A Classical Curriculum on Race, Racism, and Slavery in the U.S.

A Classical Curriculum on Race, Racism, and Slavery in the U.S. August 25, 2016
Yoichi Okamoto - Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, "Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. - Voting Rights Act," public domain.
Yoichi Okamoto, “Signing of the Voting Rights Act,” public domain.

Many important curriculums on race, racism, slavery, and the Black Lives Matter movement already exist. A few examples can be found here, here, and here. Unfundamentalist Parenting’s own Caris Adel has also made a homeschool curriculum on Courageous Black Lives.

I think it is really important for the classical, Great Books world to also engage contemporary issues of race and racism as well as a contemporary movement like Black Lives Matter. So the goal of the following curriculum, intended to be used over a nine-week period by junior high and high school students, is to use the classical, Great Books method to create a dialogue between classical authors, American history, and the voices of people of color, both past and contemporary.

Module #1

Core readings:

1. Genesis 1 (online)

2. Genesis 9 (online)

3. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (book)

Background reading:

Larry R. Morrison, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830” (online)

Discussion questions:

1. In Genesis 1:27, it is written that, “God created humans in God’s own image. God created them to be like Godself.” How should the image of God inform how we think about race and racism?

2. In Genesis 9:25, Noah curses his son Ham, saying, “May there be a curse on Canaan! May he be a slave to his brothers.” In what way do the following verses (9:26-7) clarify the meaning of the curse?

3. Morrison writes that Noah’s curse of Ham in Genesis 9 “was to become the standard explanation for the origin of slavery. This particular proof of the divine sanction of slavery was quoted extensively in the proslavery literature.” Having read Genesis 9 yourself, what do you think of that interpretation?

4. James Baldwin writes that, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be slave.” What impact did that have on Baldwin’s feelings towards Christianity?

Module #2

Core readings:

1. Plato, Gorgias, Excerpts (online)

2. Aristotle, Politics, Book One (online)

Background reading:

Wendy Gallagher, “Platonic and Attic Laws on Slavery” (online)

Discussion questions:

1. In Plato’s dialogue, he has Callicles argue the following: “Justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior. For on what principle of justice did Xerxes invade Hellas, or his father the Scythians? (not to speak of numberless other examples). Nay, but these are the men who act according to nature; yes, by Heaven, and according to the law of nature.” Why does Callicles argue these men act “by Heaven” and “according to nature”?

2. Aristotle argues that, “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” On what basis does Aristotle make this claim?

3. How do Plato and Aristotle’s division of humanity into the superior and inferior classes compare to the Bible’s declaration in Genesis 1 that all are made in the image of God?

4. According to Gallagher, who were the largest proponents for the abolition of slavery in ancient Greece?

Module #3

Core readings:

1. Colossians 3 (online)

2. Ephesians 6 (online)

3. Philemon (online)

4. Galatians 3 (online)

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (book)

Background reading:

Cheryl J. Sanders, “Black Women in Biblical Perspective,” Living the Intersection (book)

Discussion questions:

1. If Paul believed, as he stated in Galatians 3, that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” why did he not directly state slavery was a sin in Colossians 3, Ephesians 3, and Philemon?

2. Why do you think that, according to Cheryl J. Sanders, white slaveholders in the United States would “restrict biblical preaching and teaching among slaves to those texts which admonished submission and obedience,” most especially “something from Paul”?

3. Cheryl J. Sanders recounts how someone’s “grandmother, a former slave, would not allow him to read to her from the writings of Paul.” Why is this?

4. Whereas white slaveholders argued that Christianity is compatible with slavery, an overarching theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Christianity’s incompatibility with slavery. How is it possible for people to have such radically different interpretations of the Bible?

Module #4

Core readings:

1. Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes (online)

2. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Philemon (online)

3. Augustine, City of God, Book 19, Chapter 15 (online)

Background reading:

Joseph Francis Super, “Slavery and Manumission in the Pre-Constantine Church” (online)

Discussion questions:

1. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?” What does Gregory mean by “Who is he that sets his own power above God’s?”?

2. Why does John Chrysostom argue that, “We ought not to withdraw slaves from the service of their masters”?

3. Augustine argues that, “it is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin.” What does Augustine mean by this and do you understand Augustine to be for or against slavery?

4. Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Augustine have three different takes on slavery. Which do you think is most faithful to the idea that all people are made in the image of God?

Module #5

Core readings:

1. The Declaration of Independence (online)

2. The U.S Constitution (online)

2. James Madison, Federalist Paper #54 (online)

3. Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field, Dissent to the Massachusetts Convention (April 9, 1788) (abridged: online; full version: online)

Background reading:

Bernard W. Kinsey and Shirley Pooler Kinsey, The Kinsey Collection, p. 9-43 (book)

Discussion questions:

1. What is the rationale behind Federalist Paper #54’s claim that, “Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards [slaves] as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the SLAVE as divested of two fifths of the MAN”?

2. If, according to the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” why do you think James Madison states in Federalist Paper #54 that slaves are only worth 3/5 of a person?

3. In their opposition to the U.S. Constitution, Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field declared that, “It is a standing law in the kingdom of Heaven, ‘Do unto others as ye would have others do unto you.’” What do they mean by this and why does this principle cause them to oppose the Constitution?

4. Article IV, Section 2 of the original U.S. Constitution stated, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” What does this mean?

5. In 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act (signed by George Washington) made it a federal crime to do what?

Module #6

Core readings:

1. John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good” (online)

2. George Bourne, A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument by a Citizen of Virginia, Introduction-Chapter Two (online)

3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (book)

Background reading:

Bernard W. Kinsey and Shirley Pooler Kinsey, The Kinsey Collection, p. 44-62 (book)

Discussion questions:

1. Does John C. Calhoun’s “two races of different origin” statement indicate he is closer to the Christian perspective on humanity or a Platonic/Aristotelian perspective?

2. Explain the connection Bourne makes between slavery and “man-stealing.”

3. According to the Kinseys, in the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, Chief Justice Taney made two sweeping rulings. What were those rulings?

4. Abraham Lincoln’s two Emancipation Proclamations in 1862 and 1863 failed to abolish slavery in what states?

5. Coates argues that, “The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean.” What does Coates mean by this?

Module #7

Core readings:

1. Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 8, “Three Races” (online)

2. Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I A Woman?” (online)

3. Sojourner Truth, “On the Injustice of Slavery” (online)

4. Sojourner Truth, “On Race Relations” (online)

Background reading:

Bernard W. Kinsey and Shirley Pooler Kinsey, The Kinsey Collection, p. 63-95 (book)

Discussion questions:

1. Alexis DeTocqueville wrote that, in the United States, “Oppression has been no less fatal to the Indian than to the Negro race, but its effects are different.” What are the differences according to DeTocqueville?

2. Based on Sojourner Truth’s speeches, how do you think she would have responded to DeTocqueville’s claim that, “The Negro, plunged in this abyss of evils, scarcely feels his own calamitous situation”?

3. What does Sojourner Truth mean when she says she was “robbed of all my affections for husband and children”? What role did slavery play in that robbery?

4. What was the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson?

5. According to the Kinseys, the only time reparations have been paid to black Americans was the Rosewood incident. What happened during that incident?

Module #8

Core readings:

1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” (online)

2. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (online)

3. Langston Hughes, “I, Too” (online)

Background reading:

Bernard W. Kinsey and Shirley Pooler Kinsey, The Kinsey Collection, p. 96-120 (book)

Discussion questions:

1. Martin Luther King Jr. states that, “It is obvious today that American has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” What is “this promissory note” and how does King believe America has defaulted on it?

2. Why does Frederick Douglass state, concerning July 4th, that “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary”?

3. Imagine Langston Hughes performing “I, Too” in front of James Madison while Madison writes Federalist Paper #54. How do you think Madison would respond?

4. Do King, Douglass, and Hughes’ words affirm or negate the concerns made by in 1788 by Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field?

5. Why do you think so many Harlem Renaissance artists traveled to Europe?

Module #9

Core readings:

1. Malcom X, The Autobiography of Malcom X, Chapter 19, “1965” (book)

2. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” (online)

Background readings:

Bernard W. Kinsey and Shirley Pooler Kinsey, The Kinsey Collection, p. 121-164 (book)

Kenneth R. Janken, “The Civil Rights Movement, 1919-1960s” (online)

Discussion questions:

1. Alice Walker argues that the Civil Rights Movement “is dead to the white man because it no longer interests him. And it no longer interests him because he can afford to be uninterested.” What does Walker mean when she says white people can “afford” to be uninterested in the Movement?

2. What does Malcom X say that “really sincere white people” can do to better the world?

3. How have the readings of the last nine weeks changed or not changed your perspective on race and racism in the United States?

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  • Brandon Roberts

    “what does malcom x mean that really sincere white people can better the world”: that white people can make the world a better place who really care.

  • These are some great resources … I’m going to have to get acquainted/re-acquainted with these…