be a monstrous crime.  As for milk and cheese, as pointed out by Cesar Chavez, it’s worse for the dairy cows.  Cows are very maternal. They love their calves.  They also give more milk when pregnant and just after birth.  Thus, they are repeatedly impregnated by the farmers who own them.  However, the farmers take the calves away immediately after birth because the farmers want the milk to sell.  The dairy cows live in eternal mourning.   The ethics-based vegans point to the fact that almost all human beings (except for a very few that have allergies or severely compromised digestive systems) can live very well on a plant-based diet with a vitamin B-12 supplement.  Since there is no nutritional reason for eating meat or dairy, the only reason to continue to do so is because we like their taste or texture.  But the ethics-based vegans contend that this is no justification for forcing billions of sentient beings to live in miserable conditions, with their babies taken away (or being stripped from their mothers), and then to be killed before they have lived to the end of their natural lives. The way the ethics-based vegans see it, any person who continues to eat meat and dairy is acting in an unethical manner that causes the unnecessary death and suffering to billions each year. [See the book Animal Liberation by Professor Peter Singer.]  This is an expression of the branch of philosophy call “utilitarianism,” first developed by the famous English philosopher Jeremy Bentham who, famously wrote, referring to non-human animals,  “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Ethics-based vegans see themselves as the abolitionists of the current day crying out against injustice in the wilderness of modern American society.  They believe that the moral arc of the Universe tends towards justice, and that in time, say a hundred years from now, society will look upon what we do to farm animals with a horror similar to the way that today we look upon slavery with horror.  So, if students are aghast that the father of our nation and the other Founders accepted slavery, have them look at themselves through the eyes of these millions of ethics-based vegans. It will not be easy because most students don’t see farm animals as beings within the scope of moral concern, but then, like the Founding Fathers, students are people of their times and society.  The Founders were from a culture that was just beginning to see African Americans as being people who were within the scope of moral concern and that enslaving them was morally wrong.

11.  How would you evaluate Thomas Jefferson?

Suggested Response: 

There is no one correct answer.  Scholars disagree.  Against him: The man was a slaver and a hypocrite.  But remember:  His words, in the Declaration of Independence, have done more to free people all over the world from oppression than any single phrase in history.

12. Do you agree that because of lingering racism and the legacy of centuries of oppression, all other things being equal, if a Black American attains a position in life, that person has had to work harder and show more initiative and intelligence than a White person who has achieved the same level of success?

Suggested Response: 

“All other things being equal” is the key to this question, because usually in life, other things are not equal.  For example, some people have had the benefit of affirmative action programs.  Some African Americans have had a culturally enriched home even whether or not their parents had a lot of money. Many White children have built-in disadvantages such as broken homes, culturally deprived backgrounds, events of child abuse etc. that make their lives difficult.  As Professor Kennedy said, it is complicated, but generally “all other things being equal,” the answer is “yes.”

 

13. Because of the political situation in the U.S., it is highly unlikely that the federal government will pay substantial reparations. What does that mean for individual non-Black citizens of the U.S.?

Suggested Response: 

In light of the Suggested Response to the previous question, TWM suggests that that answer is that when we can, we should personally help an individual, Black or White, when our help would make a positive difference in their lives.  And, by the way, that also applies to any African American person in a position to help another.

 

14. What do you think is behind the Black Lives Matter demonstrations?

Suggested Response:

Pent up rage over decades of heavy handed policing led to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.  However, it should be noted that when the police withdraw from high-crime areas, the crime rate goes up and demands for more policing come in from the residents, Black or White.  The police are in a difficult position.  If they are too lenient, either they or someone innocent could get hurt.  If they are too fast or use too much force, they will be prosecuted or sued.

 

15. What do you think about efforts to “defund” the police?

Suggested Response:  

Unfortunately, there are criminals of all races in our society who need to be restrained by armed officials of the state.  Defunding the police in its literal terms will lead to anarchy and rampages by criminal elements.  So, taking funds away from the police, if it will compromise law enforcement doesn’t sound like a good idea.  However, it is also clear that policing in the U.S. needs substantial reform.  First, police officers need to be trained to eliminate racism and those that are incorrigible racists should find other jobs.   Second, police forces need to be supplemented by trained mental health and social service professionals.

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

The discussion questions are good essay prompts and can be modified to become debate topics.

Students can be asked to write reports or essays on any of the following topics:

  • Any African Americans who have made notable contributions to American society (for some suggestions, see list above);
  • Any of the Slave revolts listed above;
  • The Somersett case;
  • The abolition movement in Great Britain;
  • The abolition movement in the U.S.;
  • John Laurens and his position on slavery;
  • Alexander Hamilton and his position on slavery;
  • Marquis de Lafayette and his position on slavery; and
  • Benjamin Franklin and his position on slavery.

CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS

Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Each of the web pages described in this Learning Guide.  In addition,  the following books served as sources for this Guide.

  • Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery by Steven M. Wise, Perseus Books, 2005
  • Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, The Penguin Press, 2010
  • Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2003
  • Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow, The Penguin Press, 2004
  • Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan, Public Affairs, 2021
  • Slavery and the Founders – Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, Paul Finkelman, M.E. Sharpe publisher, 1996

This Learning Guide was written by James A. Frieden with valuable assistance from Deborah Elliott.  It was published on May 3, 2022

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LEARNING GUIDE MENU:

1.The non-Hispanic white to non-Hispanic black marriages in the 2012 to 2016 period was 8.1% or 470,351 per year.  Source:  U.S. Census Bureau, Examining Change in the Percent of Married-Couple Households that are Interracial and Interethnic: 2000 to 2012-2016, by Brittany Rico, Rose M. Kreider, and Lydia Anderson (uploaded 4/12/22)

2.Up Front: Examining the Black-white wealth gap, by Kriston McIntosh, et al 2/27/20, The Brookings Institution, (accessed 4/2/22)

3.A White Privilege? by the Center for Health Progress (accessed 4/18/22)

  • Actually, it took another six decades before slavery was banned in the British colonies by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
  • The first American casualty of the Revolution was a man of African and Native American descent named Crispus Attucks. He was killed by British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre of 1770.
  • What about Reparations? 

    President Obama outlined the political difficulty of reparations on his podcast with Bruce Springsteen, “Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.” He said, “So, if you ask me theoretically: ‘Are reparations justified?’ The answer is yes. There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves. What I saw during my presidency was the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action… all that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program struck me as, politically, not only a non-starter but potentially counterproductive.”  Aris Folley, “Obama Says Reparations ‘Justified,'” thehill.com, Feb. 25, 2021See also, Should the Federal Government Pay Reparations for Descendants of Slaves

  • For those who survived the horrors of the Middle Passage and their ancestors, slavery was extended for some 80 years from 1883, the date of the victory in the Revolutionary War to 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning slavery was ratified.
  • About the Author of this Learning Guide: The author of this Learning Guide is a Jewish American man who grew up in the Jim Crow South during the 1950s through the early 1960s. As a boy, he saw segregation and Jim Crow first-hand.  He participated in the Civil Rights Movement in small ways: attending several Civil Rights demonstrations and attempting to act in a non-prejudiced way when the schools in his community were integrated for the first time, earning him the vicious hatred of many White classmates.

 

 

 

A NOTE ABOUT NOMENCLATURE

“Black” and “White:” In this Learning Guide and in Guides written or edited after March 31, 2022, TWM will capitalize the word “Black” when referring to African Americans because it does not refer to “a natural category but a social one—a collective identity—with a particular history.” Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black, The Atlantic, June 18, 2020, accessed 4/2/22.  In a quotation, the capitalization of the words “white” and “black” will be retained as they are used in the quoted material. This may lead to apparent inconsistencies in capitalization.

“Black with a capital ‘B’ refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat, and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces,” Lori L. Tharps accessed 4/2/22. Many publications have adopted this usage, for example, the New York Times.

We will also use the term “White” to refer to people of Caucasian descent. While this is less universally accepted, in writings on race it seems appropriately equal in its treatment of the nomenclature. See, e.g., Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitlize “Black “ and “White” Center for Study of Social Policy, March 23, 2020, by Ann Thúy Nguyễn and Maya Pendleton

African-American will only be hyphenated when used as an adjective.

LESSON PLANS ON SLAVERY 

Teaching Hard History: Grades 6 – 12, Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed 4/13/22

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