Special Course Descriptions
Black Studies



AMS 300/BLS 394-10 Investigating the Enigma of American Slavery

This seminar will address the question: How do we, in the present moment, investigate and come to terms with the history and legacy of slavery in America? Slavery's existence within a society founded on liberty has presented a paradox since the nation's founding era. Historians have grappled with that paradox, and so have American families whose roots stretch back into slavery, and who find themselves struggling with a vexing legacy in very personal and painful ways. The course will investigate numerous "portals" for entering and trying to comprehend the world of slavery - including letters, plantation ledgers, court records, archaeological artifacts, oral histories, plantation architecture, photographs, and newspaper accounts - evidence that presents ambiguities and outright contradictions we must try to resolve. Roughly half the course will be devoted to an in-depth study of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the people they held in slavery, and their descendants. These two founders continue to loom large in the American consciousness; yet they had vastly different responses to slavery. The seminar will also examine the documents of lesser-known plantation families; study memoirs and novels addressing slavery and its aftermath; and view portions of films that have shaped popular views of slavery, such as "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind," as well as more recent films addressing slavery's legacy. We will make a field trip to Wye House (the Eastern Shore plantation where Frederick Douglass lived as a child, and which he described memorably in his autobiographies) to see the landscape and the surviving built environment of slavery. The course will have a strong writing component. For many sessions, students will be given primary-source documents to analyze and interpret. For AMS majors, the class will count as the junior colloquium. Students in any department and year are welcome to enroll, however. The instructor, Henry Wiencek, is the author of two nationally acclaimed books on the history and legacy of slavery that have won numerous prizes, including the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Biography and the Best Book of the Year prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. His work, as the historian Joyce Appleby has written, shows Americans how to "integrate the unpleasant truths [of slavery] into our self-understanding as a people." He is spending the year at Washington College as a Patrick Henry Visiting Fellow, while completing a book about slavery at Jefferson's Monticello.