Monday, November 12, 2012

Teaching Black Patriots and Loyalists in beginning political science

On September 17, I was keynote speaker on Constitution Day at the University of Texas at Tyler for an audience of 300. The questions and responses lasted for more than an hour after the talk. The video is here. I was thrilled to sign some 80 books.

The invitation was initiated by Amentahru Wahlrab, my former student at the left in the photo, who had used Black Patriots and Loyalists in a beginning American Government class for 125 majors and non-majors. He had been teaching it for a month and had had unexpectedly intense results.

One woman had seen a picture of George Washington, kneeling by his horse, thinking or praying. I think I know what is in his mind, she said to herself. He is praying about what to do about his slaves...

In a course at Metropolitan State College, I also assigned the book, and Jeff Robinson, one of the students, responded: "The literal whitewashing of the struggles of those early emancipators and abolitionists cheapens our shared history and sense of who we are as a country and ultimately as a society. That the idea of emancipation took root in the mind of one of South Carolina's (of all places) scions of Plantation society in extraordinary [he is speaking of John Laurens], that the idea of freeing the blacks and abolishing slavery has [one of its] roots in the white southern plantation class is extraordinary and should be taught in every school if only to show how complex our early history really is. The fact that racism and slavery has lasted as long as it has is, in my opinion, a direct result of a refusal to face the facts and take responsibility as a nation for a horrendous period in our collective history. To say it was an eye-opener is putting it mildly."

Here is Amentahru’s note about teaching the book:

“I decided to use Alan Gilbert’s new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence this semester in my Introduction to American Government course at the University of Texas at Tyler because I wanted students to get a sense of what real scholarship looks like. In addition, I hoped that Gilbert’s cutting edge and controversial reading of the revolutionary war would provide the creative tension needed to make an otherwise boring class interesting to non-political science majors (the course is required for all majors). To be honest, I had no idea of whether I would agree with Gilbert’s view. The book served a number of uses: Firstly, it provided a way to discuss research with students who are typically not exposed to research methodology in a general academic sense. Although they may be required to take some kind of methods class for their discipline, they are often not aware of the broader concerns of research methodology. Gilbert’s discussion of other scholars and scholarship in the beginning of the book is very useful for this discussion. Secondly, many students have a vague notion of the revolutionary period and often don’t understand the implications of this period for current politics. For example, many students believed that slavery was not questioned by anyone other than perhaps slaves. Students were surprised to learn, through long quotations from slave owners like George Washington, that slave owners understood just how wrong slavery was. Class discussions often focused on direct quotations, with students usually finding better quotations to discuss than I had brought with me. The book also allowed students to ask and discuss questions like, “what would our history be like if all blacks had been emancipated during the revolutionary war?” many students noted that the civil war would not have been necessary. Others pointed that racial equality would likely have triggered other movements for equality, women’s rights in particular might have come earlier. Getting students to consider and discuss these issues was made easier as a result of the often pointed examples in the book that referred to inherent equality of blacks and whites written by slave owners, founding fathers, British generals, religious leaders, sailors, and poor whites. Finally, through an assignment, I was able to learn just how meaningful the book was to students. I asked them to write a two page critical review essay of the book. I received very thoughtful essays from students. One of my students even wrote, “this book rocked my world”. I imagine that this is not a common response to assigned books in a general education class in college. Nearly every review that I have read said something about how they thought the book should be required reading for anyone concerned about American Politics. I plan to use this book in the future and have encouraged my colleagues to use it in their courses as well. I am surprised that the book has not be reviewed yet by prominent reviewers like the New York Times. It seems strange that a book so well researched and sourced, not to mention easy to read, has not been reviewed in the popular presses. At any rate, I just wanted to provide a few thoughts about teaching Black Patriots and Loyalists in a freshman level government course.

Amentahru Wahlrab,

Senior Lecturer of Political Science
Department of Political Science and History
The University of Texas at Tyler”

That Black Patriots and Loyalists “rocked my world” for one student was pretty thrilling for me. On Amentahru’s comment that this is unusual in gen ed classes and how he broke the now customary pattern, that is true if one does not teach the classics but only excerpts them in collections or teaches some “textbook.” In contrast, for example, I teach the Apology and Crito and civil disobedience (King and Thoreau) to undergraduates. I am not sure that rocks their world but it certainly does mine…

The initial purpose of beginning courses at least in philosophy, literature and history (“the humanities”) is to teach especially those works which awaken, in a student, the awareness of a different world, to go beyond the common understandings of their circle or class or country or era, to engage the kind of writing which challenges/invites one to think deeply about life and see the world anew…

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