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Justene G. Hill Shares Her Course “Representing American Slavery”

Justene G. HillJustene G. Hill is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Princeton University and a 2014-15 Consortium Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her dissertation, “Felonious Transactions: Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860,” connects the slaves’ economy to broader economic and legal transformations that occurred in South Carolina between the Revolutionary period and the Civil War.  She holds degrees from Swarthmore College and Florida International University.  She will defend her dissertation in late Spring 2015. 

Developing the Course

When I envisioned my perfect course, I immediately thought about a seminar that would meld my two interests: American Slavery and American popular culture. I had the opportunity to realize this idea during the 2013–14 academic year, when I taught a course entitled “Representing American Slavery.” As a doctoral candidate in American history at Princeton University, I had few chances to design and teach my own course. Princeton University’s Writing Program sponsors a competitive yearlong teaching fellowship that offers advanced doctoral candidates an opportunity to design and teach their own first-year writing seminars. Usually, doctoral candidates serve as preceptors in large lecture courses. This fellowship presented me with the opportunity to create my own seminar from the ground up, gain rigorous training in writing pedagogy, and spend the academic year guiding students through sometimes heated conversations about the relationship between the history of American slavery and modern representations of America’s “peculiar institution.”

First and foremost, “Representing American Slavery” was a class on academic writing for first-year students. Though, topically, I designed this course as an introduction to modern representations of American slavery, teaching students how to approach scholarly writing was my primary goal. I used the theme of American slavery in contemporary popular culture as the conduit through which to teach students about critical thinking and writing skills that they could apply across disciplines during their time at Princeton and beyond. I asked my students to consider how slavery was represented in a variety of sources, from films to novels, from artwork to primary historical texts. Over the semester, students interrogated these sources to craft research questions, make compelling arguments, conduct primary/secondary research, construct scholarly papers, and engage in the process of revision.

I decided to propose this course because—as a historian of slavery—I noticed that over the past three years, one of the darkest aspects of American history has risen to national attention. I’m not quite sure why there has been a renewed focus on slavery, but I believe that it began with three slavery-related films released within a year of one another. The first was the Steven Spielberg-directed Lincoln, which opened in 2012. Lincoln chronicled the 16th president’s political maneuverings in 1865 for congressional approval of the 13th Amendment. The second was Django Unchained, also released in 2012. In Django Unchained writer/director Quentin Tarantino adapts the western movie genre—a genre in which slavery as a subject rarely appears—and makes slavery and the experiences of enslaved African Americans the movie’s central theme. And the final film was 12 Years a Slave, adapted by screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, 12 Years a Slave won critical acclaim—and the 2014 Oscar for the year’s “Best Picture”—for its provocative representation of slavery in antebellum America through the eyes of an illegally-captured African-American man, Solomon Northup.

Creating Assignments

I decided to use these films, in addition to novels and television shows such as The Chappelle Show and Key & Peele, to give students ample material to pique their writing interests. Because my course was a freshman writing seminar, I had to think carefully about how to organize the reading and writing assignments. I decided to break the course into three sections to provide my students with progressively more challenging assignments. The first essay required that students analyze one of two films, Django Unchained or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Even though both films were humorous at times and presented peculiar renderings of 19th-century America, I believed that the films offered students an opportunity to comment on how slavery was portrayed. In addition, the assignment demanded that students put one of the films in conversation with a piece of performance theory, an excerpt from an article by performance studies scholar Richard Schechner entitled “Restoration of Behavior.” This article is a fairly complex piece of writing, but I wanted my students to grapple with theory, using it as a lens through which to write about a fun and thought-provoking film. I selected performance studies because I wanted my students to work with an appropriately challenging theoretical framework in their first writing assignment. I also found that performance studies theory provided students a useful language with which to talk and write about issues of race and representation not only in the films, but in the course more broadly.

The second writing assignment, a 7–8 page essay, required that students select one of two novels, Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench. In this assignment, students put a prominent theme in one of the novels in conversation with one of two pieces of literary theory, Saidiya Hartman’s “Seduction and the Ruses of Power,” a chapter from Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America or Hortense J. Spillers’ 1987 article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” In addition, students had to examine the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s North American Slave Narratives database and select a narrative to consider along with the two other texts. In this assignment, I wanted my students to enter into conversations about the experiences of enslaved women, since this topic has such a vibrant secondary literature.

The final writing assignment was a 10–12 page research paper on a topic of the student’s choosing. This research paper demanded that students engage with the course’s themes, using both primary and secondary sources. One student analyzed connections between the popular television show Scandal and Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Another student considered how Kanye West addressed the history American slavery in his album Yeezus.

Successes and Hurdles

Overall, I believe that the course was a success, but I did face a few roadblocks that I would address if I were to teach this course again. The biggest challenge that I faced was providing my students with enough historical background from which to make thought-provoking analyses of the course material. For example, though we began to discuss the historiography of enslaved women’s experiences in the antebellum South in the second unit, I did not have the time introduce more readings that would have given students a broader understanding of the literature.

Because I taught “Representing American Slavery” in Princeton’s Writing Program, I could not delve as deeply into the history and historiography because of the requirements mandated by the Writing Program. For example, each student turned in a preliminary draft and revision of each paper. I held draft workshops, where two students had their drafts read and commented on by the class. During the semester, every student had a draft of a paper workshopped in class by their classmates. Though the students found this exercise extremely productive, it required spending three weeks (6 class meetings) on this activity, which truncated the amount of time that I could dedicate to providing students with the opportunity to develop more of a historical grounding in the topic. Despite this hurdle, many students used the final research paper to interrogate topics of historical inquiry that piqued their interest.

Further Thoughts

In the future, I hope to teach this course as an interdisciplinary history seminar and re-design it into one that traces how certain historical events relating to slavery have been rendered in modern popular culture. Above all, I wanted to provide my students with the opportunity to examine representations of American slavery in American popular culture. Even if they never enrolled in a class where slavery was a theme, my goal was to offer them various opportunities to think and write about a topic that I believe is under-studied: slavery in the United States.