Making Light of Slavery?

Recently in the Texas History class I am teaching a student shared an example of how two friends would quasi reenact an enslaved, enslaver situation at the place where they work. The White person would tell the Black person “get to work” and so on.

This student followed up in an email asking my thoughts: “How do you feel about that though, specifically, making a joke out of slavery? Do you think it’s offensive, ignores the plight of the enslaved, or perhaps something I/we haven’t considered? Or is it okay, diminishing the detrimental effects on the psyche of the African Americans by satirizing it?”

I asked if I could have time to think about it and “reply” here. This student said yes, so here goes.


To start, I think a good example of shedding light on people who make light of the institution of enslavement can be found in the YouTube series Ask a Slave. There are two “seasons.” Most of the episodes are very good and use humor to shed light appropriately, in my opinion, and they also provide valuable (and accurate!) insights into the dynamics of enslavement.

As far as two friends joking about enslavement, it would really depend on the two friends, how well they knew each other, their level of historical literacy, and their individual experiences and perspectives on the world. It really just depends.

But, given the very deep-rooted nature of enslavement in the United States and institutionalized racism, almost regardless of how close two such people are, if one is racialized as Black and is always the enslaved and one racialized as White and always the enslaver, there would almost unavoidably be some layer of real and hurtful power dynamics going on.

I know some people say that White people are more sensitive to enslavement and past discriminations that Black people are. Again, these are both very large and dangerous generalizations. HOWEVER, again, given the nature of racialization and the codification of these mores both socially and legally, it is likely that people racialized as Black have no choice but to not take discrimination or jokes about enslavement very seriously per se. They have to be okay with it per se.

Imagine being a social or political minority in terms of how you are racialized, genderized, sexualized, etc. and you are very accustomed to the parallel microaggressions, you learn to “deal with it” and “ignore it” in most cases. For example, I know many cisgendered, heterosexual men who are more pro-LGBT rights than non-heterosexual (or queer) men. Being too close to a social need or problem makes it mandatory to be more non-responsive at times, for some people, the way society treats people outside of the White cis-Male Protestant Heterosexual paradigm.

Additionally, on the note of making light of enslavement or using the word “slave” in various ways: I know sometimes people will make comments along the line of “that professor (or boss) is a real slave driver” or “being in graduate school is voluntarily enslaving yourself.” I think these parallels are very dangerous and should be done cautiously, if at all. One way to understand or contextualize this perspective is to look at notions of Semiotics. Semiotics studies the relationship between symbols and the words these form and the things the symbols and words represent/refer to. (Semiotics is a very interesting field!) So, if we casually and regularly use the word “slave” in ways other than to refer to those children, Men, and Women who were all Black who actually were enslaved in the United States (and elsewhere) we alter our largely unconscious knowledge / relationship to the word “slave.” Consequently, when thinking about people who really were enslaved, our historical memories and notions of such history are misguided and do not allow to fully internalize the full horrors associated with the institution of enslavement. In other words, if we use the word “slave” to refer to a really hard class, we change the subtle and unconscious definition of “slave” and lessen the seriousness of actual enslavement.

This chart below does a beautiful job of describing when the word “Nazi” can be used without offense.



I think a parallel chart would also illustrate when the word “slave” can appropriately be used. For example, during the era of neoenslavment (aka convict leasing), lynching, etc, “worse than slavery” is appropriate. “Slave” is not appropriate, as the proslavery argument suggested, for people who just work long hours for little compensation.

The institution of enslavement was based on racialization and had theological, economic, cultural, social, political, etc, etc implications. People who are enslaved face punishment and death for rebelling, leaving, for anything or nothing at all. Families can be separated. Enslaved peoples, as the institution developed in the United States (and elsewhere from the 1400s to the 1800s), have no legal voice or existence.

Consequently, there are few real parallels–the Holocaust being one of them. What Michelle Alexander has termed “The New Jim Crow” could also be a parallel. “The New Jim Crow” describes a systemic and institutionalized practice of targeting and imprisoning Black Men.

So in sum, making light of enslavement does not do any one any good per se but does do much harm. At the very least, this undermines the real experiences of real people, and at the worst, it serves to perpetuate racism and condone microaggressions.

Does this answer the question? What other thoughts do we have?

More important than the printing press?

I’ve giving midterm exams this week. Giving one right now actually.

When I look around the room so many students are wearing glasses. Several more I know have contracts.

Where would the world be without glasses? Sure the printing press revolutionized the world and helped make the European Renaissance possible, but what about glasses? Have we ever stopped and realized how many people–children, teenagers, senior citizens, people of all ages–wear glasses (or otherwise use corrective lenses)?

I started wearing glasses in 4th grade. Now without my glasses, I am almost blind. I wouldn’t be able to write, read, drive, or anything else the way I do.

When we considered factors that slowed and accelerated technology and human inventions, we need to recognize vision. What we call glasses first existed and became popular from around 1000-1800 CE in very slow stages. Think how much it really influenced society for thousands of years having people who–assuming that human eyes haven’t changed that much per se–simply couldn’t see beginning as children? 

Without glasses the printing press wouldn’t matter. 


The Emotional Costs of Student Success for Our Students

“Success” means many different things. There are as many definitions as there are people (or students in this case).

“Student Success” is the current big push at colleges and universities across the nation, and this push is largely being forced upon colleges by state legislatures and federal bodies overseeing education. This well-intended goal has many definitions but generally includes a focus on having higher enrollments, more full time students, students passing their classes (with high grades), and more graduates.

One aspect of this approach is that it tends to, at least sometimes, imply that students who do not graduate or who are not full-time are not successful. Not everyone needs a degree to do what they want in life. Not everyone ultimately decides they want a degree. Additionally, some students only want to take a few courses.

To me at least, “student success” in its ideal and highest achievement has been the hope or goal of students earning higher and higher grades. I always tell my classes I hope everyone earns an “A”. Any of my students can tell you that you have to really work for an “A” in my class. If 50% earn an “A”, it’s not because of grade inflation; it’s because they worked really hard for it.

Last night my dad (who is also a professor – I loved teaching and school so much, he decided to follow my steps) were discussing different situations we had with students. The conversation evolved into a discussion of the emotional costs of student success.


The basic thought is–and it seems very true from personal experience and experience working with approximately 2,830 students since May 2007–that there are certain negative consequences per se to earning an “A” in a class or especially to having a 4.0.

As someone who earned an “A” in every class as an undergraduate, I can testify to the fact that being an “A” student is lonely per se.

The “A” student can experience this “loneliness” because they are spending most of their time studying. Studying instead of partying, “hanging out,” etc. Additionally, there is a certain negative stigma attached to doing extremely well. The “A” students are labeled as “nerds” or “geeks.” People who “have no life.” People who are “different.”

Consider the following two conversations:

“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Did well. No big deal but got a 4.0. What about you?”
“Wow. Not that well.”


“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Got an A, 2 Bs, and a C. What about you?”
“Sweet. About the same for me.”

While pretend, I have seen conversations like this play out many times.

There are at least two implications for educators:

One, although we want our students to all do well, study hard, ask questions, and be 4.0 students, this is an unrealistic goal in a large part because of the negative consequences with making good grades. It is sometimes alienating, and it sets a precedent to continue studying really hard.

Two, for student success to be truly effective–carried to its logical and ideal ends–we need a culture that truly celebrates and embraces thinkers, studiers, questioners. Of course, all students are capable of learning the skills necessary to be the “A” student, but this is not what society or peer pressure really wants or rewards or even allows in some cases. Consider how the Culture of Beer, the Culture of Football, the Culture of Politically-Rewritten-History-Books, for example, and the anti-intellectualism generally therein is vastly different than the Culture of Intellectualism. Consider a world where there are commercials advertising an up-coming talk by a philosopher instead of the newest flavor of beer or the newest gun. The rhetoric of what we advertise speaks volumes to what we truly value.

So as we ask ourselves what we can do to help more students earn higher grades and ask ourselves what we did that caused so-and-so to not reach “their full potential,” we must recognize that at least some of the issues are systematic and institutional. The emotional costs of success are high, too much so for some.


It’s Not “the Government” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #12

One part of the oral portion of my comprehensive exams back in May 2013 has stayed with me (“haunted” you could say!) more than any other: Discuss the government as a plural noun and as a singular noun.

At first I was baffled and surprised. I asked for clarification (and the question was repeated). I knew this was getting at something important than I had ever specifically grasped before.

This one question has really had a strong imprint on how I think. The idea of the government as being both a plural and singular noun is important and either not recognized or under recognized most of the time.

Most people say “the government” so and so as if it were one entity. Or use “government” as a generic (and ambiguous) noun to refer to any and all aspects of the government.

Upon a closer examination and specific examination (or should we say specific recognition) we realize that “the government” is a gigantic multi-faceted, multi-layered organization with various branches that are frequently at odds with themselves. Consider the recent (and not-so-recent) conflicts between states in the South and the Federal Executive branch.

Instead of saying “government,” we should at least say “governments” and at best specifically say what part of the government we are talking about—the FDA, County Police, a City Mayor, a School Board, a State Supreme Court, the Speaker of the U.S. House, the Secretary of Education, etc., etc., etc.

We can all increase our civic and historical literacy by recognizing, specifically acknowledging, how powerful and over-simplifying the word “government” really is and reform our language to be much more specific.

Please check out other articles in the Hidden Power of Words Series!


The Rhetoric of Exclusion: Assumed vs. Stated

In my Texas History class, this week and the next two weeks are devoted to the question: “How revolutionary was the Texas Revolution?”

Yesterday’s lesson was “Blacks from Africa to Texas.” We looked at the development of enslavement in Texas; how (unlike in the British Colonies) it was transplanted as a pre-existing, very established institution by White  settlers in Texas; the debate related to enslavement between the Mexico government and settlers in Mexican Texas; and briefly at the institution after the Texas Revolution. Tomorrow we will look at Women and the Texas Revolution – Black Women, White Women, Hispanic Women, and Native Women. Over the next two weeks we will look at the Texas Revolution and historical memory, manifest destiny and the Mexican War, and the institution of slavery as Texas became a “slave society.” 


This week in particular we are looking at the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. You can read a copy of this here. One of my goals this week is to get students to examine the rhetoric of stated vs implied exclusion.

This Constitution specifically prohibits Blacks and Indians in the following places: 

Article I, Section 7: The senators shall be chosen by districts, as nearly equal in free population (free negroes and Indians excepted) as practicable

General Provisions, Section 10: All persons (Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted) who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of independence shall be considered citizens of the republic and entitled to all the privileges of such.

(This document also prohibited non-enslaved Blacks from residing in the state without special permission. Enforcement increased and decreased. Later on, perhaps in an attempt to cover up the illegal importation of Africans directly from Africa, Texas passed a law allowing non-enslaved Blacks to voluntarily enslave themselves.)

That this exclusion of Blacks and Indians is specifically stated is interesting. Why was it necessary to specifically state what had been assumed before? At this time, I do not have a direct answer per se, but by applying knowledge from other historical situations, this stated exclusion indicates there was more tension–a lot more tension–and fear in the air and challenges to prevailing mores. The institution of enslavement was one of the main–if not the main–causes of the Texas Revolution. Texas Enslavers were constantly worried about the security of being able to have their human “property” — due to both racism and that they had a lot of money invested. In 1836, the average enslaved person was sold for $575 ($15,000 in 2013), and in 1860, $800 ($23,000 in 2013). The 1835 enslaved population was at least 5,000 and by 1860 it was at least 183,000. Like most other “slave societies,” Texas’s enslaved black population ranged from about 25-30 percent of the total population. 

In two places–when it came to who could hold office and the establishment of new counties–the Republic of Texas Constitution excludes females. But elsewhere says:

Every citizen of the republic who has attained the age of twenty-one years, and shall have resided six months within the district or county where the election is held, shall be entitled to vote for members of the general congress.

In this case, especially since we know Women were not allowed to vote, the exclusion and inequality was assumed. 

Just as in the Declaration of Independence and in the United States Constitution, when the so-called Founding Fathers wrote “We the People” and “all are created equal” and similar rhetoric, it was so-assumed that this only included White cis-Men that it was not necessary to spell it out. Although we still have far too much inequality today, the equality we do have would be insane and morally wrong to the George Washington and others celebrated by our founding myths. Except for some minor threat from the British, the institution of enslavement was very secure and very established in the United States when the Constitution was written. No one needed to specifically exclude in writing those racialized as Black because “all are equal” did the job sufficiently.  






“6 Flags Over Texas”: History, Rhetoric, and Deleting the Past

Teaching Texas History this semester has been a blast. Teaching is always an excellent way to learn, and teaching something from a different framework/reference point is also a way to learn. 

One thing we have talked about a few times relates to: What does “6 Flags Over Texas” mean? Who and what does it include and exclude? What is the rhetoric of this conceptualization of History? 


The concept of “six flags” and the choice of the “six flags” privileges a very certain White narrative of History – one that is also pro-Confederacy when we consider the cumulative total of who is and is not included. While Native American nations did not have “flags” (at least not as we think of them), they are excluded from this concept. The “six flags” conceptualization does not represent all of the nations that have controlled or had influence in Texas.

Additionally, when we recognize notions of borderlands and geopolitics, we know that parts of present-day Louisiana, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oklahoma were at one point officially or unofficially part of the area claimed to be “Texas.” These states and peoples are also excluded. 

Additionally, the Fredonia flag is excluded. The Fredonian Revolution was nothing more than a failed revolution. Labeling it a rebellion is to assert a form of imperialism and a “we won, you didn’t” imprint on History. 

The Flag of Fredonia

The Flag of Fredonia


The French flag is included and the French were never even that established in Texas. 

To be erased and written out of History is indeed a most horrible thing to do and feel. The geopolitical area presently called Texas should be proud to fully embrace its full history and all of its “flags.”


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