Today’s guest poster, Stephanie J. Richmond, is an Assistant Professor and coordinator of history programs at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA. She is a historian of gender and race in the Atlantic World. The following review contains spoilers and discussion of sexual assault.
Many historians of race and slavery in early America were very excited when the wide release of Nate Parker’s new film on the Nat Turner rebellion was announced following its rave reviews at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. With the recent surge in Hollywood depictions of slavery (12 Years a Slave, WGN’s series Underground, and even Django Unchained), films have become an important part of teaching African American history. The best of these films and tv series give students an understanding of the psychological impact of slavery on both enslaved and free African Americans, illustrating many of the tactics of control and exploitation discussed in textbooks and classrooms. I had the opportunity to see the pre-release version of the film in April 2016 when Parker’s production company held screenings for HBCU faculty in several cities around the country. Several colleagues and I attended the screening and got our first glimpse at Parker’s version of a history that is both local and national. After the screening, production assistants recorded our reactions to the film, and took detailed notes on our critiques of the film both as a work of popular entertainment and its historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations, of which there were many. My own feelings on the film and its usefulness in the classroom are complicated and have changed significantly since my first viewing of the film in April. (In full disclosure, I have seen the film twice, both times at events put on by Parker’s production company).
Roy Rogers kicked off yesterday’s 4-day roundtable with a review of the graphic novel, Rebel. For day two of our roundtable on graphic novels and history, I will discuss the use of graphic novels in teaching traumatic histories.
As anyone who has taught the history of slavery knows, it can be challenging. It is an important, but also emotionally loaded subject that can provoke spirited responses from students. Some students are resistant to discussing what they view as an ugly event in the past. Others may become defensive. And, for others, the history of slavery may be personal. The challenge becomes presenting the history in a thoughtful way that will engage students, but does not whitewashing history. Other traumatic events—genocide, war, etc.—can present similar pedagogical challenges.