In Lessons on Slavery, Context Matters

One of the points I tried to make in my Friday column about the new Florida curriculum on the history of slavery is that the context of a statement can have a radical effect on its meaning.

To be clear, there are legitimate objections to make to the particular phrasing. As I noted in my piece, to say that “Slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” is to make several untenable assumptions about the experiences of most enslaved Africans as well as to occlude the essential quality of life under slavery, which is that neither your person nor your labor were your own.

But the basic idea that “slaves developed skills” isn’t an illegitimate one. And although it has been deployed in efforts to minimize the fundamental injustice of American slavery, it has also been used in defense of the essential humanity of the enslaved. For example, at the same time that white supremacist authors were writing slavery apologia for student instruction, scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois were taking note of the skills and agency of enslaved Africans for a very different purpose.

Likewise, in his account of colonial slavery, the historian and activist Carter G. Woodson, provides a catalog of “the evidences of mental development of the Negroes of that day.”

The difference between these accounts and those of the slavery apologists, however, is that Du Bois, Woodson and their contemporaries never implied or suggested that chattel slavery was anything less than a crime. Where apologists dismissed or disparaged the efforts, radical and otherwise, to end slavery, Du Bois, Woodson and others gave them pride of place in their histories and narratives about the peculiar institution. And in the same way that slavery apologia served a specific ideological purpose, the emphasis on the skills and agency of the enslaved by Black scholars was meant to challenge, in Woodson’s famous words, “the mis-education of the Negro.”

This is all to say that what might appear to be little more than a semantic dispute is, in actuality, a much more fundamental conflict about what the facts of our history actually mean, not just for the past, but for the present.

What I Wrote

My Tuesday column was on the group No Labels and the fantasy of politics without partisanship.

My Friday column was, as I was just saying, on the new Florida curriculum on slavery and what the conflict says about historical memory.

And the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz was on the 1995 film “Strange Days.”

Now Reading

Sara Herschander on child care as an organizing tool for Dissent.

Allyson McCabe on Sinead O’Connor for The Los Angeles Times.

Rebecca Solnit on climate change for The Guardian.

Jeanne Theoharis speaks with the legal scholar Margaret Burnham on her book, “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” for Boston Review.

Isabela Dias on the Republican attack on birthright citizenship for Mother Jones.

Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

This is a mural I saw in downtown Cincinnati during a recent visit. I liked it a lot and so I’m sharing it with you.

Now Eating: Zaalouk with Tahini

I apologize ahead of time for the fact that this recipe is a little time-consuming. But if, like me, you’re a fiend for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors, then you owe it to yourself to give this a try. It is the perfect addition to a spread of salads, breads and grilled proteins (kebabs, kofte and the like), and honestly isn’t that difficult to make. Again, it’s just time consuming. Then again, so is everything worth doing — or eating for that matter.

Recipe from New York Times Cooking.


  • 2 large red bell peppers, halved lengthwise, stems and seeds removed

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

  • 2 large eggplants, pierced all over with a fork

  • 4 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons tomato paste

  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes or ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus extra to serve

  • 2 large ripe plum tomatoes (about 9 ounces), roughly chopped then puréed

  • ¼ cup finely chopped parsley leaves

  • ¼ cup finely chopped cilantro leaves, plus extra to serve

  • ½ teaspoon granulated sugar

  • Fine sea salt and black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  • Scant ¼ cup tahini

  • Pitas, for serving


Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Place the halved bell peppers on a parchment-lined baking sheet, skin side up, and drizzle lightly with oil. Place the eggplants on a separate lined baking sheet. Transfer both baking sheets to the oven, setting the peppers on the top shelf. Roast the peppers for 25 to 30 minutes, until charred and softened, and the eggplants for about 50 minutes, until completely collapsed and softened through the middle.

Once cool enough to handle, peel and discard the skin of the peppers and finely chop the flesh; set aside.

Peel the eggplants, discarding the skins and stems, and place the flesh into a sieve set over a bowl. Leave to drain for at least 20 minutes, pushing down to squeeze out and discard any extra liquid. Roughly chop the eggplants.

Meanwhile, heat the ¼ cup oil in a medium skillet over medium-high. Once hot, add about three-quarters of the garlic plus the tomato paste, cumin, paprika and Aleppo pepper flakes; cook for about 1 minute, stirring occasionally, until fragrant. Add the blitzed tomatoes, parsley, cilantro, sugar and ¾ teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer then turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened and the oil has separated.

Add the chopped peppers and eggplants and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Off the heat, stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice; set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, make the tahini sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini with the remaining garlic, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, ⅛ teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons water until easily pourable. Add a splash of more water if necessary.

Transfer the zaalouk to a wide, shallow bowl and drizzle with the tahini sauce. Sprinkle with extra Aleppo and cilantro and serve warm or at room temperature, with pitas to mop it all up.

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