- How is the history of slavery and discrimination weaved throughout each location, and how are all the locations connected?
- How is the history and narratives told in this book central to the history and development of the US?
- Why is this history important and what are the implications for ignoring, downplaying, or avoiding learning and discussing these topics?
Chapter Discussion Questions:
Ch.1 – Monticello
- Why do you think people were surprised to learn that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder?
- Were you surprised by anything you learned in the chapter? Why? How did it differ from what you previously thought?
- How did the tour guides and historians at Monticello attempt to sanitize the history of violence and slavery?
- Explain why Smith contends “there is no story of Monticello – there is no story of Thomas Jefferson – without understanding Sally Hemmings.” Why was there so much controversy surrounding the Sally Hemings DNA test?
- Have you ever toured a historic site and had similar experiences to those shared in the book?
- How did you feel learning a new perspective on history?
- How did it feel to have your understanding confronted?
- How do we highlight marginalized peoples and their stories when our documentation is often from those who contributed to and upheld their marginalization?
Ch. 2 – Whitney Plantation
- How did the Whitney Plantation differ from Monticello?
- Smith mentions that the system of slavery extended into regions where slavery was abolished. How so?
- What are some ethical challenges or considerations when touring a site or looking at a monument that deals with slavery or genocide?
- How do we approach contested spaces – ones that mean different things to different people, ones that have complex and layered histories?
- What does it mean to center marginalized voices in history? How does it change our understanding of history? (pg. 56)
- (pg. 64) Discussion of exceptional people and ordinary people. Our historical interpretations often focus on those with profound impacts, those with exceptional stories of resistance or triumph. But how does the story of ordinary people “people just like everyone else,” the stories of everyday life, help us better understand the past?
- How can we better document and archive the experiences of ordinary people? Why aren’t these stories better documented?
- Who gets the luxury of having their voices heard and documented?
- Clint Smith discusses the concept of “discovered ignorance” – a process where people discover the things that they don’t know. Have you had the experience of “discovered ignorance”? How did you feel?
Ch. 3 – Angola Prison
- Why do you think Smith visited Angola? How does he parallel slavery and prisons?
- How were Black peoples’ legal rights curtailed or stripped during the Jim Crow era?
- Reflect on Smith’s comments about Rogers’ tour of Angola. What are the implications for teaching people about a historic location or event if they have an ulterior motive or political purpose?
Why do people want to ignore painful histories? Who benefits from ignoring these histories?
- How does a “progress narrative” – or the idea that things are better than they were – influence our understanding of the past?
Ch. 4 – Blandford Cemetery
- Explain what Smith means by the difference between commemorating and celebrating?
- What was the “Lost Cause” narrative? How did it permeate into historical accounts and society?
- Reflect on your own education, how did you learn about the Civil War and its aftermath, what did you learn were the reasons for the Civil War?
- Who gets the luxury of historical empathy? Of dignity in death?
- (pg. 138) Discussion of folding Confederate soldiers and the Confederacy more directly in line with the United States. What does it mean to be patriotic? To be prideful in the United States? Who feels comfortable claiming that?
- Closely related to our question “Who is a Badger?”
- The concept of children as “living monuments” – How do we as individuals perpetuate false historical narratives? How do we contribute to the extension of these ideas?
- What is the relationship between monuments and social progress? Does the removal of certain monuments indicate social progress?
Ch. 5 – Galveston Island
- What were some of the challenges formerly enslaved people encountered after emancipation?
- How did Al Edwards II help turn Juneteenth into a wider celebration? What changed?
- On page 204, Jackie Bostic says that “it’s (slavery) going to continue to tear our country apart, until we’re willing to understand it happened.” Explain what they mean by this especially in terms of the subtitle of the book: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery across America.
- In what ways does reckoning with history allow us to gain momentum in organizing for change?
- How did Lincoln’s image and history become closely related to emancipation and abolition? How does this view of history affect our understanding of him?
- How does knowing the history of Lincoln discussed on pages 162-164 and in the chapter on Galveston Island change your view of the Lincoln statue on campus?
- How does understanding the history of Juneteenth provide nuance to our (pg. 195) understanding of liberation or change our interpretation of concepts like “freedom”?
Ch. 6 – New York City
- Why did New York slave owners switch importing slaves from the Caribbean to importing them from Africa?
- How was New York linked with slavery before and after the state abolished it? Did rights for Black individuals change once slavery was abolished?
- What was the importance of Seneca Village and why was it dismantled? What do you think happened to the people who lived there?
- What were you taught about the role of the North in the institution of slavery?
- What does it mean to tell history “correctly” or “truthfully”? Is there such a thing?
- In what ways does engaging with history publicly enrich our relationships to our communities? (pg. 219)
Ch. 7 – Goree Island
- How did Europeans use different African tribes in the slave trade?
- When Smith spoke with the teacher Hassan Kane, Kane mentioned that students cannot understand slavery and colonialism as separate phenomenon. Explain what he means by this and how the two are interrelated.
- What are the implications and challenges for historians/scholars writing about histories that potentially contradict local accounts and oral traditions?
- Why do we feel shame when we study history? Shame upon learning new information, not knowing it before, not grappling with it prior to being introduced? (pg. 240)
- What does it look like to confront memory? (pg. 248)
Complementary Primary & Secondary Sources
Read more about the relationship of UW–Madison with prison labor here
Read more about the history of Black suffrage in Wisconsin here
Read more about Juneteenth here
Read more about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade here
Read more about enslaved people at Monticello here
Read more about the Whitney Plantation here
Read more about the New York City Slave Market here
Read more about the Island of Goree here
Monument Review Assignment Template
This assignment is meant to make students think critically about the statue of Abraham Lincoln on Bascom Hill. Students should unpack the complicated and contested legacy of monuments, statues, and sculptures by exploring one in depth. Please answer the questions below as thoroughly as possible.
Please note: You MUST visit the sculpture in person.
Students should complete some brief background research on the monument.
The following is based on Monument Lab’s Field Trip Guide.
- Visit the statue of Abraham Lincoln on Bascom Hill.
- Explore & Learn –
- Is there a plaque, sign, marker, or website that might tell you more about this monument?
- What does this monument represent according to these sources?
- When was it created?
- Who created it?
- Look Closely – either in person or via photos, visually assess the monument. Observe some things you notice about the monument itself, its location, how it sits in the environment where its located, etc.
- Using online sources and information – What is the story behind the creation of this monument?
- What might this space feel like without this monument?
- How does this monument make you feel?
- What other histories exist here but are not included in this monument?
- How do you define “monument”?
- Should monuments represent individuals? Groups? Collectives?
- Do you know of any monuments dedicated to non-white people in your city? If so, who do they honor?
- Do you know of any monuments dedicated to women in your city? If so, who do they honor?
- Do you know of any monuments dedicated to Indigenous people or markers honoring Indigenous lands? If so, who put them there?
- What are some question you have about monuments and public spaces? What are some questions you think others may have?
Do you believe we should preserve this monument? Explain.
Do you believe we should build new or alternative monuments to this one? Explain.
Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. (New York: Knopf, 2007).
David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
David Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010).
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975).
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North: 1865-1901. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History. (New York: Vintage, 2015).
Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.