An open letter to my professor

Dear professor

This assignment really changed the way that I have understood this subject. I feel rather silly telling you this, but this is quite possibly the most ‘impactful’ project I have ever done.
That being said, it made me absolutely, completely, overwhelmingly angry. You can blame it on my hormones because it’s very likely that they contributed, but there is more to it than that. At the beginning of the project, I was truly excited. I chose a photo based on aesthetics really, because I saw a photo of a young woman holding a young child. I identified with her, I liked her even. I didn’t grapple with her station, I didn’t think “they’re all slaves, so it doesn’t matter”- I thought “this woman is beautiful! She is holding a little baby! She must have been happy!”
Ultimately, I am displeased with my project. I didn’t reach any grand conclusions, any ‘epiphanic’ realizations. I learned more than I have ever learned doing a single project before, but I felt that anything I learned, and any great research I came across was completely dimmed by the life of this woman.
I was wrong when I first looked at her. The life of this woman was likely anything but happy. The reason this woman looks so unhappy, sitting and holding a tiny white child is probably because her dignity was constantly stepped upon, and just holding another woman’s child will never be enough to erase that. No matter how pretty the baby is.
However: this project was good for me on many, many levels. I will never approach slavery the same way as I did before, as a time line. In my research, I read story after story of women who had to put a tiny white child before their own: and while it is good perhaps to put others before yourself, to sacrifice for the good of others, this should never extend into the realm of motherhood, which I believe is sacred.
I suppose the project changed the lens through which I view slavery: one of the first pieces of literature I read when I began researching told me that ‘domestic slaves were treated better than other slaves, and they had special privileges.’ So I thought I was on the track to learn about a sort of chasm within slavery that wasn’t really ‘slavery’- you know, where you get to sit and play with a baby all day, one that wasn’t brutal, and wasn’t an instrument of abuse.
I was surprised, then, when most of the rest of my research contradicted this, and I was faced with an image that contradicted that- and then I got angry. I want to reach back through the decades and rectify it. But I cannot, and I am left wondering if there was something in the water. “They must have ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’” I think.
It’s simple, easy to dismiss it that way. To assume that it is because there is something wrong with people that racism exists today, and that there was deeply something ‘wrong’ with people who owned slaves, who regularly beat their slaves to keep them “accustomed to being whipped.” It’s not this easily dismissed from my mind though, and the dh has been truly frustrated with me for the energy I’ve put into thinking about this. After all, I have three projects and two more paper due this week, and I’m always late to my classes because the baby nurses and nurses and nurses, and I can’t just bring her to class. But if I put this down now, and step away from it, I won’t ever be able to completely understand it. I must push through the uncomfortable things I’ve read and read some more.
I am still angry, but I am going to continue reading. I didn’t reach any understanding that I could neatly put away and say “now I understand it,” and I will probably always be uncomfortable with it, but because I feel like it is important, not just for me as a person, but for me as a mother, and a daughter/wife/sister, to challenge the way I feel about this.
I’m probably still wrong, but I wanted to thank you for this project. I am fairly certain my research revealed the same old ideas, and you will be unimpressed. But know that this changed my understanding, and I'm sitting here thinking "you set me up for this!"- Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Though I'm clearly not YOUR teacher, as a teacher of history, I appreciate your post. And I'm so glad you learned! Isn't history fascinating when it becomes STORY, instead of just boring old facts? :-)


Spill it!