|Introduction | Questions and Activities | Lesson Focus | Resources | Program Index||Teacher's Guide Contents|
2: Autobiographical WritingsWe think about slavery as this complete package that just came to evil landowners. It didn't happen that way. It happened one law at a time, one person at a time.
Frances Latimer, local historian
How did race-based slavery develop? This lesson uses a program segment and primary sources to focus on the shift from bond labor to slave labor in the British American colonies. Students trace the development of laws that enforced the slave status of Africans and their descendants.
Program Segment (approximately 25 minutes)
In 1619 Africans arrive in Virginia as indentured servants; over the next century, laws develop that define slavery by race.
Begin: A hand works the soil with a gardening tool.
End: The sky appears with clouds obscuring the sun.
Slavery evolved in the British American colonies as a social, economic, and legal institution. Ask students, What are the characteristics of an institution?How do institutions get started? What are their impact on society? Discuss some historical and contemporary examples (e.g., public schools). Develop a class definition of institution.
As students watch the program segment, have them note the laws and legal decisions that are mentioned, and who was affected by them.
Revisit the class definition of institution. How was slavery an institution? How was it like or unlike other American institutions?
Discuss the laws and legal decisions that students noted while watching the program segment. What were these laws and why were they enacted? Who was affected by them? How did they serve to institutionalize slavery? What racial attitudes allowed acceptance of these laws? Could slavery have developed without them?
Exploring Primary Sources
Several colonial laws were among the many that established race-based slavery as a legal system in the British American colonies. As a class, read and summarize these doucments:
Organize the class into two groups to study one or more of the laws. For background, have students research colonial life, using the Questions in Questions and Activities, books such as A Multicultural Portrait of Colonial Life by Carolyn Kott Washburne (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1993), and General Resources.
The first group will portray members of a legislative body that is discussing the laws. (Remind students that only white male property owners were allowed to vote or hold office.) The group should include planters, merchants, and religious officials. Their discussion should address these questions:
The second group will portray indentured, enslaved, and free laborers, and should include African, Indian, and European men and women. This group will discuss the impact each law will have on them, individually and as a group. Their discussion should address these questions:
- Why is this law necessary?
- What will it accomplish if enacted?
- What will happen if it is not enacted?
Have both groups describe their respective characters (by race, class, gender, legal status, etc.) before they present their responses. Afterward, have the class discuss the following questions: How did the interests of the two groups conflict? Who benefited the most from these laws? Who benefited the least? Were the consequences of these laws the same for all individuals within each group?
- Will this law affect me or my family? If so, how?
- How might it change my life?
- How can we resist these laws?
As a class, discuss the various forms of writing that might be considered autobiographical -- for example, logs, journals, diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, and letters. Discuss the purpose of these forms: are they generally meant to be utilitarian or literary? public or private? specific or general? What issues related to class, gender, occupation, literacy, access to resources, etc. make it more likely that an individual would choose one form over another?
Working individually or in pairs, have students choose two forms of autobiographical writing (for example, diaries and slave narratives). Using the documents of the writers listed below, or others in the Africans in America Resource Bank and other sources (such as the Documents of the American South), they should find at least three examples of each form. Refer back to the questions above: What characteristics within each form do the writers have in common? What characteristics are shared across different forms? In what ways do the two sets differ?
- Olaudah Equiano
- William Byrd
- Alexander Falconbridge
- Venture Smith
- Boston King
- Richard Allen
- Jarena Lee
- Rebecca Cox Jackson
- Fanny Kemble
- Charles Ball
- Harriet Jacobs
- Frances Fearn
Ask students to think about how they would compose their own biographies, applying the same critical questions from above. What options are available now that were not available prior to the Civil War? You may wish to ask students to create an autobiography in one of the following forms:
- an essay
- a visual display that combines text and images
- a multimedia document that includes text, sound, and images
- a performance of a dialogue or skit
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